Sunday, March 01, 2009

Ema - Japanese Prayer Plaques

One of things we love to do when we go to Japan is collect 'ema' from Shinto shrines we visit. Ema are small wooden plaques upon which people write prayers or wishes they want the gods, or kami, to grant: getting good exam scores, having a safe and easy delivery, finding love, winning a sporting event, etc.

People hang them up at the shrine in a dedicated place, and each shrine has its own unique ema imagery — sometimes more than one.

Animal themes are common: cows and oxen, horses, fox, pigs and boars, rabbits, and birds (often crows and cranes) are easy to find on ema as are the 12 animals associated with the Chinese zodiac. Much to my great disappointment, however, monkey-themed ema are incredibly hard to come by, unless I would guess, you happen to be in Japan during the Year of the Monkey, then I would imagine they are all over the place. Next time I go to Japan, I would really love for it to be in the year of the monkey!

Most ema are painted, some by hand, while others appear to be silk screened. Some shrines sell ema that are blank on both sides so you can paint your own. And some ema, like the fox-faced ema pictured above, seem to be made so that people can embellish them. Ema range in price from 300-1500 yen or about $4-20. The one above is one of the more expensive ones. I think it cost 1200 yen ($15).

Ema tend to be fairly uniform in size and shape, typically about 3 x 5 inches in the shape of well, a house. But every once in a while we came across ones that were pentagonal, square, round, covered in fabric/paper, burned, 3-dimensional and faces with jaws that clack.

Some shrines have larger than life ema — 18 feet across and 10 feet tall. While others have ema of various sizes tucked into unusual places like eaves and at the writing desks.

I love looking at the inscriptions people leave on them, as well as the variety of ema hanging at each individual shrine. They range from brand spanking new to well-weathered and apparently old ones. These Navy-themed ones were unusual. There were no other ema like them at the shrine where we saw them and looked entirely handpainted in the DIY tradition, which is pretty uncommon itself, so these modernish, yet obviously weathered military-themed ones really stood out.

When you buy an ema that you aren't going to write on and hang up, the proprietor, who is I think some sort of religious functionary-in-training, carefully places it in a white paper bag and hands it to you with both hands and a bow of the head. Very, very rarely — the priestly guy blesses it. And also very rarely, they assume you are actually going to write on it and hang it up even though you are obviously a really big strange white person who isn't there to worship.

I'm not sure exactly how many ema Mr. Field Notes and I have collectively acquired during our trips to Japan, but they could easily fill a wall of our house. One of the 'home improvements' on our agenda this spring is to hang them all. Finding the right place is a bit of a challenge because they have to be kept out of dog reach, being that they are wood and one little vandal, Yuki, still has a penchant for gnawing on wood. The other challenge is how to hang them in such a way that we don't end up putting 200 holes in the wall.


Cecile/DreamCreateRepeat said...

Sounds like you have an interesting challenge ahead of you....nice post for those of us who dream of a trip to Japan some day!

Carapace said...

Oh, what a fantastic collection! This is why I love your blog, you always give so much context for your Nifty Stuff!

eepmon said...

Nice read. Thanks for sharing your information on the Japanese prayer plaques!