When thinking about what O should be for in my A-Z of Japan, I thought of origami (折り紙) (the art of paper folding), Osaka (大阪) (a fabulous, exciting city) and otaku (おたく) (Japanese geeks or fanboys, often collectors of anime, manga or computer games). But instead of those topics, I have decided to write about something which I’ve liked since I first visited Japan – something I have probably spent a lot of money on…
O is for… Omamori!
Omamori (御守) are good luck charms or amulets which you can buy at Japanese shrines (and often temples). They are dedicated to different Shinto gods or Buddhist figures. At each shrine/temple you will see a range of different designs:
The different designs have different meanings, such as “good health”, “safe driving” or “safe birth”. Usually these meanings are written near the box somewhere in Japanese.Occasionally you will see the meanings written in English, in more touristy places like Meiji Jingu in Tokyo.
Omamori make excellent souvenirs and gifts, as they’re small, light and unusual. Personally, I think it’s ok to buy them, even if you don’t share the Shinto or Buddhist beliefs. As a tourist, they are simply beautiful charms. They range in price, and be warned – they really add up! I bought a lot of them on my first trip to Japan and I swear that’s where half my money went. At small local shrines they might be just a few hundred Yen, but at larger places they could be one thousand Yen or more (that’s over £7!).
If you want to be sure you’re getting one with an appropriate meaning, but can’t read the Japanese, you could point to one and ask: “imi wa nan desu ka?” That’s a simple way of asking “what is the meaning?”. If you have chosen a general happiness one, the meaning in Japanese will probably contain the word “shiawase”. Here are some other common types of omamori:
Kanai Anzen: for good health
Kotsu Anzen: for protection when travelling/driving
En-musubi: related to love and marriage
Anzan: for pregnant women, to ensure a safe birth
Gakugyo Joju: for students and people who are studying
Shobai Hanjo: for business and money
When I first bought omamori I chose simply by the design as I had no idea that they had different meanings. When I realised that I could have accidentally bought one, say, for pregnant women, I felt a little embarrassed. As I always have them hanging on my bag, I worried that someone would have seen my omamori with an inappropriate meaning and thought I was a “stupid gaijin” (like when people get kanji tattoos without checking the meaning carefully, only less permanent). Now I always try to check the meaning and, if in any doubt, I just go for the “general happiness” one.
These days, you can sometimes see omamori featuring popular characters like Hello Kitty:
These are usually meant for kids, but obviously have a strong appeal as souvenirs too.
I usually have more than one omamori on my bag at a time, but one of my students once told me that this was bad. She said that the gods would fight.
But what actually are omamori? Well, they’re made of embroidered cloth, they have a string so you can hang them on or tie them to something, and they have paper inside, which makes them quite firm. One day I got really curious and decided to undo one to see what was hiding inside. I knew I probably shouldn’t, but I had to know what the secret message was… it turned out to be a blank piece of paper. I felt duped, and I felt bad for opening it. Now I like to imagine that they have secret messages inside which have to remain secret, so I never try to open them.
One more important thing to know about omamori is that they apparently only last a year. In theory, you’re supposed to take your old one back to the shrine where you bought it during the New Year period and buy a new one. I’ve seen people getting rid of their old omamori at New Year festivals, and then going off to buy new ones. Personally, I can’t do it. I like to keep omamori as souvenirs, and I love to look through my collection (even if it does mean having a box of fighting gods).
I have mentioned above that omamori make excellent souvenirs, but if you’re more interested in the cultural and spiritual significance, you might want to check out this excellent post at Japan: Life and Religion.