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Wooden Plaques and Prayers in Tokyo

September 25, 2008

Wooden Plaques and Prayers in Tokyo

Upon approaching the main building of a shrine in Tokyo you may notice a number of wooden plaques tied to a simple structure or tree.  These are ema and visitors purchase them from a stall on the shrine premises, write a prayer on the back, and then leave them behind in the hope that their prayer might be answered.  People employ ema to pray for good health, bountiful harvests, prosperity in business, success on exams, overall happiness and just about anything else you can imagine.

The literal translation of ema is “horse picture” and it is a tradition that dates back to feudal Japan when it was common for wealthy people to donate a horse to a shrine when making a prayer request.  Eventually the image of a horse on a wooden plaque became a symbolic representation of this ancient practice.

Today, you will find many different images on the ema at Tokyo area shrines and throughout Japan.  The image of the ema above was taken at Meiji Jingu Shrine and is indicative of how the ema are left at many shrines in the city.

I love the graphic shape of the ema and the scenes depicted can be quite colorful and fun.  Here are some examples that I found recently at Chiba Shrine.

Different ema are appropriate for different prayers.  Anyone can purchase an ema and many of the larger shrines in Tokyo have bilingual signs explaining the meaning behind each ema or have staff that can help you select one that is appropriate for your prayer.

The shrines in Tokyo are beautiful and they are open to everyone, regardless of faith.  If you are unsure of the proper etiquette when visiting take some time learn how to pay your respects at a shrine.

Image Credit:  Personal Collection