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Ema Tablets at Japan Shrine Helping Visitors See Light at End of Tunnel

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Ema no Tunnel, which is a tunnel decorated with wooden votive tablets, is seen at Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture.

The scenes in which the characters of the 1960’s American sci-fi show called “The Time Tunnel” enter a black and white striped tunnel to travel through time has always resonated with me.

Whenever a person goes through a tunnel, they’re always excited about what is on the other side. I heard there was an Ema no Tunnel, which is a tunnel decorated with wooden votive tablets, at Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine in Kawagoe, Saitama Prefecture, so I decided to go and have a look.

I entered the shrine from the southern torii gate and saw a row of wooden structures shaped like votive tablets, forming a tunnel. If viewed from the south side, the dimness of the tunnel gives it a mysterious atmosphere. As I walked through, I was surrounded by thousands of votive tablets that had various wishes written on them, including wishes for a good marriage, health and an end to the pandemic.

“There might be about 30,000 tablets,” the chief priest, Yoshihisa Yamada, said.

The shrine built the tunnel in 2003 because it is believed that a Shinto god’s power grows as more people pray to it.

Since 2014, the shrine has held an annual festival called Enmusubi Furin, which are wind chimes that invoke romantic love, from early July to early September. This festival is as popular with the younger generation as the Ema no Tunnel.

There is also a wind chime corridor and a wind chime rack on the grounds of the shrine. Visitors can write their wishes on strips of paper and tie them to a wind chime.

However, the festival was canceled this year because of the pandemic.

“In the past, Japanese people believed the wind carried a person’s [romantic] thoughts,” Yamada said.

It is thought that when the wind blows causing the wind chime to ring, your thoughts would reach a Shinto god or your loved one.

Next, I looked at the tunnel from the north side, and I could feel the power that ran through the thousands of tablets.

It is thought the name Kawagoe comes from the phrase, “The place that can be reached by crossing the [Iruma] River.”

“Our ancestors have overcome hardships, such as massive fires and earthquakes, and have become stronger as a result,” Yamada said. “So, [once we overcome this], I believe there is a bright future ahead of us.”

As I neared the end of the tunnel, I could see a bright and sunny day on the other side.

Famous for sweet potatoes

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A sweet potato daruma doll is seen at Monzo-an Kuranomachi Store.

Kawagoe is famous for its sweet potatoes. On Dec. 1, Kawagoe Hikawa Shrine held its first ceremony to offer sweet potatoes to the gods and prayed for a good harvest and have their businesses prosper next year, after overcoming the pandemic. About 50 kinds of sweet potatoes and other goods were exhibited at the shrine.

In Kawagoe, there is a fondness for the local traditional sweet potato called Beniaka. It has a soft texture, it’s not too sweet and has a chestnut-like flavor. Tea made from this variety was among the offerings made at the shrine.

Kawagoe is sometimes referred to as Koedo, or small Edo, because parts of the area are reminiscent of the Edo period (1603-1867). I headed to the street where many warehouses called kurazukuri stand to take in my surroundings and enjoy some sweet potatoes.

At Monzo-an Kuranomachi Store, a confectionery that operates out of one of the warehouses, an extremely large “sweet potato daruma doll” welcomed me. Round cookies that look like slices of sweet potatoes also caught my eye. A festival float carrying a statue of Tokugawa Ieyasu, the first Shogun of Edo, was on display at Kawagoe matsuri-kaikan, or festival hall, across the street.

Located behind another confectionery called Kurazukuri Honpo Ichibangai Store is a coffee shop that has been designed to look like a merchant’s house from the Edo period. There, I had a parfait with Beniaka-flavored sweets in it. While eating my dessert, I recalled my discussions with Tetsuya Yamada, an 8th generation local farmer who presented 15 varieties of sweet potatoes at the shrine ceremony, and Barry Duell, leader of a local group for promotion of sweet potatoes in Kawagoe, who is an American living in Kawagoe.

“The Kawagoe area has the world’s largest variety of sweet potato products,” they said.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Various old-fashioned sweets are sold at a shop.