This small wooden ema (votive plaque) is painted with a white snake wrapped around a yellow, red, and green top next to small plants. The plaque is from 1989, which was the Year of the Snake, thus most ema made during this time would also feature snake designs. The top features the kanji character "fuku" (good luck) written in black on the bottom left side. In the upper left-hand corner, the characters say a New Year's greeting; at right side in the center, the characters say the name of the shrine from which this ema was purchased. There are two holes drilled at the top of the plaque through which an orange nylon cord is threaded to hang the ema.
Ema (literally "picture horse") are small wooden votive plaques on which Shinto practitioners write prayers or wishes and display at a shrine to petition the kami (spirits). The name derives from an ancient practice of donating horses to shrines for good favor; over time, people gave wooden plaques bearing pictures of horses instead. Today, ema can be decorated with any number of images, though the 12 signs of the zodiac are common during the New Year. The word "gan-i" (wish) is also usually painted on the side of the ema. Frequent wishes include success in work or on exams, marital happiness, to have children, and for good health.
The Japanese zodiac is divided into twelve blocks, each of which contains a group of years. Each block is given a name of an animal based on the ancient Chinese concept that time is based on these 12 units. Those individuals born during a particular year are said to inherit some of the personalities of that year's animal. Those born in the Year of the Snake are believed to be deep thinkers, who speak very little and are very wise. They are fortunate in money matters and are quite determined, hating to fail.
Shinto, meaning "Way of the Gods," can be understood as a collection of practices, attitudes, and institutions that express the Japanese people's relationship with their land and with the life cycles of the earth and humans. In the Shinto religion, which is indigenous to Japan, divinity is manifested within nature itself. Mountains, rivers, and trees, for example, were thought to be the holy residences of the deities, or kami. Shinto is sometimes seen more as a way of life rather than a religion by the Japanese due to its long historical and cultural significance.