Ita-ema Answer Our Otaku Prayers

The proper way to ring in the Japanese New Year--after eating mochi, drinking sake and watching Kouhaku Uta Gassen, that is--is hatsumoude, your first visit to a Shinto shrine. And if you're going to make a pilgrimage anyway, shouldn't it be at the otaku holy land? This afternoon we went to pay our respects at Kanda Shrine that is located just outside Akihabara.

We were met with a Comiket-sized crowd that continued as far as we could see. Police had the streets blocked off as people spilled into the middle of the road. You'd think they were lined up to buy dojinshi! But no, most of them were salary men here to ask for good fortune in the New Year. As we made our way to the front, we found that our otaku brothers had already made their mark.

Off to the side of the main shrine is the emaden, a space for hanging ema, which are small wooden plaques where visitors write their wishes and dreams for the Shinto gods. Think of it as a divine bulletin board. Most postings are down-to-earth--prayers for love, money, health, or good grades at school. Otaku are a different kind of pragmatic.

Visitors to Kanda Shrine were more interested in receiving another Madoka movie, a third season of Ika Musume or tickets to a talk show of their favorite voice actor. Altruistic observers wished Muse success at their Endless Parade concert in February. Even if you couldn't read Japanese, it was obvious which ema were written by anime fans. 

Yes, you could spot the ita-ema from across the shrine grounds! The people around us all stopped to appreciate the dedication and love carved into each illustration. Children and elderly alike found themselves in awe. I like to think of them as one-panel dojinjishi. I'd buy them all if they were for sale!

Alas, only the gods may claim them. When the time comes, the priests will gather up the ema and burn them in a mighty fire as offering. To think, the artist put so much time into their work knowing it would be turned to ash. Sometimes the act of creation is its own reward--especially if you have a divine audience.