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.
From a 1980s era pamphlet with the aim of discouraging delinquency, an image of a male high school student (juvenile delinquent). [Translated from the original Japanese text]
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.
Re-thatching a roof: Community work 屋根葺き：共同作業
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.