Omamori: The Biwa Named Seizan

Biwa of AoyamaThis omamori is a somewhat complicated historical and literary reference. The simplest explanation is that there was once a famous instrument (a biwa, a type of lute) named Seizan that was kept here at the temple. Unfortunately, the original has been lost, but we know of the instrument’s existence thanks to historical record. The more detailed story behind this omamori is found in those historical documents.

This biwa appears in the famous The Tale of the Heike. We are told that it was named “Seizan” (青山 “green mountain”) for the painting that decorated the front of the instrument. The painting depicted the moon rising above a lush green mountain in summer. Seizan was made in T’ang Dynasty China and was transmitted to Japan during the reign of Emperor Ninmyō (833-850).

Taira no Tsunemasa, a character in the The Tale of the Heike who is very talented at courtly arts including playing the biwa, brings Seizan to Ninna-ji Temple for safe keeping during the war. Tsunemasa had spent time at Ninna-ji as a child and was entrusted with Seizan for some time before he returns it to the temple. Sadly, Tsunemasa later dies in battle.

In the Noh play “Tsunemasa,” a monk at Ninna-ji holds a service to pray and mourn for Tsunemasa. Tsunemasa hears the prayers and appears at the temple as a ghost. He speaks of his longing to enjoy the courtly pastimes he once loved, and plays Seizan once more and performs a dance before disappearing back into the Asura Realm (an unpleasant realm where demigods are constantly at war). 

You can read the entire script of the play (in Japanese and English!) as well as a more detailed synopsis here at The

Feel free to use the information in this post to explain your Seizan omamori to your friends, Japanese or otherwise they will be very impressed with your knowledge!


Chinese Zodiac Omamori

Chinese Zodiac Omamori

巳 snake  ・ 辰 dragon  ・ 卯 rabbit  ・ 寅 tiger  ・ 丑 ox  ・ 子 rat

亥 boar  ・ 戌 dog  ・ 酉 rooster  ・ 申 monkey  ・ 未 sheep  ・ 午 horse

At the temple shop we offer many types of omamori including these Chinese Zodiac charms. Each charm is woven with the image of the zodiac animal on one side and a depiction of the appropriate Buddhist patron deity. These charms are for general luck and well-being. They are available in two colors for all animal signs: indigo and red.

The Chinese characters used to write the names of the animals as you see above are characters used specifically to refer to the zodiac. When referring to the common rabbit, monkey, or tiger (and all of the other animals) different characters are used than the ones you see above. The English translations are written in order from right to left, top to bottom as they are in the display at the temple shop. Take the time to remember the character for your zodiac animal (and maybe those of your loved ones!) and it will make it easy for you to find the omamori, or other zodiac-related goods, you seek!

Chinese Zodiac Omamori

Here you can see the weaved images of the patron deities for the first three signs (left to right: rat,  ox, and tiger). On the left is the Thousand Armed Goddess of Mercy  for Year of the Rat and the other two are color variations of  Akasagarbha (Kokuzō Bosatsu), the patron deity for both the Ox and Tiger.

Tortoise Omamori

Turtle OmamoriTurtle Omamori

In Japan, tortoises are said to live for 10,000 years. These mythical tortoises often are depicted with long flowing tails. This charm takes the form of one such tortoise and offers its owner health, long life, and safety when traveling. Ninna-ji has a variety of charms made from a Japanese fabric called chirimen (known as crape in English). I really like the chirimen charms and think that this tortoise is one of the cutest ones we have. The upper part of his shell uses a fabric that looks like shibori, a traditional Japanese method for dying fabric. He has beads for eyes and as you can see on the view of his underside, there is a bell and a little nameplate attached that says the charm is from Ninna-ji.

Omamori really are great souvenirs from your visits to temples and shrines. Be sure to take a look at the shops at the places you visit for helpful little charms like this one!

New Clear Folders

New Clear Folders

There are three new clear folders available at the temple shop! In the USA I never used clear folders, I’m not sure that there were even many for sale, but I’ve found that it can be very helpful to be able to see some of the contents of your folders without opening them up. The new clear folders at Ninna-ji cost ¥200 and come in the three above designs. The top design features an illustration of Kon-do and was drawn by one of the monks who you can often find working in Goten. I’m sure he would be willing to give you an autograph if you asked!

Folding Fans for Summer

Folding fans for summer

The temple shop is now offering a variety of seasonally appropriate folding fans, or sensu. The fan above depicts the four mythical creatures which are believed to protect Kyoto in each of the four cardinal directions: the white tiger to the west, the red phoenix to the south, the black turtle to the north, and the blue dragon to the east. These four creatures or gods, called shishin or shijin  (四神) in Japanese, come from Chinese mythology. There are several other fan designs available in the shop that evoke the image of Kyoto and Japan, including a few variations on cherry blossom prints. Summers in Kyoto are awfully hot, it can be good to have a little bit of manual air conditioning available as you explore the city.

“Omamori”: Good Luck Charms

Good Luck Charms (Omamori)

Omamori  (お守り) are charms or amulets available at temples and shrines. The word contains part of the word for “protect” (mamoru 守る), and they are meant to protect the bearer from misfortune and bring good luck.

Temples and shrines in Japan offer omamori for all of your luck needs, whether it be for academic purposes, health, romance, or safe travels. The charms that offer these services are usually pocket-sized and come in all sorts of shapes. Omamori are generally considered to be effective for one year, and many people will return the omamori to the place where they acquired it for proper disposal after a year has passed.

Many omamori contain pieces of paper with blessings or prayers written on them. Opening the charm to see the paper, however, is thought to void its protective powers.

You can see many people hanging these charms from their bags and cell phones in Japan. Omamori can make great souvenirs, and even if you don’t consider yourself a superstitious person, having a good luck charm couldn’t hurt.

Ninna-ji has all kinds of charms, including several that are original designs, such as the Otafuku charm. Look forward to some up-coming posts introducing different types of charms available here at Ninna-ji!

Temple Shop Gets a Little Brighter

The Temple Shop

Last week we added some extra lighting to the cases in the temple shop. It makes the items in the case stand out much better!

You’ll notice that there are shops of some kind at most shrines and temples you visit in Japan. Some sell only a few temple-specfic items, while others offer souvenirs in addition to more traditional fare. Ninna-ji has a selection of various items including incense, incense holders, prayer beads, Japanese-style hand towels (tenugui), good luck charms for all purposes, as well as a few disposable cameras just in case.The Temple Shop