Mikoshi (Portable shrine) (神輿)

A mikoshi or shinyo refers to a litter on which a divine spirit temporarily rides when the divine spirit moves to a place where the sacred litter is lodged during a festival celebrated by shrines in Japan. Since it is a litter, it usually refers to an object that is carried on the shoulders of bearers to be moved but, it also refers to the other objects of different shapes that are placed on a float and pulled by people. Depending on the festival, there are occasions when dashi (festival cars, float), hoko (long-handled spears), danjiri (decorative portable shrines) and yatai (float) accompany the mikoshi's route.

Mikoshi' is made up with a word 'koshi (litter)' with an honorific prefix 'mi' but it is usually referred to as 'omikoshi' with an additional honorific prefix 'o.'
Since it is a litter that a god rides, it is written as 'god's litter.'


Many of them are modeled as a small shrine. The other types of mikoshi include shinboku (the sacred tree) (Suwa Taisha, Suwa City, Nagano Prefecture), the one in the form of human genitalia (Tagata-jinja Shrine, Komaki City, Aichi Prefecture) and the ones with dolls. The unit of size is usually measured by the width of a part known as architrave and Japan's largest mikoshi is Gohonsha ichinomiya mikoshi at Tomioka Hachimangu in Tokyo Prefecture.

The common features in all mikoshi are the attached poles for people to use to shoulder the mikoshi but, depending upon the area, there are mikoshi with poles extending both in front and in the rear (nitenbo-style) or with poles extending on either side in addition to the front and the mikoshi (yontenbo-style).

Mikoshi festivals are roughly broken down into 2 categories. One of them is 'Ochogata Shinkosai Festival,' which simulates an Imperial visit by the Emperor of Japan whereby carrying of the otori ren-shaped mikoshi housing the divine spirit is performed. Examples of 'Ochogata Shinkosai Festival' includes Shinko-sai at Iwashimizu-Hachimangu in Kyoto Prefecture and Hie-Jinja Shrine in Tokyo Prefecture. The other category is the 'Hiegata togyo-sai Festival,' which puts emphasis on mikoshifuri (shaking a portable shrine) by wildly waving the mikoshi to increase the divine power praying for good harvest and bumper catch. This type of festival is seen in various areas across the country including the Sanno-Matsuri Festival at Hiyoshi-taisha Shrine in Shiba Prefecture, Gion-Matsuri Festival at Yasaka-jinja Shrine in Kyoto Prefecture, Sanja-Matsuri Festival at Asakusa-jinja Shrine and Torigoe Shrine-Matsuri Festival at Torigoe-jinja Shrine in Tokyo Prefecture. These are known as abare-mikoshi (wild mikoshi).

Traveling Pattern (How to shoulder a mikoshi)

The role that the mikoshi plays in the festival varies tremendously, in some instances, with the mikoshi being simply carried through a town visiting one Otabisho (or Miki-sho meaning a station where the sacred sake is dedicated to god) to the next or, in the other instances, with mikoshi being shaken violently or two mikoshi clashing against one another. Violent shaking of the mikoshi intends to shake and energize the divine spirit (Tamafuri).

The typical way of shouldering the mikoshi is Hira-katsugi, which is also considered the most popular way of shouldering the mikoshi in Japan, whereby bearers walk at normal pace without shaking the mikoshi while calling out, 'Wasshoi-wasshoi.'

In the Tokyo Metropolitan area, shouldering the mikoshi in the Edomae-katsugi style while calling out, 'Soiya, seiya' is well-known.

Edomae-katsugi is seen during the festivals including Asakusa sanja-matsuri Festival, Torigoe-matsuri Festival and Kanda-myojin-matsuri Festival.

This way of shouldering the mikoshi has been adopted by the various regions where the mikoshi began to be used in recent years and it is gaining popularity across the country.

Within the same Tokyo Metropolitan Prefecture, however, in the Shinagawa Ward area, they shoulder the mikoshi in the distinctive Jonan-katsugi style whereby bearers move the mikoshi to simulate the heave of the sea while crying out 'Choi, choi.'
Additionally, in the Fukagawa and Gyotoku areas, they shoulder the mikoshi in the Fukagawa-katsugi style and the Gyotoku-katsugi style whereby bearers lift the mikoshi high up and throw it up in the air or lower the mikoshi until it almost touches the ground.

In the Shonan region, it is common to shoulder the mikoshi in the Dokkoi-katsugi style while crying out 'Dokkoi-dokkoi, dokkoi-sorya.'
As a culmination of Dokkoi-katsugi, Akatsuki no Saiten Hamaori-sai Festival is held annually around July 20 in Chigasaki City.

Additionally, in Odawara City, the Odawara-katsugi style, in which the mikoshi touches another mikoshi or bearers run shouldering the mikoshi while singing the Kiyari song can be seen at the Gosharengo Reitai-sai Festival (the joint festival of 5 shrines including Igami-jinja Shrine, Sanno-jinja Shrine, Shimo Fuchu-jinja Shrine, Dai Inari-jinja Shrine and Matsubara-jinja Shrine) and Matsubara-jinja Reitai-sai Festival.

Further, in the Kansai area including Kyoto Prefecture, they only move forward while wildly shaking the mikoshi in a seesaw fashion and also crying out 'hoitto, hoitto' as represented by Gion-matsuri Festival organized by Yasaka-jinja Shrine. It is characterized by the hard beating of a special metal instrument Narikan. During Haiden mawashi, to go around the front shrine wildly, the bearers move the mikoshi forward keep turning sharply to negotiate corners while wildly shaking the mikoshi in a seesaw fashion as mentioned above. On the small shrine grounds, centering on the mikoshi, the bearers may walk in circles while violently moving the mikoshi.

It is common to say, 'Wasshoi,' 'Essa' or 'Soiya' when shouldering the mikoshi in many areas.
There are various explanations for the origin of these cries people use when shouldering the mikoshi with one of them being that 'Wasshoi' originated from 'Wajo Dokei,' 'to carry harmony,' 'to stay with harmony,' or 'to carry a wheel,' whereas, 'Essa' was derived from Ancient Hebrew (in which the word 'essa' meant 'to carry'), or they are just cries that go 'Essa, hoisa.'

* Once there was a Korean theory arguing that it derived from a Korean word 'wasso (came),' but this was absolutely denied by a study performed by a Japanese Language scholar.

Issues of the Recent Years
Under the normal circumstances, a mikoshi is supposed to be shouldered by the shrine parishioners, but due to the shortage of bearers in recent years, the number of bearers who are not the parish members who participate in shouldering a mikoshi is on the rise in urban areas.

In some areas, one may see someone standing on or climbing on the pole. There are pros and cons with respect to this sort of conduct, with pros being that 'it represents feeling of oneness with god' or 'a person who is close to god rides the mikoshi on behalf of others,' whereas, with cons being that 'we can't have a person riding a mikoshi in which a god is present,' but overall the public opinion is negative.

It seems to be attributed to the fact that, due to the shortage of bearers in the area, reinforcements (volunteer mikoshi bearers) are recruited from elsewhere but they are unfamiliar with and/or making light of the manners and customs peculiar to that area. In some areas, it is forbidden to look down at a mikoshi from on high, let alone climb up on the mikoshi.

The Origin of Mikoshi

There are various arguments surrounding the origin of mikoshi including the one as described below:

The origin is an altar for the harvest festival held during times when Japanese continuously migrated from one place to the next to hunt wild life and gather food to sustain their lives and, in those days, the mikoshi was taken down after the festival and, every year, a new mikoshi was built to invite a god to come down from heaven.

When people started to settle in one place with farming becoming their way of life, they wanted their god to stay in one place and hence Shinto shrine came into the existence as a domicile of the god. The mikoshi as a vehicle of god was subsequently handed down through generations and it has settled into the shape of the present mikoshi.

Adopting the foregoing argument, some tourist agencies explained mikoshi as a 'Portable Shrine' which has become generally accepted as an English translation for 'Mikoshi.'

It was first documented in conjunction with 'Hayato no Ran (The Uprise of the Hayato clan)' that took place in 720 during the era of Impress Gensho in the Nara Period. In February of that year, the Hayato clan in the Osumi Province Hyuga Area in southern Kyushu killed the magistrate of the Osumi Province and staged a coup d'etat. The Imperial Court appointed the famous Manyo kajin (poet) Tabito OTOMO as Seiihayatojisetsu Taishogun and deployed an army of over 10,000 solders. On that occasion, the Imperial Court dispatched an imperial messenger to Usa-Hachimangu Shrine to offer prayers asking for guarding of the nation and for a successful punitive expedition against the Hayato clan.
Hachiman (God of War) who was enshrined at the nearby Oyamada and not his present location Kokurayama, Usa City, Oita Prefecture responded to the prayers offered by the imperial messenger and issued an oracle to betake himself to subdue the Hayato Clan leading Shin-gun (god's army) by saying, 'I will go and they should surrender.'
The Imperial Court ordered the magistrate of the Buzen Province UNU no Obito-Ohito to have a mikoshi made that the divine spirit of Hachiman would ride.
According to 'Hachimanusagu gotakusenshu (the Collection of oracles issued by Hachiman),' '(The Imperial Court) ordered the magistrate of the Buzen Province and a mikoshi was made for the first time.'

When Emperor Shomu had Todai-ji Temple built and had the statue of Birushanabutsu (the Great Buddha of Nara Prefecture) erected as the national symbol, in 749 to support this undertaking, Usahachiman-shin visited the capitol city of Nara riding a vehicle of emperor (an otori ren-shaped vehicle) with a glittering golden mythical Firebird Goddess on its roof. This otori ren is the original form of the present-day mikoshi that goes back 1300 years.

In the Heian Period, mikoshi was made for various shrines including Hiyoshi-taisha Shrine in the Omi area, Gion-sha Shrine (present-day Yasaka-jinja Shrine), Imamiya-jinja Shrine (Kyoto City) and Kitano-tenmangu Shrine in Kyoto Prefecture and Osaka-tenmagu Shrine in Osaka Prefecture. Using the otori ren as the basic form, Tomoe-mon or Shin-mon has been added to keep evil spirits away and a torii (Shinto shrine archway), the fence around a shrine and bannister have been put up to give the mikoshi a miniature shrine-like appearance. Thus, mikoshi has become popular in the areas centering on Nara Prefecture and Kyoto Prefecture.

[Original Japanese]