Writing An Ema At A Shinto Shrine
Ema, when written in Japanese is made of two Japanese Characters. One character for picture and the other for horse. Horses were seen since ancient times as the “vehicle of the gods.” During the Nara period, 710-784 CE, people would donate horses to the shrines. They felt that the donation would make the gods happy. Happy gods would then answer their wishes. The poor could not give a horse, so the custom began of carving a horse on a piece of wood, clay, or painting on paper. This custom survived and changed through the years.
During the Muromachi period, 1336-1573 AD, some shrines began to display other things beside horses. The Inari shrines, for example, displayed foxes. During the Azuchi-Momoyama period, 1568-1603, there began to be giant halls where artists could come and display their art work. This was something like our modern-day art galleries.
Finally, out of all this, the modern custom of the Ema was born. During the Edo period, small plaques were sold for people to write their wishes on. Whatever your wishes, your hopes, and dreams, you could write them on a wooden plaque and they were placed in the shrines.
Now these plaques are a little larger, and the art work more elaborate. The people come great distances to write their hopes and wishes on an Ema and have it placed in a Shinto Shrine. Since the mingling of Buddhism and Shinto beliefs, on occasion you will see them hanging in some Buddhist temples. This is not a regular practice though.
Currently the Emas are evolving yet again. It is the custom in some shrines to use the pictures of the current zodiac sign. If it is the year of the goat, for example, you will see goat art work on the Ema plaque. Some plaques are even being made in the shape of the current Zodiac sign. Thus you could say that the story of the Ema is still evolving and changing.