What is a Mikoshi in Japanese Culture?
Have you ever seen a picture of an ornate carriage with royalty or royal cargo inside that is transported on people’s shoulders? Many cultures have these, and Japan is no different. In English, they are known as palanquins, sedan chairs, or covered litters. The original Sanskrit word was palyanka, which means “bed” or “couch.” It’s paalakee in Hindi, balankuin in Arabic, jiàozi in Mandarin, and mikoshi in Japanese.
In Japan, mikoshi are essentially highly decorated miniature shrine replicas on long poles that contain a deity. Mikoshi have been used for centuries to transport Shinto deities from one temple to another. There are reportedly eight million deities in the Shinto religion, and each one is thought to reside in a certain area of the country. Once a year, they are brought out to the community in a show of pride, honor, and tradition. In the old days, they also sometimes made an appearance to ward off evil, such as calamities and plagues. These days, mikoshi only come out during festivals and have become known as matsuri mikoshi.
Mikoshi is written in the kanji characters 神輿.The first character means “god” or “deity,” and the second one means “palanquin,” or “royal litter.” It often has the honorific prefix “o-” (お)and is called omikoshi お神輿.While mikoshi can be considered portable shrines in Japan, the word literally means “divine palanquin.” The emphasis is not on the shrine itself, but on the fact that an important deity is within the miniature shrine.
Some other Japanese words associated with mikoshi include: kami (god), matsuri (festival), taiko (drums), omikuji (paper fortunes), kagura (Shinto music), ujiko (local worshippers), hanten or happi (festival garb), mikoshi dako (mikoshi humps), and wasshoi (heave-ho!).
Mikoshi, Past and Present
The first recorded mention of a mikoshi in Japan was in the 8th century. It is said that Hachiman, a deity housed at the Usa Hachiman shrine, was transported from Kyushu to Nara as the Great Buddha statue was being erected at the Tōdai temple.
In the old days, mikoshi processions were a way for Shinto clergy to engage in public relations with the community and give the townspeople a chance to interact with their local god. Mikoshi were also sometimes paraded around by monks who wanted to challenge secular authorities. These days, the energy of the mikoshi spectators and carriers can be quite jovial. In fact, compared to earlier times, the atmosphere nowadays is more about revelry than sacred solemnity.
The mikoshi bearers call out a chant or song in unison and they often shake the shrine or travel in a zig zag line. Some say this is to exemplify the unpredictable and mercurial nature of the gods. Others say they want to provide the gods and audience some entertainment. Either way, the energy and excitement are palpable!
More Mikoshi Facts
The mikoshi shrine is usually made of lacquered wood and has detailed carvings. The structure includes extravagant motifs and an elegant roof. The roof usually has a stylized golden phoenix perched on it. It’s no wonder they are expensive. They can cost upwards of $100,000 to build!
The shrine sits atop two or four wooden poles that bearers carry on their shoulders. Up to 30 people might band together to carry the mikoshi because they are incredibly heavy—up to a ton! The heaviest one weighs 4.5 tons and requires 300 people to carry it (the Tomioka Hachimangu Shrine in Fukagawa, Tokyo). It was only after World War II that women were allow to help carry the mikoshi.
Each team or club (ujiko) associated with a local shrine has special attire to wear with their mikoshi. Mikoshi outfits include hachimaki headband, tabi socks, and a short cotton overcoat called a happi or hanten.