Omamori – what are they? What does it mean? What do I keep mentioning them at every shrine in every travel blog post? Well it’s probably about time I explained what these beautiful little things are. Omamori are commonplace in traditional Japanese culture, and if you get the opportunity to travel the Land of the Rising Sun, you are most definitely going to come across these everywhere! So… where do I begin…?
What is an omamori?
An omamori is an amulet and a good luck charm, sort of like having a four-leaf clover only with a little more history. Unlike a four-leaf clover, they aren’t notoriously rare, and you can purchase these from the majority of shrines and temples across the nation! They sell for a few hundred yen each, but larger and more unique omamori are likely to cost more.
What does it mean?
Our friendly honorific friend rears its head once again as the prefix, ‘o’ in omamori. (In the past few blog posts it has also appeared as ‘go’. The kanji symbol denoting high respect for the item that follows is the same but can be read as ‘o’ and ‘go’!) ‘Mamori’ translates into ‘protect’, so ‘omamori’ means an object of higher power bringing protection to the owner.
御守り or お守り (おまもり) o-mamori
Where do they come from?
As you may know, the two major religions in Japan, Shintoism and Buddhism are at times very similar and often overlap in belief and tradition. Omamori originate from traditions in both religions: Shinto ofuda and Buddhist amulet traditions met, producing the small charm that became popular in the 17th century. Historically, shrine maidens (or miko) crafted omamori which would be blessed by the priest. Nowadays, omamori are typically factory made in Japan and China, but they are still blessed by priests before they're available to buy. You can even find shrines which make their own omamori on the religious grounds such as Koganji Temple (Tokyo) and the Grand Shrine (Ise)!
And there’s different kinds?
That’s right! There are two common types of omamori. The more popular of the two is the talisman type. These are rectangular in shape, and their luck comes from sutra written on a piece of paper or wood, which is enclosed within the cloth fabric.
The second is a morphic type, which means they take the form of something, like the kitsune (fox) shape at Inari shrines such as Fushimi Inari Taisha (Kyoto). The most common types are the bell, the mallet and the bottle gourd (or calabash: a long melon-like fruit). They each have specific links to cermonial items used in Shinto practices.
きつね kitsune = fox
Omamori charms have different ‘functions’ if you will. Here are some of the most common omamori you are likely to find…
- Happiness 幸せ (しあわせ) shiawase
- Prosperity 商売繁盛 (しょうばいはんじょう) shōbai hanjō
- Traffic Safety 交通安全 (こうつうあんぜん) kōtsū anzen
- Good Health 健康 (けんこう) kenkō
- Get Well Soon 病気 平癒 (びょうきへゆ) byouki heyu
- Academic Success 学業成就 (がくぎょうじょうじゅ) gakugyō-jōju
- Romantic Success 縁結び (えんむすび) enmusubi
- Avoidance of Evil 厄除け (やくよけ) yakuyoke
- Safe Childbirth 安産 (あんざん) anzan
Sometimes the kanji (the ancient chinese symbols at the beginning of each translation I give you) vary, so if you can't find the one you're looking for, the assistant will always be happy to help. If you're feeling confident, why not ask? Try this:
sumimasen, [---------] no omamori ga arimasuka?
Where I left the gap try something from the above, for instance:
sumimasen, shiawase no omamori ga arimasuka?
Once you’ve visited a shrine/temple or two, you will soon discover the types of fortune cover more than just the few listed above – there are plenty of different kinds with varying rarity! Take a look at some of these more peculiar omamori...
- Digital Security 情報安全祈願 (じょうほうあんぜんきがん) jōhō anzen kigan
- Pet Charm ペットお 守まもりpetto omamori
- Protection From Bears 熊除 (くまじょ) kumajo (very, very specific right?)
For some more unusual and/rare omamori, check out this handy guide from Tokyo Weekender!
How should I use one?
Although they originate from a deeply religious and cultural environment, omamori are often attached to handbags and school bags, kept in wallets and displayed in your room. You can carefully choose one for impending predicaments (those pesky exam seasons can always do with an omamori boost, right?), or simply collect them as you please and display as you like. Want a souvenir of your trip to Kinkakuji in Kyoto? Sorted! Think the romantic rabbits from the Hakuto shrine in Tottori look super cute (even though you don’t have a boyfriend...)? Add it to your collection! However, if you do truly believe in the power of omamori, you should follow a couple of simple rules…
Do I…? Can I…?
Do I keep the same omamori forever? Not if you're a believer in their powers. It's believed that after a year, the fortune powers are gone, and instead they start to collect negative energy and taint your fortune!
Do I dispose of it in a special way? Yes! It is recommended either that you return to the shrine you purchased it from where there may be a special omamori disposal box, and your omamori will be respectfully burned. If you can't go back, you can also dispose of your omamori during the New Year period, and if your wish didn't come true, purchase a new one! If you don't believe in the religious powers, they still make a nice souvenir of your time in Japan.
Can I open the omamori and have just a little tiny peek? No!!! This is disrespectful, and if you’re hoping for any fortune from the charm, you will be waiting in vain. Opening up the charm releases (and loses) the power! Shinto shrines are a protected sacred space and are reached by crossing the threshold through a torii gate. Similarly, the idea of an enclosed space marking and protecting something sacred is reflected in the way the charm is wrapped up!
Can I purchase an omamori as a gift? Absolutely! Gift-giving is very much a part of Japanese culture today, and omamori are no exception. They can be very meaningful to a mother-to-be or to someone who just got their driver's license! Before I returned to the UK, I bought special omamori for one friend beginning her master's degree, and another for my friend about to start a new job. If you're wondering whether we sell them here at The Japanese Shop, I'm afraid not! They're only available from shrines and temples in Japan. However, we have plenty of beautiful, traditional and authentic Japanese gifts, decorations and more! (Exciting News! Omamori lucky charms are available now from our shop! Please have a look at our range of omamori here)