A Japanese shrine is not just a place for visitors to pray to gods for their wishes to come true, or arm themselves with lucky charms and amulets (and for non-Japanese tourists to gawk at). For a mere couple of hundred yen, you can find out your fortune at a Japanese shrine by receiving an おみくじ “omijuki”, or fortune telling paper.
There are plenty of ways you can get an omikuji – the traditional way involves shaking a box full of wooden chopsticks until one falls out. Each stick contains a number, and this number corresponds to the omikuji that you would take from a box or a drawer. The paper contains your fortune in a number of categories such as “love”, “studies” and “work”. Aoshima Shrine in Kyushu has a dazzling array of fortune telling methods that are sure to impress. More modern methods include coin-slot omikuji vending machines, and there are even English versions available at Tokyo's Meiji Shrine to cater to international customer – er, I mean visitors. Ah, the wonders of technology and globalization...
There are basically twelve categories of fortunes, ranging from “very lucky” to “very unlucky”. If you get one of the “unlucky” omikuji, fret not. Apparently, you can just keep trying until you get a “lucky” one. If you feel like it, you may continue until you get a “very lucky”. Hmm... Going by this logic, there's no way you can stay unlucky for long. And of course, you have to pay each time you want an omikuji. Typical Japanese marketing strategy at work?
The omikuji business is particularly busy during the New Year period, as it is customary for Japanese people to visit shrines on New Year's Eve or Day to pray for a good year ahead, buy protection amulets, write wishes on wooden plaques called “ema”, and of course find out their fortunes with an omikuji or two. This is known as “Hatsumode”, or the “first shrine visit of the year”. While not every Japanese person do “hatsumode”, hordes of Japanese people do so, and the more popular shrines in the country can see thousands of visitors. Note that this is more a customary thing, rather than a religious one.
Needless to say, shrines need to be well-stocked with omikuji, particularly during the New Year period... How does Japan, a small country with limited resources, produce enough omikuji to cope with this demand? Well, the answer is simple – don't produce them in Japan. Do it overseas.
Yes, omikuji are not produced in Japan. This is a very little-known fact, even among the Japanese. But where are they produced in then?
The answer is – drum roll, please - Nepal. There is a rather small factory in Nepal that supplies Japanese shrines with omikuji. The production process goes like this: First, the priests working in Japanese shrines send over the documents that contain all the words, designs etc. in the actual format that they would be read via email... Yup, the wonders of technology at work again. Next, a factory worker prints them out from her computer, which are then used as the templates to create the actual omikuji. The omikuji are made using the method called screen printing. If you're familiar with this printing method, you'll understand that it's not done using a machine, but manually. In other words, the omikuji are all handmade. Finally, the screen printed paper is cut into the correct sizes... using a manual cutting machine.
Every year, 500,000 omikuji are produced in this factory... But how many people actually work here? There are a total of – more drum roll, please - six employees, not counting the boss (of course). Each employee (nope, no typo here) produces an average of 1000 omikuji per day, working from nine to five.
Why are omikuji produced in Nepal, and not Japan? This has to do with the limited number of Mitsumata (Oriental Paperbush. If you want to get technical, it's Edgeworthia Chrysantha) plants in Japan. Omikuji paper is made from Mitsumata, due to the fact that it doesn't break easily despite its thinness. Nepal has an abundant supply of Mitsumata plants, and hence they can be used to make omikuji cheaply. One kilogram worth of these Mitsumata costs 400 yen (approximately five US dollars), which is one-fifth of the cost in Japan.
The factory generates 200,000 yen (approximately 2400 US dollars) in annual income, which is a large amount for the Nepalese, yet a small one for the Japanese. So it's a win-win situation for both parties.
Omikuji is just one of many age-old Japanese traditions that have managed to not just survive, but thrive and evolve, in the advent of modernization, technological advances and globalization. What could be in store for the future? Temples and shrines dedicated to Japanese anime characters? Oh wait, they have these already...