These hashioki replicate the small Japanese wooden plaques known as ema.
The word ema is written with the Japanese characters for picture (e) followed by the kanji for horse (ma). The names relates back an ancient Japanese custom of donating a white horse to a Shinto shrine in anticipation or gratitude for a wish fulfillment. Over time the donation of an actual horse was replaced with a donation of a wooden plaque with a picture of a horse, and eventually morphed into wooden plaques with various pictures that relate to the shrine where they are sold, or seasonal or holiday references. The first hashioki happens to depict a horse, but the designs on these ema actually represent signs of the zodiac cycle.
The ema of some shrines are associated with particular wishes. For example, students traditionally visit Tenjin Shinto shrines, which are associated with a ninth century scholar named Sugawara no Michizane, to post an ema before a big exam. The sales of ema are an important source of income for many shrines.
Ema are generally sold for the equivalent of US $5. They’re usually about 6” wide and 4” high, and a hole at the top with a cord strung through it. The thin wood ema has a painted picture on one side, usually with the name of the shrine or location, and the back side is blank. At some shrines a shrine employee will write your wish or prayer on the back of the ema in calligraphy, but most people simply write their own wish with a Sharpie marker. Then the ema is posted on one of the fence-like display boards at the entrance to the shrine beside ema posted by hundreds of others.One of the sensory delights of visiting a Shinto shrine in Japan is listening to the gentle clapping in the breeze of hundreds of wooden ema as you approach the Shrine.
After hashioki, ema are my favorite Japanese souvenir. I’m not the only one who feels this way; there are always lots of other people, both Westerners and Japanese, slipping ema into their handbag instead of mounting them at the shrine. We hang our ema on along the rafters of our wooden screened porch, and hearing them softly bang against the wooden supports on a windy day always transports me back to Japan.