When you visit a Shinto shrine in Japan, you'll see lots of wooden plaques hanging all over the place. These are called "ema" ( 絵馬) and are pieces of wood which visitors of the shrine can write down their prayers and wishes for the "kami" (deity) of the shrine to receive.
Historically, people brought animals (mostly horses) to the shrines as donations to gain good luck, but over time this was replaced with pictures of horses and other animals on the Ema. During the early 1600s the Ema also became a vehicle for artists to display their design, and "ema halls" were established to showcase their work.
Ema are sold at nearly every Shinto shrine for about $5-10. Japanese people typically buy these plaques to pray for success in work, school exams, good health, and marital bliss. You'll see lots of students visit the shrines and write down their prayers on the plaques during school exam season.
Some shrines specialize in certain types of plaques. The ones you see above and below are from Fushimi-Inari in Kyoto. Fushimi-Inari (my favorite Shinto shrine) is known for having thousands of "tori" gates and their deity is a fox (more about Fushimi in future posts).
To write down your wishes on an Ema, all you have to do purchase one at the shrine and write your wish and name on the blank side.
Ema are typically hung up where they can easily be spotted or around a sacred location on the shrine grounds. The picture above is taken at Meiji-Jingu (a shrine in Tokyo) and all the ema are hung up around a large sacred cedar tree.
The Shinto shrine can also prepare special Ema for you (picture above) which have your name written on the front. Next time you go to Japan, make sure to write your wishes on an Ema!
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Nagano is not often spoken of as a primary tourist destination in Japan. But a couple of notable claims-to-fame make Nagano a very interesting place to visit indeed.