Ema for praying for success at school

Ema at Suga Shrine in Tokyo

Sending your wishes to the spirits

If you have ever visited a Shinto religion shrine, you may have noticed these small wooden boards hanging. They are called ema. Japanese people believe that the kami (god or spirit) housed in the shrine will grant your wish if you write it on them. Typical wishes are getting into a specific school, living happily with your family, or being blessed with good children.  If you have a wish you really want to be granted, you can do some research and chose a shrine accordingly: some shrines and their kami have specific powers like granting prosperity to your business, finding love (like in Kamigamo shrine), succeeding in exams, etc…

The word ema (絵馬) literally means ‘picture of a horse’ in Japanese. Here is why.

white horse that is belived as the god riding when who comes down to the human world

The origins of ema

The origin of ema dates backs to the Nara period (710~794). According to the Japanese legend, a kami came down to the human world, riding a white horse. These horses, usually white, are called shinme. An ancient record states that Japanese people believed horses carried the messages of the kami. They offered horses to them, sometimes in the hope the animals would transmit their requests during hard times.  Horses being very expensive, the  Japanese started offering clay or wooden horse figures instead. It ended up being a small wooden board with a picture of a horse drawn on it.

The mirror Emas in Kawai Shrine of Kyoto

There are many kinds of ema!

Nowadays ema come in various designs.  It can be different according to the shrine. For example, some shrines have a belief that eels and flying fishes are messengers for the kami and they forbid the eating of these fish during the ritual. At the Kawai Shrine of Kyoto, where the God for women’s beauty is enshrined, there is a mirrored ema that was carved in ancient times. The people worship the kami, then do their makeup using the mirrored ema. After that, they write down their wish for beauty on the back.

Do not forget to greet the kami before purchasing your ema

How to write your wish on an ema

First, pay your respects to the kami and silently introduce yourself by telling them your name and address. Then, purchase your ema. The picture side is the front and you write your wish on the back side. It is better to write it with a permanent marker (sometimes provided by the shrine). When writing down your wish,  imagine yourself offering a horse to the kami. Write your wish clearly, then add at least your name and age. By doing that, the kami will easily find you back and reply to your wish!


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5Banchi Sugacho, Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0018

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Writer / Translator

I’m French but I’ve been living in Tokyo for many years during which I had a lot of meaningful and thrilling experiences. I’m curious and I love learning new things. My hobbies are kick boxing, scuba diving, Japanese traditional painting, etc… As a writer, I’d like to share information about less touristic, more authentic places. I will also write about all the fun and cultural activities unique to Japan.


Address 5番地 Sugacho, Shinjuku, Tokyo 160-0018
Access 6min on foot from Yotsuya Sanchome station (Marunouchi Line)
Phone 03-3351-7023