Said to be the ancestor of the fortune cookie, omikuji are the typical feature of most shrines and temples around Japan, reverberating in wider Japanese culture with restaurant gimmicks and self-made games for kids. The game of fortune roulette boils down to drawing a numbered fortune at random, and seeing whether you have normal luck, great luck, a little luck, or the infamous bad luck. People say that the bad luck fortunes are less common, but on my first trip to Japan, I tried two fortunes. They were both bad.

People also have differing explanations for why you tie your fortune at the shrine and leave it there instead of taking it home with you. If it’s bad luck, you don’t want it to follow you home, so you leave it at the shrine instead. If it’s good luck, you have to leave it there at the shrine in order for the gods to know to give the luck to you. Whichever it is, you typically toss in your 50~200 yen, draw a slip of paper at random, read whatever advice or specific predictions it has in store for you (content varies according to each shrine/temple), and then tie it up on a fence or a tree at the shrine. If you want something to take home, you should buy an o-mamori protective amulet, which come in a variety of decorative styles.

If you follow the rules of o-mamori use, you’d typically buy one for the year or for whatever specific purpose you have in mind (passing an entrance exam or safe childbirth, for instance), and then return the old o-mamori the following year to be ceremoniously burned. For those unable to return to the shrines they visited and especially for foreign tourists, they make charming souvenirs. I don’t really do o-mamori anymore, but I still like drawing omikuji sometimes as part of visiting the multitude of shrines out here in the Izumo region. I don’t get to take anything home with me, though–even if you eat the fortune cookie, you still get to keep the fortune, right? Oh well. I’ve already taken home the one daikichi (great luck) I drew when I was studying abroad years ago, so I don’t need any more than that.

However, on a recent visit to Sada Shrine, most famous for Sada Shin Noh, a dance deemed UNESCO Intangible Heritage, I noticed this little spin on the usual omikuji. Who doesn’t like stickers? The occasional sticker, anyway!

In addition to your usual paper slip to tie at the shrine in order to receive or avoid your fortune, you get a sticker to take home with you signifying some particular kind of luck–happiness, health, longevity, warding off evil, prosperity, etc. This shrine, like many others, is based on an honor system. Toss in your coins and grab whatever package you like.

My fortune, #88, was kichi. Good old-fashioned good luck. In addition to some general advice about how I have to continue to work hard to see my luck begin to blossom like flowers in spring, it went on to provide advice for my career, love life, health, and studies. Stick with what works and be patient, the outlook is good so be confident, watch out for relapses of illnesses but you really have nothing to worry about, stay focused and work hard.

Speaking of hard work, that’s the sticker I got. The daruma is a symbol in Japan for determination, given that you aren’t supposed to be able to knock down a round daruma doll without them getting back up. But why is it round in the first place? Because it’s based on a monk who meditated for so long that his legs fell off due to atrophy. This is supposed to be admirable, but it really just makes me more wary of sitting in seiza. That said, the daruma dolls themselves are a charming and varied culture of their own within wider Japanese culture. Yaegaki Shrine has a whole series of them in different colors based on what kind of goal or wish you have. The don’t have eyes, though–you paint one eye on when you make your wish or set your goal, and you paint the other eye on when it’s actualized.

I can take this little bit of luck for perseverance and success with me, but the fortune stays at the shrine, however cold it would be there on a post-rainstorm December morning.

Mine is the one that isn’t soaked.

With that shiny new luck carried with me, I put on a hard hat to go inspect the roof of the shrine, but that’s for another upcoming enry.


Just the normal trek to work…

Izumo Taisha, the 2nd most important Shinto Shrine in Japan, undergoes Sengu–a complete reconstruction–every sixty years. What with Shinto’s emphasis on purity, the thought is to refresh the whole shrine after every complete cycle, primarily focusing this renewal on the honden, or primary hall of the shrine where the deity resides. The deity in this case is Ookuninushi–a key figure in the Kojiki who I haven’t started writing about quite yet!–and the honden in question is a national treasure of Japan. Like Kamosu Shrine (also a national treasure), it’s a primary example of taisha-tsukuri style shrine architecture.

Imposing as the shrine might already be today, traditionally it is thought to be even more imposing–about 48 meters imposing–in its previous incarnations. There wasn’t actually much evidence for this until 3-meter-wide pillars were discovered in 2000, and since then they’ve been displayed in the nearby Shimane Museum of Ancient Izumo, along with models of what the shrine might used to have looked like until its downsizing in the Kamakura era and the previous posts used at the top of the shrine before this round of reconstruction.

There was a lot more wood in that previous version than just these posts, so since reconstruction started in 2008, they’ve been using little pieces of the wood in their o-mamori (good luck charms or emulets). Parts of the old wood are still on display next to where you can purchase these charms.

In addition to being the home of one of the most prominent kami of the kojiki legends, Izumo Taisha is also the spot where all the kami congregate for their annual meeting in the 10th month of the old agricultural calendar. While this is known in the rest of Japan as Kannazuki (the month without gods), in the Izumo region is is called Kamiarizuki (the month with gods). Read a little more about that here.

Hotels fit for the gods!

And what are they all discussing at this meeting? En-musubi! Despite it’s significance in wider Shinto application, Izumo Taisha is a shrine just like any other. In addition to shrine activities like drawing your omikuji fortune slip, you can also purchase an ema, a board with illustrations usually unique to each shrine, on which you would write your petition and leave it hanging at the shrine. Because of Izumo Taisha’s reputation for love, matchmaking, and happy marriages, many of them have petitions like “that I get married within three years and attain happiness” or “that I meet an amazing girl and live happily ever after with her,” or “that I may–no, that I will definitely–start attracting men’s attention!!” I’ve also seen some hung by couples thanking the gods for answering previous matchmaking requests, or ones hung side by side from couples declaring their love for each other and how they want to be the best spouses ever.

While Izumo Taisha is a major spot for almost any visitor to the San’in region, you might that retains a rather quiet atmosphere when it’s in the off season, even though it has a tent with semi-regular Kagura and Kabuki performances. On my first visit there, I could to see everything as an easy place, from the pine tree walkway to the building surrounding the honden to the kagura-den, the traditional performance hall for Kagura dance. This building has the largest shimenawa (sacred rope) of any shrine in Japan. The straw itself already weighs five tons, but it gets even heavily with everyone tossing coins in the rope for good luck–technically you’re not supposed to do this, but tradition is hard to stop!

Then came Golden Week–the on-season for tourism everywhere in Japan. This year it took place one week before the Sengu ceremony, so technically Ookuninushi does not yet inhabit the fresh, new honden! None the less, many people were lined up to make their offerings in front of it, anyway.

There’s the honden! Good to see construction is finally done!

I can only imagine how packed its going to be tonight when they move Ookuninushi back in! While theoretically anyone could walk up and attend, the only people who will actually be able to see anything have been invited or made their reservations well in advance. That said, the celebration of the Sengu’s completion will go on for the next few weeks a very, very long list of performances, most notably Kagura dances from Izumo, Iwami, the Oki islands, and beyond, and guest performers of a range of other traditional, folk, and modern Japanese performing arts. Pretty much all but one or two of these performances is free and open to the public, so if you happen to be in Izumo sometime between now and June 8, chances are there will be something going on in the covered stage area next to the pine walkway. More information here.