Have you ever visited a shrine or temple in Japan? If so, you may have noticed a common theme; little wooden plaques adorned with art and handwriting. But what are they? And what purpose do they serve? Say hello to the Ema board, or Japanese wishing plaque.
Rows of Ema at Futenma shrine, Okinawa
Originally a Shinto custom, they can be found in shrines throughout Japan. However, since Buddhism is also a widely practiced faith here, and has mingled somewhat with Shinto, it isn’t uncommon to find them at some temples.
Ema at Buddhist temple Naritasan Fukusenji, Okinawa
So how did they come to be? Well let’s start with the name. Ema is made up of two kanji: 絵馬; 絵 for picture, and 馬 for horse. Horses were revered as the “vehicles of Gods”, and during Japan’s Nara period (AD 710-794), it was customary for worshippers to donate horses to shrines in the belief that the deities would be more inclined to listen to their wishes. Of course, horses are an expensive commodity, certainly one out of reach for the more impoverished venerates. In place of an actual, living creature, thrifty shrine visitors would instead donate horses made of clay, wood, and paper. From this, wooden plaques with the image of a horse upon it were born.
Ema adorned with a horse, from Busenji shrine, Okinawa
During the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), it became fashionable at certain shrines to adorn the plaques with images other than horses. This was commonly the current year’s Chinese zodiac animal (in 2016, it would be a monkey), or a Kami synonymous with that particular shrine (such as a God of Fortune), or even a depiction of the shrine itself. In the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603), Ema halls made a brief appearance. These were like art galleries, displaying all the many kinds of art available on the plaques at the time. Up to the Edo Period (1603-1867), Ema had been large and mostly unattainable. However, the Edo Period saw a shift, with smaller plaques becoming available for purchase, streamlining the wish process and making it convenient for the faithful.
Ema with the current years Zodiac animal, the monkey. From Sumiyoshi Shrine, Osaka
Modern day Ema boards take all shapes and forms. You can find heart shapes, flower, shapes, even character shapes! (Hello Kitty, Disney, and Rilakkuma to name but a few), as well as a plethora of designs on traditional 5-sided boards. Some of the cutest this author has seen are the fox-head shaped ones at Fushimi Inari in Kyoto. The colourful garlands often seen accompanying Ema boards are folded objects sold as Omamori (good luck charms).
Fox shaped Ema at Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto
Now you know all about their origin and meaning, you’d like to try, right? It’s very simple. Anyone is free to purchase an Ema board and make a wish. They usually cost between 500-1000 yen, and can be purchased at the little shop that also sells Omamori (lucky charms). Usually there is an attendant, although smaller shrines will leave the items out on display and a box to place your money in. Everything is clearly priced, and all donations go toward the upkeep of the shrine. As far as making the actual wish? Again, no specific rules. Pens are usually provided, and most people write on the blank side of the Ema, so as not to spoil the pretty art on the front, however in some places it’s more common to write the wish over the picture, and your name and address on the blank side. If leaving personal details make you uncomfortable, go with a nickname and a city/town, or leave it out entirely. You also don’t need to know Japanese, you can write the wish in your native tongue. Big, popular shrines (such as Meiji in Tokyo or Fushimi Inari in Kyoto), will have boards written out in many different languages by visitors.
Written side of Ema boards hung at Naminoue-gu shrine, Okinawa
Unsure of what to wish for? Common wishes are for health, love, safe childbirth, and success. Around exam time, many students will wish for luck and good results. These are so common, they are referred to as “goukaku”, and they will fill the Ema displays. Lots of students also include cute artwork along with their wishes, so they are worth a look!
A very artistic Ema spotted at Naminoue-gu Shrine, Okinawa
So, you’ve purchased your Ema board, written your wish, now what? Hang it up! All shrines have a special area dedicated to the Ema. This is usually either a board with hooks, or even an entire wall, depending on the shrine. Don’t want to part with your Ema? Although it isn’t the done thing for Japanese folks, you can of course take them home. A lot of the larger shrines expect visitors want to keep them as mementos, and will offer you a bag to carry them in if you decline a pen to write on them with. A third option is to buy two; one to wish upon and leave, and one to take away with you.
Wall of Ema, Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto
Wondering what happens to your Ema? Well of course they don’t stay around forever, or the shrines would be inundated! They usually sit in place until Hatsumode (first shrine visit following New Year, usually between 1st-3rd January), after which they are ritualistically burned, along with the Omamori from the previous year (Omamori are only valid for one year, then they need to be replaced. Old Omamori are left at the shrines when new Omamori are purchased). This usually happens around the 15th of January. This ceremony is known as Otakiage. When the Ema and Omamori are burned in the sacred fire, prayers are said to help fulfil the wishes.
More shaped Ema, seen at a Buddhist temple in Chuo-ku, Osaka
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Torii-shaped Ema, Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto