Ema: Wooden Wishing Plaques
Today I want to introduce “Ema” (絵馬) – wooden wishing plaques of Japanese shrines.
I’m sure most of you have seen them when visiting Japan or on various photos, but you maybe weren’t sure what exactly they are or what they’re called?
“Ema” are wooden wishing plaques.
This is a Shinto custom and thus can be found at shrines all over Japan.
As Buddhism and Shinto have mixed up a lot, it is not unique to shrines. You MIGHT find them in temples, too!
In recent days people write their wishes or prayers on a wooden plaque that can be purchased at the shrine and then hang it up on the shrine grounds.
But where does this tradition come from?
“Ema” consists of two Kanji: 絵馬; the one for “picture” and the one for “horse“.
Horses were seen as the “vehicles of gods” (神の乗り物） and during the Nara period (奈良時代) people donated horses to the shrines so that the gods would be more likely to listen to their prayers and fulfill wishes.
However, horses were expensive and thus people who couldn’t afford it used horse figures made of wood, clay or paper instead. Finally the wooden wishing plaques with a picture of a horse on them were born.
During the Muromachi period (室町時代) certain shrines started to display other things besides the horses, e.g. foxes at Inari Shrines.
Later during the Azuchi-Momoyama period (安土桃山時代) there were even “ema halls” (絵馬堂) where various artists displayed their ema design work. This can be compared to our modern art galleries.
In the Edo period (江戸時代) it finally became common that individuals could purchase very small plaques to communicate their wishes to the gods more conveniently.
Nowadays there are all sorts of pictures displayed. Very common is the current year’s zodiac (e.g. 2012 is the year of the dragon, so you’ll see a lot of dragon pictures). Very often it’s the picture of a god or spirit that’s connected to the shrine.
However, in recent days basically EVERYTHING is possible. I’ve seen various anime and even Rilakkuma ones!! I guess those are especially popular among little kids. Very often you’ll find more than just one picture per shrine, especially in bigger ones.
When it is exam season, you’ll find mostly “goukaku” (合格) wooden wishing plates. Students all over their country wish that they’ll pass their tests.
Very common is also to pray for success in the next sport event, health, love, safe childbirth.
Anyone can purchase the plaques. Usually they cost around 500-1000yen. You purchase them at the small booth where you can also get a seal in your seal book or lucky charms. If nobody is around you just put the money in a box and take one of the plaques.
Yes, that’s Japan!
I guess they’re not worried that anybody would take one without paying!
With the money the shrine is also supported financially.
It’s not difficult to fill out an “ema”. There are no strict rules. Sometimes you’re supposed to write your wish on the front, you basically overwrite the picture and you can write your name and address on the back. For others you don’t touch the picture side, but write your wish on the back.
In big cities such as Tokyo you’ll find a lot of foreign languages on those plaques! A good place to check them out is Meiji Shrine!
If you’re interested to see more ema designs and want to know some more details, please proceed to PAGE 2!
As mentioned before, zodiac are very popular nowadays. Each shrine usually has their own design.
In big shrines such as Kiyomizudera in Kyoto, you’ll find various different plaques to choose from.
As the photo was taken in 2007 it displays that year’s zodiac which was the “wild boar”.
Rabbit, the zodiac of 2011. This one is especially cute as it has “happiness” written in hiragana on it (しあわせ).
Nowadays, most commonly you’ll find “開運” printed on the plaques (like the other one in the photo above) which means that your fortune should change for the better.
Another rabbit plaque. This one is very beautiful. No wonder that they used to have “ema halls” to display all the great designs.
I have to admit that I tend to buy a plaque when I really like the design and instead of writing a wish on it, I take it home as a souvenir.
I suggest you do the same if you find something you really like!
Rabbit plaque found at Tanzan Shrine in Nara Prefecture in 2011.
Dragon, the zodiac of 2012 is displayed on those ema.
Besides the zodiac it’s very common to display a person, a god or figure that is connected to the shrine or the city that the shrine is situated in.
In Inari Shrines you’ll often find fox pictures displayed. The most famous Fushimi Inari Shrine is located in Fushimi, Kyoto.
Again, at a big shrine such as Fushimi Inari there are many different types of plaques. In the photo above you can see a few different wild boar zodiac plaques as the photo was taken in 2007, the year of the wild boar.
At Takachiho Shrine in Miyazaki Prefecture you’ll find Izanagi and Izanami, the god and goddess who created Japan, displayed.
Owls are not too uncommon either.
Those were one of my favorites! When I asked if I can purchase one they told me that they weren’t available anymore (apparently only until the end of 2011). You can still see one edition with a rabbit (2011’s zodiac) and one says “7-5-3” which is a festival in November aimed at kids at the age of 3, 5 and 7.
Too bad, I really wanted one of those! :(
Traditional, but very beautiful is the ema plaque I found at Kunozan Toshogu Shrine in Shizuoka Prefecture.
In Wada Shrine (near Kobe) you’ll find snakes everywhere, even on the ema!
Why? Well, according to a legend a white snake appeared under a pine tree located on the shrine grounds a long time ago.
White snakes are considered as a messenger of god. There’s also a mound of white snakes (of course only small figures, no real snakes!) on the grounds today.
Why the snake on the ema is blue is a mystery to me, though.
Sometimes you run into very atypical things, too! A “Kalavinka” ema found in Shikoku!
Okayama is famous for Momotaro, so of course there are many plaques with pictures of him.
Heart shaped plaques are very popular, too, especially among young women!
These are quite common, too. I also found an omamori (lucky charm) version of it.
The kanji in the middle means “mischief / harm”. The character is actually pressed out and thrown away as symbol of getting rid of bad fortune. I kind of like that idea!
Sometimes the shrine building itself is being displayed like here in a shrine in Akita City.
Here you’ll see that you can also find ema plaques in temples!
What was also special about the ones you see in the photo was that they were located in a dark cave and I didn’t see what I photographed until I left the cave!
The temple is called “Ishite” and is located in Matsuyama City, Ehime Prefecture on Shikoku!
A shrine near Inuyama Castle had actually the castle itself displayed. Paradise for a castle lover like me!
This is actually a very old ema. It was not in use, but displayed in a “plaque hall” in Gokoku Shrine, Hakodate.
If you ever go there, don’t miss the small hall. It’s free!
Here are a few more random designs. Personally I really like the cherry blossom ones!
Praying for scholar success.
Another very beautiful design.
So cute, praying for an easy delivery (also very popular among young women, obviously).
That’s the right one for me: wishing for beauty *g*
Found at Chuusonji Temple (yes, a temple again!) in Hiraizumi, Iwate Prefecture.
May your dreams come true. I like this one. The huge kanji in the middle means dream (夢, yume). I found this one on the Aoba Castle Ruins’ grounds in Sendai at Urayasuguu.
Besides all those traditional pictures it has become quite popular to also have plaques with characters such as Rilakkuma, Hello Kitty or anime figures on them.
This is a really cute one as it doesn’t have such bright and strong colors, so it almost looks like a traditional ema!
There are even Miffy ones although that’s not a Japanese character, but very popular in Japan!!
I saw those when I visited Konpira-san in Kagawa.
Ema are usually hung up somewhere on the shrine grounds where they can be spotted easily.
At certain times it can become quite crowded, e.g. around the new year, exam season …. like in the photo above taken on Miyajima.
Sometimes ema plaques are hung up together with omikuji. Most of the shrines have separate places to hang them, though.
Shrines that are highly frequented by foreigners, such as Meiji Shrine in Tokyo, have explanations in English. There you’ll find a lot of wishes written in foreign languages. It can be interesting to stay a while and read through the ones you can understand!
That’s all for now. I hope you enjoyed this post.
How about you? Did you ever write a wish or a prayer on such a plaque? Any interesting story concerning ema you want to share with everybody?
Don’t be shy!
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