May 15, 2017
by Nanae Uchida and Yu Nakabayashi
Ema (絵馬) is a wooden plaque with picture or painting on the surface. People write their wishes on its backside and hang it up at a special place at the shrine. It’s believed that gods will receive their wishes and grant their prayers. Ema can be found in most shrines in Japan, as it is a Shinto (one of the Japanese religions) custom. Although people are used to making a wish in writing on ema, especially for success in their entrance examinations, there is no rule when or what kind of wish to write. Each shrine has its own design of the ema it offers visitors, some of them quite unique.
How ema will be dealt with depends on each shrine. After visitors hang their ema with their wish written on it, it is usually kept hanging for while and when time comes, the ema are burned in a ritual. As Ema are burned, the smoke reaches the realm of the gods so that the gods can know the wish. The ritual is sometimes different with various meanings according to the particular shrine.
How to Write a Wish
You can write only one wish on one Ema. You should write your wish on its backside with your name and address (just your country and city is OK) at the bottom. Then you should hang it up at a specific place called emakakesyo (絵馬掛所). If your wish comes true, you should visit the shrine and thank the gods for their generosity.
The term ‘ema’ consists of two kanji: 絵 which means ‘picture’ and 馬 which means ‘horse’. Traditionally, in Shinto, horses were believed to be the vehicles of the gods. People used to donate real horses to the shrines when they prayed for more serious wishes so that gods would listen more carefully to their prayers. However horses were so expensive that many people couldn’t afford to buy them. Also, it was hard for the caretakers of the shrine to deal with the horses that were donated. For these reasons, people started using a wooden plate or figure in the shape of a horse instead of a real horse. Thus, ema were born.
How Ema Have Changed
Because ema originally came from real horses, ema used to have a picture of horse on their surface in the Nara period (710-794). Since that time, however, more animals have been displayed on ema since the Muromachi period (1336-1573), like foxes, snakes, birds, cows and so on. They also seem to serve as messengers to the gods.
Over time, the size of ema has changed, too. Ema of the past used to be much bigger than the ema of today. Also, in the past, paintings were done by artists on very large ema, and they were displayed at halls at the shrine. But these days, people get ema individually and make their wishes on these small wooden plaques more conveniently.
As mentioned above, ema used to be a pentagon-shaped wooden plaque with a picture of horse in the past, but today, you can see ema with all kinds of different pictures, shapes, and designs. For example, you can get ema in the shape of pink heart at Kasuga Grand Shrine, which is the most celebrated shrine in Nara and where the god of marriage is enshrined. Many people go there to write their hopes and dreams about their relationships and marriages. In a similar way, the color, shape, size, and design of ema varies from shrine to shrine throughout Japan, and it is often related to which type of god is enshrined.
Ema at Several Shrines
As you probably know, there are lots of shrines and temples in Kyoto, so you can get ema just about anywhere. For example, the two shrines below are very famous, in convenient locations, and both have ema of unique shapes and designs.
This shrine is famous for the god of matchmaking. So, the ema at this shrine are heart-shaped with Japanese character en (縁), which means connection, fate, or chance. Within the grounds of Yasaka shrine, there are a several different shrine buildings and each one of has different gods and different meanings, where visitors can pray for different things. So, you can also find the standard type of ema there, too. You can get heart-shaped ema at Okuninushi-sha, a prayer building that is dedicated to the god of matchmaking located southwest of main shrine building for ￥500.
It’s a 1-minute walk west from the Gion bus stop (City Bus #206)
It’s an 5-minute walk west from Gion-shijo Station on Keihan Main Line
It’s an 8-minute walk west from Kawaramachi Station on Hankyu Kyoto Line
Fushimi Inari Taisha
This shrine is very famous. Every day lots of people visit this shrine, not only tourists but also local residents. It is famous for good economic fortune, so people who run businesses often go there to pray for success.
Ema at this shrine are fox-shaped because foxes are said to be messengers of Inari Okami, god of agriculture. These fox-shaped ema can be found at Okusha Hohaisho, a prayer building located in the Myobu-dani valley to the east of the main shrine building, at the end of the famous Senbon Torii (Thousand Gateways).
The fox-shaped ema are sold for 500 yen, and there is a table, some pens, and some instructions on how to write your wish. It is quite easy to do for visitors.
Take Kyoto City Bus #5 to the Inari Taisha-Mae stop, and walk about 7 minutes to east
The shrine is right next to Inari Station on the JR Nara Line.
If you take the Keihan Line, get off at Fushimi-inari Station and walk about 7 minutes to east.