Ema are wooden plaques you might buy at a shrine or temple where you’re encouraged to write your wish on and then leave it at the shrine or temple in the hope that it comes true.
This is a Shinto custom and thus can be found at Shinto shrines all over Japan. However, as the traditions of Buddhism and Shinto have been combined over the years, it is not unique to Shinto shrines. You can also find them at Buddhist temples too.
Ema are a nice way for Shrines or Temples to raise funds as each one can cost around 500-1000y, or AU$6-12.
History of Ema
The word ‘Ema’ is written with of two Kanji: 絵馬; the one for “picture” and the one for “horse“.
Horses were seen as the “vehicles of gods” (神の乗り物） and during the Nara period (AD 710 to 794) people donated horses to shrines so that the gods would be more likely to listen to their prayers and fulfill wishes. However, horses were expensive and people who couldn’t afford it used horse figures made of wood, clay or paper instead. This was how the wooden wishing plaques, traditionally with a with a picture of a horse on them were born and are still used today.
Nowadays there are all sorts of pictures displayed. The current year’s zodiac is a very common choice, or the picture of a god or spirit that’s connected to the shrine, or even a picture of the shrine itself. Even characters from famous anime are used occasionally as they appeal to the more younger generation.
To fill out a wish on an ema is quite simple, all you need is a texta and a few hundred yen which you donate to the shrine in exchange for the ema. You then write out your wish on the rear side of the wood and hang it on the shrine’s ema wall. All the wishes from visitors are removed periodically and burnt so as to send your wish to the heavens.