You possibly could explain omikuji (御御籤, 御神籤, or おみくじ) in a very short phrase: fortune-telling paper strip.
And yes, that’s pretty much what it is, but there’s so much more you should know!
Omikuji has the kanji for lottery (籤、くじ – kuji) in it. Literally it means “sacred lot”.
The way you obtain your omikuji really feels like a lottery!
Traditionally you had to shake a small box until a small bamboo stick fell out. The stick had a number on it and according to the number you were given an omikuji by the priest or miko. This is still possible nowadays, but more common are boxes that are located somewhere on the temple / shrine ground. For a small fee (usually one coin) you can draw one of the paper strips yourself.
The strips are usually rolled up or folded and you have to unroll them in order to be able to read them.
The omikuji I got so far had a LOT written on them, but everybody first checks for the “general” fortune statement telling you if you’re super lucky or not. Usually the following types are available (from super good to super … not so good ;P)
After this general statement the paper strip will also inform you about your chances in finding a new job, love, about your future health, business success and more in greater detail!
Usually the Japanese in the omikuji is very difficult to understand, so either don’t bother at all or ask a Japanese friend to translate it for you.
Why are they so difficult? Can’t they just write it in super easy Japanese?
I guess they could, but omikuji are traditionally written in poem form. Many are based on the “100 Chinese Poems” written by the Buddhist monk Tendai.
A long time ago the omikuji were used as decision guidance. People wanted to know from the god of a shrine if their plan is going to be successful or not. Thus, the omikuji were born.
During the Muromachi Period even the Shogun was chosen using omikuji!
The custom is that you leave the omikuji behind if it’s not a good fortune. Traditionally they’re tied around the branches of a pine tree.
This goes back to a pun with the word for “pine” (松, matsu) and the word for “wait” (待つ, matsu). The idea behind this is that the bad luck will wait by the tree instead of sticking with the person who drew the sacred lot!
Nowadays, they’re not only tied to pine trees anymore, but to all sorts of things. One reason is that not all shrines or temples have a pine tree in the first place.
I heard that people also leave good fortune strips behind, but usually you’re supposed to keep it close to you, e.g. in your purse.
From the Edo Period onwards the tying to the tree was associated with “縁を結ぶ, en wo musubu” which means “connecting with s.b.” – in this case with the god of the shrine / temple. In Japanese the word “musubu” is used for “to connect” as well as for “to tie“. That’s why some people tie their good fortune strips instead of taking it home.
However, the rules for it are not very strict. For many people it doesn’t have a religious background, but is more “for fun”.
Japanese people LOVE fortune-telling (as well as good luck charms).
Whenever you visit a temple or shrine you’ll see hundreds if not thousands of those paper strips!
Though this is just my personal opinion, but I have the feeling that many people do it really just for fun to see if they can get the “super-duper luck” with their first draw or not. It’s more like a lottery than a serious matter.
Personally I ike that kind of attitude. It is part of their religion, but it’s not very strictly handled at all.
Note: In some bigger shrines / temples they also have English omikuji, but they are still not very common!
When do most Japanese people grab those omikuji?
Well, like mentioned above for many it’s just like lottery, so sometimes they just do it randomly when they visit a shrine or a temple.
Others go there before a big event in their life: exam, match, business opening etc.
Also, almost EVERYBODY gets their share of omikuji during “Hatsumode” in the beginning of January. I say “share”, because some people tend to draw as many as necessary to get the “You is super lucky, man!” one! *g*
Omikuji shouldn’t be confused with ema. While both of them are often put together or right next to each other, they are two completely different things.
Yet omikuji and ema are – together with the lucky charms – the three most “important” shrine / temple items that anybody can easily get / use! A little bit more exotic, but my favorite are seals!