Japanese Lucky Charms: A Guide to Omamori

tokyo-omamori-guide

Have you ever walked up to an omamori (お守り) booth at a shrine bustling with visitors, only to be overwhelmed while others make their purchases knowingly without batting an eye? You’re not alone—this guide was created after having spent months hovering around omamori booths, frantically scrolling through dictionaries and online guides that would tell me which amulets I should consider, and which ones would be inconsequential for my recreational purposes.


Text and pictures by Natalie Jacobsen


Decisions, decisions...
Decisions, decisions…

All over Japan, each shrine and temple you may drop in on sells small omamori—loosely translated, the word means amulet (as a form of protection) or talisman (as a provider of luck), and the kanji at the heart of the word means “to guide or protect.” They are meant to be put on or in your phone, purse, wallet, home wall, pocket, or the like. Whether you believe their efficacy may be due to a placebo effect or a higher power’s blessing, they are fiercely popular—especially during New Year holidays and testing season for students.

Omamori grew to be popular under both Shintoism (神道) and Buddhism (仏教 “bukkyou”) in Japan. Priests thought putting the power and strength of the gods into small pocket-sized blessings would keep people safe and motivated. Initially, their main purpose was to keep away evil spirits, and to protect patrons from bad experiences. Over time, they developed hundreds of kinds of omamori; today, we have a wide selection of hand-made, delightfully colorful charms to choose from.

Nitta Shrine
Nitta Shrine

There is little distinguishable difference between Shinto and Buddhist omamori: Both contain a small prayer inside, are covered in a silky cloth, are stamped with the site’s name, and hang by a delicate thread. Omamori etiquette also follows its own codes. Never, ever open the omamori, lest you should release the blessing and say ‘sayonara’ to all of that luck and protection you sought. Do carry it outside of your bag (although this isn’t a steadfast rule), and don’t be afraid of damage. Seeing wear and tear is actually a good thing, as it shows that it took the burden for you, and did its job of protecting you. Priests and miko (shrine maidens) will emphasize that each one has an expiration date—usually about a year later, or until its purpose has been fulfilled. Once they do “expire,” return them to the shrine or temple you bought it from, and they’ll dispose of it in a sacred fire with others. (That’s also your chance to pick up a fresh one for a fresh new year.)

The experience of searching for and acquiring your own omamori doesn’t have to be baffling; in fact, it can be quite a rewarding adventure. There are 1866 shrines and 2868 temples in the Tokyo area alone—don’t limit yourself! Each place carries “traditional” omamori, and a series characteristic to that particular shrine or temple. The perfect charm for your personal needs is out there, waiting for you.

A Few Standard Omamori You’re Likely to See

Success Talisman – (勝守 “katsumori”)

Success omamori, Meiji Shrine
Success omamori, Meiji Shrine

Potentially one of the most sought-after omamori, the “Success” talisman is likely to be found at almost all shrines and temples. While “Success” may be vague at first glance, it possesses a heavy promise: the user channels their energy into a single goal, and the “success” talisman guarantees it will happen. Oftentimes, they bear the image of an arrow, which is a common symbol in Shintoism for aiming towards a goal. Many people opt to pick one up at a spiritual power spot. There are six of these famed areas across Tokyo, including Meiji Jingu (considered the most powerful of them all). Priests at shrines and temples urge carriers to use each talisman for only one goal to maximize its power.

Ward Away Evil Amulet – (厄除け “yakuyoke”)

omamori-protective-amulet
Ward Away Evil

The most popular counterpart of the previous talisman, the distinction between this amulet and the Success talisman is the manner in which it goes about helping you with your goal. While the success talisman actively aids one in their endeavors, the Ward Away Evil amulet prevents potential ills (formerly personified as demons) that might inhibit your success. Those feeling plagued by bad event after bad event may carry this as a way to quell any superstitions and bring some relief.

Money Talisman – (商売繁盛 “shoubaihanjou”)

Accordingly, this omamori comes in the shape of a moneybag or is draped in a gaudy yellow color—all in the intent to help you in the finance department. You may spot a few of these dangling from briefcases of salarymen striding through Nihonbashi. At some shrines there are specific money talismans for investments or savings, business deals, or personal finance. At others, there are moneybags that are geared towards luck in finding money, inheritance, or even good deals while shopping. Whether or not these talismans help your wallet recover more quickly from online shopping splurges remains in question.

Education & Learning Talisman – (学業成就 “gakugyou-jouju”)

Placing less of an emphasis on education and schooling, and more on knowledge acquisition, this talisman is popular among students. Swinging from their key-chains and backpacks, students carry them throughout their school careers, using them as encouragement in their studies. This one isn’t designed to help pass any tests—there’s a different one for that. Yushima Shrine, founded by a famous scholar once-upon-a-time, is one of the best places to go: brimming with wide-eyed, hopeful students between February and March, just before the school year starts. Acting as both a cute keepsake and a wee guardian for students makes it a fitting charm.

A learning omamori from Setagaya Hachimangu Shrine
A learning omamori from Setagaya Hachimangu Shrine

Traffic Safety Amulet – (交通安全 “koutsuanzen”)

The favored charm of bus and taxi drivers around the country
The favored charm of bus and taxi drivers around the country

Tokyo boasts a handful of records when it comes to cities, with “most populated” and “safest,” including traffic, among them. Though there may be naysayers who accredit that to careful driving (although bikers and pedestrians may not corroborate), some might attribute it to their traffic safety omamori. Taxi drivers, heavy commuters, and students wishing to obtain their driver’s licenses are almost certain to have one tucked under their steering wheel, hanging from their rearview mirror, or taped to their dashboard. Drivers frequently get them personalized and include their train, bus number, or route on the omamori itself. It not only may serve as a comfort for the driver, but, perhaps, as a bit of comfort for the passengers as well—especially those conducting the driving tests.

Love Talisman – (縁結び “enmusubi”)

Love is a common theme among omamori-seekers, and just as love is complicated and no two people have the same story, these talismans for things amorous come in several categories.

Single – If you’re single, there’s still an omamori for you. An “ordinary” omamori that bears a simple message of love may be a good option. They’re intended to bring people together, to make interactions and possible relationships flourish. Don’t rely on it to get you a partner by tomorrow—priests insist it’s a “slow working” omamori, to ensure a longer and much happier relationship when the right one does come along.
Couples – On Saturday afternoons, somewhere in Tokyo there is a poor high school student being dragged by their partner over towards a shrine to acquire matching omamori to solidify their relationship. Usually coming in a pair, and decked in a western-style color scheme of pink and blue, these are cute tokens that many dream of owning.
Married – The one for a young couple may come in two parts, so they may always remember each other, but for marriage, even numbers are unlucky. Because of this, omamori for marriage are usually just a unit of one, for the couple to share. They tend to be larger, with a clean white front bearing an image of a crane or flowers.
Childbirth – Known as “anzan,” these ones help ensure a rapid and safe delivery for mothers and their babies.
Family – There are whole family sets (“kanai-anzen”) too: they offer small reminders of boundless love between parents and children, and continue to strengthen marriage during family hardships. The ones for kids have mainstream characters stitched on them more often than not, including Hello Kitty, much to the dismay of traditionalists.

Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma get in on the omamori scene
Hello Kitty and Rilakkuma get in on the omamori scene

Luck-Boosting Talisman – (開運 “kaiun”)

Sometimes, all you need is just a bit of luck. If you don’t have a specific goal in mind, or simply want a little keepsake from a shrine to remember your visit, a general Luck talisman is a safe choice. With no strings attached or specific guidelines to follow, you’re free to carry it around and feel secure in your decision-making. These tend to be bought and given as souvenirs and bear the name of the shrine or temple without much further embellishment.

Happiness Amulet – (幸せ “shiawase”)

Amongst all of the talismans and amulets for money, family, love, luck, and business, one may be taken aback to see one labeled “happiness”—a concept that can be forgotten about until the option becomes available. Omamori have a nuance of helping the user with methods and ways to make their life better; this one whispers a small hint to, above all else, keeping yourself happy. One’s own happiness may be forfeited for others, or traded for other benefits, and it serves as a nice trinket for everyone to use as a way of taking a step back every now and then, and remembering what life is all about.

Special Omamori Along the way

Liar Bird

The name doesn’t sound terribly positive, and the design is rather unassuming compared to others, but it’s considered one of the rarest omamori around. Released only at Yushima Shrine on the 25th of January each year, this hand-crafted, all-wooden omamori is more traditional than one would think. The story behind it is that the bird will take in all of your lies and secrets, and churn them out into a song of truth and guidance. Honestly speaking, the story doesn’t seem very encouraging—an omamori that turns lies into truths seems more ironic than anything, especially as it’s sold at the most popular shrine for learners—but it’s one of the more powerful for education. Perhaps one more light-hearted interpretation is that it takes your misunderstandings and helps guide you towards the truth. That’s what I’m crossing my fingers for, at least.

Yushima Liar Bird
Yushima Liar Bird

Sexual Health

kanamara-omamori
Sexual health omamori

Standard health (“kenkou”) omamori exist everywhere, but there’s only one place to get an omamori made just for sexual health. Most people visit Kanayama Shrine in April for the ever-popular fertility festival (“Kanamara Matsuri”), but the shrine also provides omamori and blessings for year-round protection and fertility boosts. Families trying for children often pray there. Superficially, many curious visitors may prowl around to look at the odd collection of phallus statues and explicit ema boards, but fundamentally, the shrines aim to provide very real protection, especially from HIV/AIDS. Donations to the shrines are often sent along to charities that support the fight against HIV/AIDS—statistics have been increasing drastically in Japan, provoking health officials to tackle the issue. The phallic omamori may seem like a nice token of “Japan weirdness,” but there is a serious, underlying purpose behind it: to shed light on and confront sexual health concerns.

Beauty of Legs, Skin, and Anti-Aging

Let’s put aside any heated debates over 21st century beauty standards: both shrines and temples are occasionally equipped with blessings for those wishing for “beauty protection and growth.” They can be wildly general: one might provide a simple boost for “beauty” (how this is accomplished is very vague), but one can also find detailed omamori for specific areas of beautification: longer legs, better skin, anti-aging (translated directly more as “retaining youth”), leaner waist, and beautiful eyes. These amulets tend to be more elegant, and sometimes the shrines and temples play around with the theme. At Kameari Katori Shrine, the beauty omamori actually has a “cinched waist,” while other temples use small sandals to represent foot or leg health and beauty.

Kitsune Wallet Protection

The kitsune money protection amulet
Image: http://bit.ly/1zYohLT

Earlier we mentioned the Money Bag talisman to help with garnering money: this one helps safeguard what you already have. Heavy spenders may place it on their wallets as a small nudge to not reach as often, while others use it to ward off thieves. The imagery falls within the “kawaii” category of all things Japan, and, coupled with their helpful purpose, it’s easy to see why these fox talismans are snatched up.

Pet Amulets

Long ago, shrines and temples were divided between a few purposes: health, war, and agriculture. Agriculture shrines and temples were charged with helping farmers grow crops, be on the receiving end of beneficial weather, and protect their livestock. Today, a few locations remain specifically dedicated to agriculture (including the nearby Tama Shrine in Futako Tamagawa), but most have swapped livestock protection charms for pet charms. They come in more unusual shapes and sizes—from paw prints to hearts to animal tags or animal shapes—and at some places, you can have the name of your pet inscribed on them. Pet-specific shrines are oftentimes visited by families toting their pets alongside them; turtles, dogs, snakes, cats, birds, rabbits, and even rhinoceros beetles can be found gallivanting under the archways, seeking blessings.

Sports Talisman

At Kanda Shrine, with flags for the 2020 Olympics displayed around the circumference of the grounds, you’ll find a plethora of sports-themed omamori. Coming in the shape of a variety of different sport equipment, they are meant to provide a boost in agility and scores. The staff recommends buying the piece just before your season begins, and returning it for a ceremonial burning at the same shrine when the season closes out. There are also more nondescript sports omamori geared more for observers who simply want their team to win. You’ll find some national omamori for the upcoming 2020 Olympics there as well. Naturally, there are temples built for certain sports only—Saitama has a rather large and famous one solely for golfers—but Kanda offers a nice location that challenges you to sift through the anime and artistically decorated omamori to find the sportier ones.

Flying Protection

The friendly skies just got a little friendlier
The friendly skies just got a little friendlier

Fifteen minutes to the north of Sensoji Temple is the much, much smaller Tobifudo Shrine. Shrouded in the shadow of nearby apartment complexes, it makes for an eerily quiet visit. Dedicated almost entirely to flying, it’s a shrine for those those who fear getting on airplanes, want to pray for their loved ones to arrive safely, and those who work in the industry. They have a number of impressive airplane-themed omamori, with striking colors and rich design. Not to be confused with the “travel” omamori, this omamori is intended for the plane and the flight itself. “Travel” omamori are for a vacation or for business trip luck—those can be found at Zenjoji or Zenkokuji temples. At Tobifudo, you’ll see a wall of ema boards near the burning incense; through the smoke, you can see specific flight numbers and routes written on the boards, with a good wish for each one. The priest is especially gentle and eager to assist visitors and discuss flying with anyone and everyone. Offering comforting tokens to have when preparing to head to the skies, there is something genuine and down-to-earth about this shrine that helps you take flight.

Ema at Tobifudo
Ema board at Tobifudo

Protection for Returning Home – Octopus + Sea Edition

Using a play-on-sounds of “Ta” (meaning “too much” or “many”) and “Kou” (“good luck” “happiness”), the symbol of this shrine is the octopus (Takou). This is another temple that’s hard to find, as most searches will yield the much-more famous Tako Yakushi Temple in Kyoto, or its sister temple in Kamakura. The one in Meguro, Tokyo, is officially called “Jojuin Temple.” It has an octopus for a symbol and is named after a sailor who fought through rough seas and returned home safely. The legs of the octopus are intended to “suck” fortune and luck and cling to it for you. There is a rather peculiar history surrounding the shrine itself, including whispers about plotted assassinations, early deaths, shogun secrets, and greedy fishermen. The statues and the grounds are said to be of great significance to them, and date back to 851.

Technology Boost

kanda-it-omamori
Because everyone knows that the toughest IT problems can only be solved through divine intervention

Created just over a decade ago when Japan began to actively get online, these innovations of some clever Kanda Shrine priests are meant to offer divine help with your technology. A popular omamori to give to those who still have trouble with copying and pasting, the IT-related omamori is there to help you fight those internet ads and keep you from relying on McAfee Antivirus software. Directions are a bit unclear on how you’re supposed to carry it—it’s one of the rare omamori that doesn’t come with a small strap—but looks as if it could sit on top of a computer monitor or slide into a wallet easily. Tech-savvy users may opt out, but it is nonetheless a unique and modern show of Japanese shrines and temples tackling the small but recurrent problems of today.

Zodiac

A few shrines, Meiji Jingu, Jindaiji, and Yushima included, offer zodiac and astrology-themed pocket protectors. These more personalized zodiacs are more powerful if bought during the beginning of their designated month of the year, and are intended for you to return year after year to collect the new design. Simpler than other omamori, these are meant to act as general luck-boosters, and are meant to provide you with good memories and a positive alignment of the stars for you during your special year or month. Usually marked with the emblem of the animal on them, they’re easy to spot and a nice “way out” if you can’t make up your mind about all of the other options.

Good Luck Cat

gotokuji-lucky-cat-amulet
Also grants the bearer +1 Internet

Centuries ago, a lone, hungry, defeated samurai was trudging through a dark, rainy night when he spot a gleaming white cat, poised in a doorway, paw up, as if it were beckoning the samurai forward. He followed, and found the home of a priest who furnished him with room and board for the night. Today, Gotokuji Temple honors that cat. The sprawling and serene temple is beautiful in spring, and nestled in a cove behind one of its main halls is a shrine dedicated to the cat. It’s covered in hundreds of little “lucky cat” statues, and just around the corner is a small shop where you can buy the cat in an omamori form. With a tale like that, there may be something to it.

Monthly Boost

An alternative to traditional omamori are ema boards—the small wooden plaques hanging at shrines, covered in prayers. The ema boards at Nezu Shrine make horoscopes and zodiac keepsakes look like child’s play. These sophisticated and gorgeous boards are hand-painted and designed for boosting luck during your birth month. Each month has a different image of a popular flower or plant associated with that month. It’s fun to go each month and pick up a new one, or send them as presents for family members. They make for nice wall decorations, as it’s a bit more cumbersome to carry them around. Nezu Shrine alone is worth a visit even if ema boards or flowers or extra luck isn’t your thing—it’s an Inari Shrine, and has hundreds of small red tori gates you can race through, with a moat surrounding the lush grounds. In spring, the pink trees are dazzling against the teal roofing of the shrine architecture, with stern fox statues watching your every move.

Nezu's ema boards will bring you luck and look pretty nice hanging up on a wall
Nezu’s ema boards will bring you luck and look pretty nice hanging up on a wall

For a comprehensive list of shrines, temples, and what talisman and amulets they have, hop over to: omamorida.com. It’s entirely in Japanese – Google and the Riakikun plug-in are now your best friend. You can start with the major temples and shrines, or the smallest of them all. Everyone’s journey is different, as are all of the omamori you’ll encounter while you’re on your way.

Jindai-ji, Chofu
(Traditional, Zodiac)
5-15-1 Motomachi

Kanayama Shrine, Kanagawa
(Fertility and Health)
2-2-13-16 Daishi Ekimae

Nitta Shrine, Kanagawa
(Love)
1-21-23 Yaguchi, Ota

Meiji Jingu, Harajuku
(Power Spot)
1-1 Yoyogikamizonocho, Shibuya

Jojuin Takoyakushi Shrine, Meguro
(Octopus, Safe Returns)
3011011 Shimomeguro

Yushima Tenman-gu Shrine, Kanda
(Education)
3-3-30-1, Bunkyo

Kanda Shrine, Kanda
(Sports, IT, Pets)
2-2-16-2- Sotokanda, Chiyoda

Nezu Shrine (and the surrounding grounds and others), Ueno
(Months)
Tobifudo, Asakusa
(Flying)
3-11-11 Ryusen, Taito

Hikan Inari Shrine, Asakusa
(Fox, Wealth Protection)
2-3-1 Tatio

Sensoji Temple, Asakusa
(Traditional, Marriage)
2-3-1 Taito

Kameari Katori Shrine, Kameari
(Beauty)
3-42-24 Katsushika-ku
1-28-9 Nezu, Bunkyo

omamori-guide

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