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 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!
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.
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.
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.