Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples in Japan have votive plaques called “ema” which visitors use to inscribe their wishes. In this article, you’ll get to know more about shrines which have captivating and rather unique ema!
What is an Ema?
Ema are votive plaques made of wood and decorated with different images that are used by visitors in shrines and temples to make wishes or to thank for wishes granted. In the old days, people used to offer live horses when making a wish to a deity, but with the passing of time, they started offering wooden plaques depicting horses, instead of the real animal. That’s why votive plaques in Japan are called "ema," which literally means “picture horse.” Ema plaques inscribed with a wish or gratitude message are not taken home but rather hanged in a reserved area inside the shrine’s premises where it is said to reach the deities there enshrined. Usually ema plaques have the shape of a house with a wide triangular roof on top, but lately heart shapes, dog shapes and other unconventional types have been gaining popularity.
1. Kawai Shrine
Located in Kyoto, Kawai Shrine attracts many worshipers due to the protection it is said to bestow on women. The shrine is dedicated to the deity of beauty and the votive plaque you find here is called “Kagami Ema” (“Mirror ema”), an ema plaque extremely popular among women who want to improve their looks. This votive plaque has the shape of a hand-mirror and the front side is decorated with the image of a face. Visitors are supposed to draw over the face just as if they were doing their own make-up and then inscribe their wish on the back. The shrine has colored pencils and crayons available, but people say you get more blessings if you use your own makeup! The wishes are said to come true not only on the outside but on the inside as well when you project how beautiful you want to become on this ema plaque.
2. Fushimi Inari Taisha
There are some 30 thousand Inari shrines of all sizes throughout Japan, but the head shrine is Fushimi Inari Taisha. The votive plaque you find here is called “Byakko Ema” (White Fox Ema). Fushimi Inari Taisha is the site of the famous rows of red gates called Senbon Torii (literally meaning “A Thousand Shinto Gates”), but one more thing you should notice when visiting this beautiful place is the great number of fox statues spread throughout the shrine’s premises. The white fox is the messenger of the deity enshrined in Inari Taisha, and just as we can’t see deities, we can’t see the white fox either because of the animal’s white color, which represents invisibility. The ema board found here is based on this white fox. Visitors are supposed to draw the fox’s face on the front side and then inscribe their wishes on the back. This votive plaque is said to grant success in business, prosperity in manufacturing, peace in the household, and traffic safety!
3. Mitsugu Shrine
Mitsugu is a shrine dedicated to the guardian deity of the neighborhood of Shinsaibashi, one of Osaka’s busiest shopping districts, and the ema here are in the shape of a pet dog. Cherished by local residents, Mitsugu Shrine – also known as Mitsu Hachimangu – enshrines the deity of easy childbirth and the deity of arts and culture. The shrine grants wishes for protection against misfortune, for easy childbirth, and for fortune in love. However, a different feature has been attracting some attention lately: the shrine's pet dog-shaped ema used by visitors to ask for the good health of their beloved pets. The front of the plaque only depicts two ears, so visitors are supposed to draw the face of their pet and then inscribe their wishes on the other side. The shrine offers heart-shaped plaques too!
4. Sanko Inari Shrine
Located in Aichi Prefecture, Sanko Inari Shrine is a famous Shinto shrine for people in search of love. The ema board you find here has the shape of a heart. The shrine lies at the foot of Inuyama Castle, a designated National Treasure of Japan, so not only does it receive visitors looking for its blessings, but also tourists heading for the castle. The shrine is highly popular among young people because it offers many spots to take photos for social media, such as the row of torii gates at the shrine’s entrance and the lovely heart-shaped pink ema. Sanko Inari Shrine is also a renowned “power spot” (a place thought to be flowing with mystical energy). The shrine is said to grant wishes for good luck in finding a love partner, marital harmony, and peace in the household. It’s recommended for both unmarried and married couples to keep the affection alive in the relationship!
5. Yakyu Inari Shrine
You'll find baseball bat-shaped Ema at this shrine located in Saitama Prefecture. Dedicated to the deity of competition, Yakyu Inari Shrine is a famous power spot visited by people from all walks of life involved in the world of baseball and entertainment. The shrine is very popular among students trying to make it to Koshien (Japan’s national high school baseball tournament) and offers 3 types of ema plaques beside the baseball bat-shaped one. In addition to ema shaped like baseball bats, it also offers bat-shaped omamori (lucky charms) that are used to “overcome any obstacle” and are meant for improving the holder’s skills in ball sports.
Animals, hearts, and other unconventional shapes! In this article, you got to know some popular Shinto shrines that offer quite unique ema. They're bound to make your pictures even more captivating, so make sure to stretch your visit to some of these shrines whenever you’re sightseeing nearby!
*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.
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