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The art of Ema

If you have ever been to a Shinto shrine such as Nezu Shrine, you have probably seen the wooden plaques/tablets on which people write their wishes. They are called Ema (絵馬), of which the meaning of the Chinese characters hint to a quite different thing. Literally translated it means picture of a horse. In the Nara period (AD 710 – 794), people gave an offering of an actual horse to a Shrine. It is not hard to imagine difficulties with this kind of ritual. First of all, horses were expensive and taking care of the horses at the shrine was also burdensome. In the Heian period (AD 794 – 1185), the custom changed towards giving horses made of wood, paper or clay. By the Edo period (AD 1603 – 1868), the ritual got updated towards what we see now, wooden plaques on which you write a wish.

On the first wooden plaques, there used to be the image of a horse. Gradually, other animals were depicted as well. Nowadays, almost everything can be pictures on the wooden plaque, often it has to do with the shrine, such as the picture of a fox for Inari Shrines. Also often occurring is the current Chinese zodiac sign. Ema are sold for various occasions, from success in work, exams, health and so on.

Making these Ema has become a true art form. So much so that they are sold outside of the shrines, at a shop such as one that you can find in Yanaka called Emado (絵馬堂). This in fact a small eatery/bar where you have a counter and a small table in the back. You can enjoy a drink at night or lunch surrounded by Ema.

Ema displayed outside Emado

Ema at Gotokuji temple

In practice

Have lunch during the weekend or enjoy a drink in the evening at Emado.
Open Tuesday-Friday: 17:00-22:00 (closed on Mondays), Weekends: 12:00-15:00 and 17:00-22:00.
Address: 7-6-6 Yanaka, Taito-ku, Tokyo 110-0001. Phone 03-3827-7573