Ema boards, or wishing plaques, are a mainstay of Shintoism, but it can also be seen in use in some Buddhist temples. They have a rather interesting origin, allow me to impart.
The word ema is comprised of two kanji: 絵馬. The first 絵 for picture, and 馬 for horse. Horses are revered as “the vehicles of the Gods”, and it was customary during the Nara Period of Japanese history (AD 710-794), to present horses to shrines as offerings, in the hope the Gods would listen more closely to your prayer. Horses are of course rather expensive, so less well-to-do worshippers came up with the neat idea of substituting a live horse for ones made of clay, paper, and wood. From this, it developed into a wooden plaque adorned with the image of a horse.
Ema at Gotokuji temple, Tokyo.
In the Muromachi Period (1333-1573), it became fashionable to paint images other than horses onto the ema; the current zodiac animal associated with Chinese New Year (in 2017, this is the cock), a depiction of the shrine itself, or a Kami associated with it. Ema halls made a brief appearance in the Azuchi-Momoyama Period (1573-1603). These were galleries dedicated to the art work of the ema.
Ema adorned with monkeys (2016 Chinese zodiac) at Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto.
Up until the Edo Period (1603-1867), ema boards were large and expensive, and thus mostly unattainable. However, in the Edo Period, they were made smaller and available for purchase.
Modern ema boards.
Modern ema take all sorts of shapes and designs. Most are now mass produced, rather than hand painted, but there are some amazing designs! For example:
Heart shaped ema.
From Mitsuhachimingu shrine, Osaka.
Torii shaped ema.
From Fushimi Inari, Kyoto.
Maneki neko ema.
From Gotokuji temple, Tokyo.
Fudo Myoo Sama ema.
From Naritasan Fukusenji, Okinawa.
From Kanayama shrine, Kawasaki.
You’ll also find ema adorned with pop culture (such as Hello Kitty), shrines, horses, and flowers.
As interesting as the history is, it’s pointless of me to impart without telling you how to use them. It’s simple; buy one from the shrine shop (and check out the other omamori they have), write your wish on the back, and hang it up with the other ema. As far as wishes go, the sky is the limit. You can wish for anything! Common wishes include luck in exams, happy marriages, money, and good health. They will stay where you hang them until the new year, when they are taken and burned, sending your wish to the heavens for the Kami to look over (this is part of wider New Years celebrations). It’s an inexpensive practice (around 500-800 yen per board), and a worthwhile cultural experience.
Fox shaped ema at Fushimi Inari shrine, Kyoto.
Custom used to dictate that you write your wish over the picture, and your details on the back, however, most people just write everything on the blank side so the picture isn’t ruined. As far as details, you can just write your name and the city or country you come from, rather than sensitive information like your address. Whilst it’s rude to look at other peoples wishes, it’s worth scanning the ema for beautiful artwork; some people take the time to draw on their ema (just don’t touch or read them).
From Sumiyoshi shrine, Fukuoka.
Another idea is to keep them as a souvenir. A lot of shrines and temples know foreigners like to keep them, and some will offer you a bag to put them in. It’s a nice reminder of your visit; I have at least one from each shrine and temple I’ve ever visited.