Ema – tangible prayers

Leiden’s Sieboldhuis Museum currently has an exhibition on Ema. Like the far larger “Cool Japan” exhibition, the Sieboldhuis exhibition is part of the Leiden-Asia-Year celebrations and activities.


The canal house now called Sieboldhuis, was once the home of German physician and botanist Philipp Franz von Siebold. He was sent to Dejima by the Dutch and even took part in the yearly mission to the Shogun’s court at Edo.

On the ground floor of the house, an introductory video about the man, his Japanese visit, his legacy and museum provides background information. Other rooms at this level show part of his Japanese collection.

2017 sieboldhuis casper faassenOther floors in this museum house temporary exhibitions. When I visited, there were beautiful photos on show on the first floor. “Fleeting Images” show works created by local artist cum photographer Casper Faassen.

The exhibition I specifically wanted to see, can be visited at the museum’s top floor till early June 2017. “Ema, tangible prayers”, contains nearly two-hundred Japanese prayer tablets from a private collection.

The history, custom and recent developments are explained. Ema are sold at shrines and temples. People can write a prayer or message on these wooden plaques. These are then left hanging in or near the temple, shrine, or holy place. There are Shinto ema, as well as Buddhist ones.

2017 sieboldhuis ema exhibition 2Most ema are related to specific illnesses and cures for which people visit specific temples and shrines. The exhibition shows plaques bearing images of shrines, animals, Japanese zodiac signs and other images related to illnesses and cures.

There are images related to eye-diseases, infertility but also abortions. It seems a more appropriate way of reaching closure than what many western countries offer. There are also three-dimensional ema and recent ema dealing with AIDS.

The exhibition is not just about health, sickness, seeking cures. It also shows ema for those wishing a flashy car, true love, heaps of money, good fortune, good looks. Of course, visitors have the chance to write their own wish or prayer on ema available near the exit. These can be hung on the wall, which was quite full when I was at the museum.

So if you visit “Cool Japan”, the Netherland’s oldest Hortus Botanicus, or Leiden’s charming old town centre, why not call at the Sieboldhuis Museum as well, to add your own ema to its exhibition wall?

Sieboldhuis Museum, “Ema – tangible prayers” can be visited till 11th of June 2017

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