A trek to the Takayama Inari Shrine in Tsugaru City, Aomori Prefecture reveals hundreds upon hundreds of stone, ceramic, and wooden statues of foxes. Once worshiped in homes and businesses for success and prosperity, they are now amassed in silence, sentinels to the passing of time.
I have written an article offering a detailed analysis of one shrine’s koema 小絵馬, small wooden prayer tablets. The article additionally provides a history of the research on koema that have focused not on illustrated prayers (as was traditional), but rather on written prayers, which is the form that predominates today. The article can be found in the Journal of Human Informatics which is published annually by The Institute for Research in Human Informatics at Tohoku Gakuin University. PDF link
Article: “A Comprehensive Survey of Small Votive Prayer Tablets” Journal of Human Informatics (人間情報学研究), Vol. 24, 2019, 15-34.
Definitely worth visiting, Miho Shrine located in Shimane Prefecture is the main shrine for Ebisu, one of the Seven Gods of Fortune. Ebisu, who is often pictured with a fishing rod in hand, brings luck to fishermen. The connection is strongly felt at Miho Shrine. The shrine was historically a stopping point for boats passing out to sea.
Votive prayer tablets. Many with wishes for a good catch or success in business.
An offering of a three dimensional replication of a ship for an abundant catch.
Anchors, knives, and other tools, having fallen into the depths of the ocean water, present a problem for fisherman. It breaks the taboo against dropping metal objects into the sea, something that is likely to enrage Ryujinsama, the serpent like water deity. Laying on the bottom, reflecting light, these lost articles known as usemono 失せ物 could scare of the fisherman’s catch. So what to do? Renderings of the lost articles are drawn and offered at the local shrine in order to appease the protectorate deities of the sea.
Hand drawn prayer offerings for a lost knife and hook are posted on the walls.
Commonly lost objects are anchors. We also see that more than one object may be lost. Note that the name of the ship is always written, but the dedicator’s name or the date are optional.
Department store display for Sanrio’s Hello Kitty goods. Shinto-like elements: 1. Back display in the shape of votive prayer tablet (絵馬 ema) with a Shinto shrine bell to ring when making a prayer 2. Hello Kitty doll costumed as a shrine maiden (巫女 miko) 3. Small case with image of Hello Kitty as shrine maiden performing a purification ritual 4. Pen case for success in studying and passing exams 5. Votive prayer tablet for writing a wish
At the Mikata Ishi Kannon Shrine in Fukui prefecture, people offer prayers to cure various ailments connected to hands/arms and feet/legs. They write their names and prayers on minature wooden votives in the shape of an arm or leg. In the past they would have offered their own hand carved votive. But now the votives are supplied by the shrine. Crutches on display attest to the healing power of the enshrined deity. Some visitors even dedicated their prosthetic limbs.
The faithful gather daily at Ishikiri Shrine in Osaka Prefecture to pray for among other things, recovery from illness or injury.
As seen from this example from Toyama, a stone roadside shrine has been completely covered with a straw matting and a plastic blue sheet to protect it from snow during the winter months.
Whereas in many parts of Japan the roadside statues of the Buddhist saint named “Jizo” is left open to the elements, the people of the Hokuriku region (Fukui, Ishikawa and Toyama prefectures) express their strong devotional ties to Buddhism by wrapping up the Jizo statues and shrines.
On the drive leading up to a farmhouse sits an old, moss covered stone shrine enshrining a stone statue of Jizo. The usually exposed front is covered with straw matting to protect the inside statue from the winter snow. This will be removed with the change of the seasons.
A closeup of the above photo. Even care is taken to ensure that Jizo is able to see out of the shrine by cutting a small window in the protective covering. Perhaps this is evidence of the local people’s strong affection for Jizo.
On February 3rd in homes throughout Japan, family members will walk through the rooms of their home throwing beans (mamemaki) in a purifying ritual. While tossing the beans family members will shout oni wa soto, fuku wa uchi (demons out, good luck in) as if to bring about fortuitous luck in the upcoming year. It is common for one person to
A bag of beans. While in some parts of Japan the beans used are soybeans, in the Tohoku region peanuts are commonly used. Pictured here is a bag of soybeans.
play the role of the oni (demon) in this ritual. Often the father of the household is relegated to this job. During this period of seasonal change, like others, was believed to have been a time when evil spirits and monsters gathered, and caused plagues and other disasters. Family members will also eat an amount of beans in accordance with their individual ages sometimes adding one. The addition of one bean may be a symbolic assurance of living another year or may reflect kazoedoshi (a traditional method of counting age in which the one year is counted for time in the womb). Beans are eaten so as to ward off evil and increase resistance to illness.
When purchasing beans at a store, a paper mask of an oni (demon) is provided as well.
An article (in Japanese) examining the traditional folk performances has been earlier published in the journal of the Folklore Society of Aomori Prefectures. (PDF)
「中野神楽におけるイエの祭り―三戸郡南郷村中野地区の事例から―」という論文を青森県民俗の会の 『青森県の民俗』 第四号に2004年に載せられました。ここで、改めて紹介します。(PDF)
「中野神楽におけるイエの祭り―三戸郡南郷村中野地区の事例から―」 『青森県の民俗』第四号, 2004年5月22日, 頁95～101.
An article (in Japanese) examining the one villages shrine system was previously published in Tohoku University’s journal The Bulletin of the Tohoku Culture Research Room.
An article (in Japanese) examining the acquisition of protective deities by a woman who was to become has been earlier published in the journal of the Folklore Society of Tohoku .
「津軽のカミサマの成巫過程―守り神を手がかりに―」という論文を東北民俗の会の 『東北民俗』第36輯 に載せられました。ここで、改めて紹介します。