Exploring the prayer plaques of Japanese shrines and temples
Helen Foster explores the longstanding Japanese tradition of ema, wooden plaques found in shrines and temples upon which people write prayers
In most Japanese shrines and temples you’ll find a display of wooden plaques called ema that people write prayers upon. Every temple puts their own stamp on these and admiring the designs, and the sentiments behind them, can make a fascinating addition to your Japan trip. You might even find one to grant your own wishes and prayers…
"People will write all sorts of wishes and aspirations on an ema"
Wander up the hill from the gently clacking bamboo that lines the pathway of the Arashiyama bamboo grove in Kyoto, and you come to shrine with a small wooden torii gate. It’s not showy, you could even walk past it without noticing if you were in a hurry, which is kind of ironic as this is Mikami shrine: a shrine to appearance. To the right of the altar, tied to rows of nails by bits of red string, is a sea of prayer plaques. Look closely and you’ll realise they’re shaped like a comb and contain a drawing of a woman with a flowing black mane; on the back of them you’ll find prayers from those hoping to maintain their own lustrous locks and hairdressing businesses hoping for success tending to the hair of others!
Relief from balding might not sound like the traditional thing you ask the heavens for, "but people will write all sorts of wishes and aspirations on an ema. Pleas for help with changing something in their life such as giving up an addiction or healing from an illness are also common," says Professor Ian Reader, Emeritus Professor of Japanese Studies at Manchester University. He refers to them as "letters to the gods" in his research.
The history of ema
In Japanese, the word for ema is written using two Japanese characters—one for picture/drawing and one for horse—and it’s believed that this goes back to a time when all ema contained pictures of horses. Horses were seen as animals that carried deities; donating a horse to a shrine was therefore seen as a good way to get your prayers heard by the powers above. However, as it wasn’t achievable for everyone in society to hand out horses (or, perhaps because it wasn’t feasible for the shrines to keep them), the idea of using a wooden plaque adorned with the picture of a horse to convey messages developed instead.
Today, you still find horse-themed ema at shrines like Kanda Myojin in Tokyo’s Akihabara which offers cute cartoon-style designs of their on-site horse Akari, but you’ll also find plenty of other images too from animals representing the lunar year, religious symbols and even manga cartoons. Ema also vary in shape. In fact, the only thing a modern ema may have in common with the traditional design of old, is being flat and made of wood.
"Today, you still find horse-themed ema at shrines like Kanda Myojin in Tokyo’s Akihabara"
The design of most modern ema though will be related to something the shrine is known for. Take heart-shaped ema. If you’re travelling around Japan and spot one, it’s likely that you’re at a love shrine like Osaka’s Ohatsu Tenjin, famous for the tragic love story between a courtesan and the son of a rich merchant, who, when they couldn’t be together, killed themselves at the shrine. The pink heart-shaped ema for sale here contain a drawing of the doomed couple sitting under a cherry blossom tree.
One of the most unusual shapes I spotted on my last trip to Japan was at Kyoto’s Kawai Shrine. Not many tourists come here, but if you’re looking for unusual ema it’s a must stop as the plaques are shaped like mirrors with eyes, nose and a mouth drawn on one side. Women visiting the shrine colour the features in with make up or crayons to wish for beauty, inside and out.
Other shrines will base their design on their own appearance—some ema at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Taisha, for example, are shaped like the thousands of scarlet torii gates that it’s most famous for, while at Osaka’s Namba Shrine the ema painted with a lion’s head drawn reflect the 12 metre high lion’s head that holds the altar in its mouth, and swallows evil spirits that might negatively affect the worshipers below. People come here to pray for good luck at school and business.
Praying for good health is another common reason to write upon ema—but because it’s hard to draw illness, symbolism is often used instead. One Japanese folk tale says that if you drop a nashi pear into the river and promise not eat one for a year, your tooth pain will be cured—so, ema related to dental health often contain the image of a pear. Other designs included tortoises for longevity. Admittedly, some shrines are more literal; wander into Nagoya’s Mama Kannon temple and you’ll be confronted by breast-shaped ema! Legend has it that a woman unable to breastfeed brought her baby to the shrine and immediately started to lactate. The shrine now sees many women coming to pray for a successful pregnancy and birth.
"The exact designs of ema change as the needs of society change," says Professor Reader. "For example ema based around education became more common in post-war Japan as more people sought to go to university. Today you find more ema relating to pets and pet health as pet ownership grows in Japan. Fandom has also become a part of ema-writing now. People will sometimes put up ema asking to get tickets to a favourite band’s concert, or requesting victories for their favourite baseball team."
" It seems a lot of people want to speak to the gods about their cash flow! "
You don’t have to be Shinto, Buddhist or Japanese to fill in an ema—if you visit a shrine that has a theme that speaks to you, then you can simply visit the shrine shop, purchase a plaque of your own, write on the back and affix it to the dedication area reserved for tying the plaques. Before this, it’s good etiquette to carry out the purification ritual of washing your hands and rinsing your mouth from the water trough you find in every shrine. Just be warned though—if you decide to tie your ema at Mikane-jinja, Kyoto’s money shrine, you might need to make some room. It has more ema tied to it than I think I’ve ever seen at a shrine. It seems a lot of people want to speak to the gods about their cash flow!
Picture credits: Helen Foster
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