5 Faves: Ema (Prayer Plaques)

In a similar vein to manhole covers, I’ve spent the past few years collecting pictures of ema. Ema are prayer plaques, found at nearly every shrine in the country (yes, I really DO need to get a hobby!). For a small fee, visitors can write their hopes, dreams, wishes or prayers on them and leave them hanging on a board or a tree near the main hall of the shrine. Tokyo’s Meiji Jingu boasts ema written in multiple languages, a reflection of the many many travelers who pass through those grounds. Small neighborhood shrines often have Japanese-only ema, with prayers for good health and successful school exams the dominant requests.

But it’s not really the written side of the ema that I find most interesting, but the varied artwork on the front. Here are a few of my favorite prayer plaque designs:

1. Dazaifu Tenmangu Shrine (Fukuoka) – Dedicated to the scholar Michizane, who was banished from the Imperial court back in the 8th century, Dazaifu Tenmangu is best known for its plum blossoms. This small city an hour’s train ride south of Fukuoka can feel a bit overrun in the early spring, but the wine and fuschia-colored blooms make the trip worthwhile.

Ema at Dazaifu Tenmangu
Ema at Dazaifu Tenmangu

2. Fushimi Inari Shrine (Kyoto) – Inari shrines are guarded by foxes, allegedly the messengers of the rice god(dess) who is enshrined there. At Fushimi’s inari shrine, the fox motif is taken one step further as each prayer plaque is cut in the shape of the wily creature. Not only can you write a message on the back but you can customize your fox’s face as well.

Fox ema at Kyoto's Fushimi Inari Shrine
Fox ema at Kyoto’s Fushimi Inari Shrine

3. Takachiho Shrine (Miyazaki) – Deep in the mountains of Miyazaki prefecture, Takachiho is considered the birthplace of the Japanese gods. Their stories and the creation myths of Japan are told here nightly through yokagura dances at the shrine’s performance hall. This plaque features Amaterasu, known as the Sun Goddess. She hid herself in a cave after an altercation with her brother and it took the will of the Gods (and some pretty raunchy humor) to make her emerge again and bring light back to the world.

A prayer plaque in Takachiho
A prayer plaque in Takachiho

4. Noboribetsu Onsen shrines (Hokkaido) – There are myriad little shrines around the town of Noboribetsu Onsen in southern Hokkaido, nearly all of them dedication to oni (demons) of some form or another. This little shrine sat in the center of the town near the ropeway to the bear park and featured some unusual 3-D prayer plaques.

A rare 3-D ema in Hokkaido
A rare 3-D ema in Hokkaido

5. Toshogu Shrine (Nikko) – No list would be complete without something halfway cute. I’ve heard there are various anime ema but I’ve yet to come across any. Rather, the “cutest” prayer plaque I’ve ever found would have to be the three monkeys from Nikko. You can find these simians – swearing off evil in all its forms – carved all over the Shinyosha (sacred stable) but for a few hundred yen, you can purchase a prayer plaque and take these characters home with you. (Well, you’re supposed to hang it, but no one would mind.)

Monkeys on an ema at Nikko Toshogu
Monkeys on an ema at Nikko Toshogu

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