Appreciating Ema

A rack of ema at Enryakuji.

A rack of ema at Enryakuji.

In every Shinto shrine we’ve visited, and some Buddhist temples too, we’ve found racks bearing pinewood tablets of different shapes and sizes inscribed with prayers. It turns out that these are called ‘ema,’ and shrine visitors can buy them to write their prayers and wishes to the god of the shrine.

The ema at the bottom right contains a wish for good luck at some exam.

The ema at the bottom right contains a wish for good luck at some exam.

The gods of various shrines each have their own portfolios, so this god may get prayers for good luck at the exams, another good luck in a business venture, and so on. At the more popular shrines you’ll even see ema in English and other languages from all over the world, many of them expressing the visitors’ wishes to come back to Japan someday. Some get really creative with their ema inscriptions!

Fox ema! Where else but Fushimi Inari Taisha? The god Inari's messenger is a fox, so this shrine has a fox theme all throughout.

Fox ema! Where else but Fushimi Inari Taisha? The god Inari’s messenger is a fox, so this shrine has a fox theme all throughout.

Cathy and I were struck by the sheer variety of ema designs. Ema means ‘horse picture,’ as originally these tablets bore a horse design; but later on shrines began making their own and there’s now a huge diversity. At Fushimi Inari Taisha, the ema are shaped like triangular fox faces, complete with ears. At Yoshida Jinja, the most common designs were a dog, or a dog and her pup, and another with a depiction of the shrine.

Doge conquers Yoshidayama Shrine ... I can't help but think the black mom and her pup are Shiba Inu.

Doge conquers Yoshidayama Shrine … I can’t help but think the black mom and her pup are Shiba Inu.

Deer ema at Kasuga Taisha shrine in Nara.

Deer ema at Kasuga Taisha shrine in Nara.

Heart-shaped ema at Meoto Jinja in Nara. It's always Valentines' in this shrine!

Heart-shaped ema at Meoto Jinja in Nara. It’s always Valentines’ in this shrine!

Mouse and other animal designs at Otoyo Jinja. The bottom right ema have figures of what look like Chinese deities.

Mouse and other animal designs at Otoyo Jinja. The bottom right ema have figures of what look like Chinese deities.

Toyokuni Shrine, which is dedicated to Toyotomi Hideyoshi the unifier of Japan, has ema in the shape of Hideyoshi’s battle standard, a gourd canteen. Otoyo Jinja, famous for its mouse guardian statues, has ema with a dog and fish, a phoenix, a set of Shinto deities, and of course mice. At Meoto Jinja inside the Kasuga Taisha complex in Nara, the ema are hearts. Meoto Jinja is of course considered a lucky shrine for connubial happiness. The shrine inside Enryakuji uses a bodhisattva figure, or the shrine’s seal.

Gourd-shaped ema at Toyokuni Jinja. Toyotomi Hideyoshi is said to have adopted a gourd as his battle standard, and the ema memorialize this.

Gourd-shaped ema at Toyokuni Jinja. 

I didn’t go out of my way to photograph these ema before, but now that I think about it, they could make for a nice collection of details from all over Japan, part of the unique personality of every Shinto shrine. Now they’re one of the things I ‘collect’ with my camera whenever we visit a shrine.

Star design ema at Shinnyodo temple.

Some kind of esoteric star motif, found at Shinnyodo. (I’m trying really hard not to think Elder Sign, ha ha!)

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