The Japanese Zodiac Animals and Ema Prayer Plaques

”A horse is a horse, of course, of course………”

~ Mr. Ed

Without contradicting the world’s most famous talking horse, let me just add that sometimes horses are also small pieces of wood, at least here in Japan. I offer exhibit A:

ema kyoto japan

The petite wooden prayer plaques in the photo to the left are called ema and in Japan they’re a common sight at shrines and temples.

Anyone can buy one for the equivalent of around $5 US and write a message on the back and the staff will add it to the others, so that the gods will take notice and hopefully grant the writer’s wishes.  Tje Japanese zodiac animals are but one motif of many that you’ll find on this small wooden boards.

The Evolution of Ema in Japan

Centuries ago though, parishioners offered horses to shrines to gain the gods’ favor. On a practical level, horses were valuable assets, and they were also thought of as divine messengers. So offering a horse was seen as a natural way for prosperous members of the flock to express their faith and offer their support.

But over time, the practice faded-after all, horses are beyond the means of most of us, and then there’s the issue of schlepping one to the shrine!

So at some point, some enterprising, innovative soul came up with the idea of simply portraying a horse on a piece of wood that could serve as a stand-in for the real thing and be sold at places of worship for a nominal cost.

Suddenly anyone could offer a horse, and in addition to the image of a horse on the front, the reverse side of the ‘ema’ plaque became a useful place for the the donor to write their wishes(often for good health, with prayers for exam success also a mainstay these days).

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If you’re looking for Japanese good luck charms, you might well have something other than ema in mind. Such charms, unlike ema, are kept, at least for a time, and are carried on one’s person or kept in one’s car and often come in very small, decorative drawstring pouches with kanji characters on them. They are also often protection against specific dangers, such as traffic accidents, etc.

You can see this rich history in modern-day ema if you look at their shape and at the name itself. There’s no hard and fast rule governing what a prayer plaque can look like, and many places these days strive to stand out by creating distinct styles or designs.

The most common though, are the sort in the photos in this post, a pentagonal piece of wood with a peaked top. This represents the roof of the barn that the horse is sheltered in. Originally, ema quite predictably depicted horses, and the name literally means ‘picture-horse’ with 絵(‘e’)conveying the meaning of a picture and 馬(‘ma’)representing a horse.

Over time places started to create 絵馬 with a variety of other illustrations, depending on that particular temple or shrine’s own history. The Kyoto shrine where I took the photo below, for example, has a strong connection to inoshihi(boar), so you’ll find an 絵馬 with a cute version of a tusker.

Ema and Japanese Zodiac Signs

Ema also often depict the creature in the ‘eto’ animal zodiac whose turn it is in a given year of the twelve year cycle. That’s why Kyoto’s Goh Shrine, also popularly known as the boar shrine, displays a giant ema with the animal of the annum on the side of one of its buildings. The picture below will tell you which animal’s turn it is this year, if you don’t already know.

ema

The boar by the way, along with the monkey above, is one of the animals in this zodiac, and yes, this particular shrine is especially festive when the Year of the Boar rolls around!

The horse is also in the animal zodiac lineup, and so in horse years, a great number of ema happen to be especially true to their name and their roots.

Here’s a nice example of all of the animals of the zodiac shown together, on a furoshiki cloth that features them on ema with a traditional repeat pattern called asanoha as a base.

I happen to be a horse, born in 1966.  If you don’t know what animal you are, check this list of the animals and their respective years:

Rat/Mouse

2008, 1996, 1984, 1972, 1960, 1948, 1936, 1924

Ox/Cow  

2009, 1997, 1985, 1973, 1961, 1949, 1937, 1925

Tiger  

2010, 1998, 1986, 1974, 1962, 1950, 1938, 1926

Rabbit 

2011, 1999, 1987, 1975, 1963, 1951, 1939, 1927

Dragon  

2012, 2000, 1988, 1976, 1964, 1952, 1940, 1928

Snake 

2013, 2001, 1989, 1977, 1965, 1953, 1941, 1929

Horse 

2014, 2002, 1990, 1978, 1966, 1954, 1942, 1930, 1918

Sheep

2015, 2003, 1991, 1979, 1967, 1955, 1943, 1931, 1919

Monkey  

2016, 2004, 1992, 1980, 1968, 1956, 1944, 1932, 1920

Rooster/Chicken 

2005, 1981, 1969, 1957, 1945, 1933, 1921

Dog 

2006, 1982, 1970, 1958, 1946, 1934, 1922

Boar

2007, 1983, 1971, 1959, 1947, 1935, 1923

Soooo………..What’s your sign?

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Originally posted 2016-09-15 14:31:11.

There’s a Rabbit in the Moon and he’s making mochi!

What?!  There’s a rabbit in the moon?!

Growing up in the states, when I looked at the moon I saw a man there. I never thought about what he was doing or how he got there, but there he was. I could make out his face, and I took it for granted that other cultures saw the same sort of imagery.

Certainly, Americans aren’t alone in seeing him. But when I moved to Japan, I was surprised to find out that according to folklore, there’s actually a rabbit up there!

It turns out that it’s also quite common to see a rabbit in the moon, as it appears in folklore throughout East Asia and also also in ancient Aztec mythology. And so if you’re looking for rabbit fabric with an Asian flair, it’s likely that you’ll come across motifs connected with this legend.

This rabbit has taken on special characteristics in the Japanese version of the legend, and is often shown in distinctly Japanese scenes, mostly associated with autumn and the harvest moon. The furoshiki cloth above features such a scene, with traditional autumn grasses. Click on the photo to see it and others on amazon. Can you spot the rabbit?

In other posts I looked at some of the celebrated ‘seven grasses of autumn’ which appear frequently on furoshiki cloths and other textiles. The harvest moon is also a common element in such motifs, as are rabbits, playfully hopping through the grasses in the glow of the moon. This has made these designs quite popular among rabbit lovers, as well as those with an interest in Japan and Japanese fabrics.

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The rabbit has quite a big role in ‘tsukimi’ moon-viewing festivities and designs such as the Japanese noren split curtain below because he has a place in folklore that forever ties him with the moon in a very significant way.

The rabbit in the moon came to be there, according to Japanese legend, because he passed a test and demonstrated his virtue when he was among three animals called upon to perform an act of charity for someone in need. He literally threw himself on a cooking fire in the service of another, a sacrifice that went went beyond the earnest actions of the others.

If the rabbit hadn’t been the one to commit this supremely selfless act, according to Japanese myth there might instead be a frog or a fox in the moon and on your fabric!

But before you feel too sorry for the others, I should mention that the rabbit isn’t idle up there. He seems to be enjoying his work, but he is certainly keeping busy. He’s making mochi rice cakes, pounding the rice, which has been placed in a mortar.

I can say from personal experience that it’s harder than it looks!

Neighborhoods often have mochi rice cake pounding events during the first few days of the new year, and I have taken part and given the mochi a few good whacks when folks are taking turns at it, and I can say that it would take some stamina and technique to see the whole process through from start to finish.

Not only is the mallet heavy, but the person swinging it needs to take great care in their timing. Accuracy isn’t a big challenge, as the big blob of sticky, pounded rice is an easy target.

But rhythm is crucial because there’s teamwork involved, as a second person is adding water a little at a time and turning the mochi-in-the-making in between impacts so that it won’t stick to the mallet and so it all gets pounded into the same consistency.

furoshiki

The first time someone passed the mallet to me I underestimated its heft because the welcoming, diminutive elderly lady who put it in my hands had been pounding away with great gusto and had made it look easy! The gentleman who was turning the mochi in the stone mortar as I wielded the mallet showed great faith in a novice’s ability to avoid his fingers and quite nimbly stayed out of the mallet’s way, which all added up to a wonderful time with friendly people, delicious mochi with nary a mishap.

Here’s a short video of some pros pounding mochi during an event at a famous old mochi shop in Nara. They’re showing off their well honed skills here, working at a fast pace and doing stunts to thrill the crowd who, like me, had likely never seen turbocharged mochi pounding like this!

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Like the rabbits in the above furoshiki, there are a couple of guys swinging mallets together, and at one point a third even joins in, but usually just one person pounds at a time, for obvious safety reasons. This virtuoso performance is capped by the serving of fresh mochi rice cakes to an appreciative throng of customers.

The mochi in the video is a beautiful green hue because Japanese mugwort(yomogi)has been added. This is lot of fun to watch.  Just don’t try it at home!

You might get the chance to try it for yourself if you head to a Japanese culture festival, as some are held overseas, too. But whether you ever hold the mallet or not, don’t forget to give the next full moon a good look-you might be surprised by what looks back at you!

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Originally posted 2016-09-03 15:05:27.

Japan’s Seven Grasses of Autumn Part 2

Could you identify the the tall grass depicted in the closeup of the furoshiki in my last post? I mentioned it earlier in that article, and it’s none other than Japanese pampas grass. It’s a mainstay in fall season motifs, often paired with bush clover.

It’s a tall, delicate grass with a lovely ‘tail’ at the top that gives it one of its names in Japanese, obana, which literally means ‘ tail flower.’ And it does look like a horse’s tail, with its chestnut color and gentle swaying as it catches an autumn breeze.

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It’s also known as susuki, a name you can remember by associating it with the common surname ‘Suzuki’ and changing the pronunciation slightly so that the first two syllables sound alike.

Here are closeups of two furoshiki cloths with fall season motifs that include both bush clover and susuki.

Its height and the way its delicate tassels shimmer in the light make Japanese pampas grass a fixture in classical verse that has so movingly and vividly captured the essence of autumn over the centuries. This ethereal quality is used to great effect on fabrics like these, which depict night scenes with a luminous harvest moon as the centerpiece.

And the moon plays a central role in the furoshiki below, which also highlights our third grass. Kikyo are bellflowers, and it seems that hair ornament designers are as taken by them as textile artists and poets. Their beautiful purple is the inspiration for the overall color scheme of this charming scene with rabbits jumping in the moonlight:

Look closely and you’ll notice bush clover and Japanese pampas grass, and a pair of rabbits jumping in the moon’s glow.  By the time a typically hot and humid Japanese summer starts to wind down I inevitably start to look forward to autumn’s cool breezes and all of its other charms, including these traditional symbols of the season.

As I write these words on a sultry late August Kyoto evening, I’m reminded that another glorious autumn isn’t far away!

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Originally posted 2016-08-21 14:52:53.