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Mikoshi – an Essential Attribute of Any Traditional Matsuri



If you were ever wondering about Japanese festivals, you probably came across Mikoshi. Mikoshi is an important part of any Japanese religious matsuri, and it is hard to even imagine a traditional festival scene without it. Mikoshi becomes a center of attention of any festival it is involved in. From this article, you will learn more about Japanese festival culture, find out what is Mikoshi and see how you can become a Mikoshi bearer at Matsuri.

What is Mikoshi?

Mikoshi (神輿) is a divine palanquin which is used as a vehicle to transport a deity of a certain shrine mostly during the festivals or to another shrine. “Koshi” in Japanese means a palanquin, they were widely used by nobility in the past. In other words, Mikoshi is a portable shrine for God. Any traditional religious festival has a Mikoshi in its procession.

In most cases, these portable shrines resemble real shrines with a little building, roof, walls, veranda, and pillars. The classical Mikoshi lies in two handcrafted poles made of finest wood and its body is lavishly decorated with gold and other precious materials. So, you can only imagine how much that can cost. Sometimes, you can see a golden phoenix on the roof of the Mikoshi. Mikoshi can weight up to more than a ton. The bigger portable shrine is, the heavier it is and more poles it has. Usually, there are either 2, 4, or 6 poles.

You can find the heaviest Mikoshi in Tokyo in Torikoe Shrine not far from Asakusa. Locals call this portable shrine Senkan Mikoshi and you can see it in action during Torikoe Festival in June every year. This palanquin weights about 4 tons.

Mikoshi at the Festivals

Each Shinto shrine in Japan has its deity or even few. Commonly on a yearly basis, these deities travel around their neighborhood in Mikoshi to bring good luck to local people and business. Mikoshi is carried by local volunteers on their shoulders. Mikoshi bearer is a very privileged role. You can recognize the bearers by the special festival outfit – happi and fundoshi. Happi looks like Yukata, but shorter and fundoshi is a traditional Japanese male undergarment. As the palanquins are quite heavy, so it takes from 10 to 60 people to carry it. Usually, its men who carry the Mikoshi. However, you can often see smaller portable shrines designed especially for women or children.

Mikoshi and its bearers are the centers of any festival procession. The bearers have a habit to chant at every step they make. Usually, you can hear “Wasshoi, Wasshoi!” or “Esa, hoisa, Esa, hoisa”. This chanting helps to follow the rhythm when stepping and brings a great energetic atmosphere to the event. Sometimes when the procession stops in front of some small business, you can also hear “Fure! Fure!”. This literally means “Shake! Shake!” and the bearers start shaking the Mikoshi vigorously. By that, they give a blessing to that small business. The Mikoshi procession often has a few Japanese drums and other musical instruments in it depending on the festival, so you can totally feel the atmosphere of a real Matsuri.

Ways of carrying Mikoshi

When you have a chance to see a Mikoshi procession at the festival, try to notice how the bearers carry the poles. If you cannot recognize the way they carry, you can always ask a friend or a Japanese stranger nearby so they can help.

There are 4 major ways to hold and carry portable shrines and they differ depending on the festival. The most common way to carry is just flat carrying “Hira katsugi”. Bearers can toss and shake the Mikoshi as well when carrying it flat. “Dokkoi” carrying style is popular around the Kanagawa area and you can see how the portable shrine is moving up and down with the rhythm of an energetic song. “Edomae” style is when the portable shrine is moving up and down left and right even faster comparing with “Dokkoi”. You can see this style at the very famous Asakusa Sanja Matsuri in May. Another interesting style is “Odawara” style. Here the bearers don`t sway the Mikoshi. However, it is carried in a special way that several Mikoshi meet and run. And there is also a special song for this style of carrying.

Becoming a Mikoshi Bearer

Carrying a portable shrine is not as easy as it may seem. These beautiful, sophisticated palanquins may look light, but in reality weight a lot. Nevertheless, many local people want to carry Mikoshi at their festival. This is another and very vivid proof of how Japanese people respect and continue their traditions. If you live in Japan for a certain amount of time and know your neighbors you can apply to become a Mikoshi bearer in the local festival committee.

Unfortunately, it is not very easy for a foreigner to take part as a bearer in the real action during Matsuri. However, if you are lucky to have Japanese friends who have interest in Matsuri they can invite you to become Mikoshi bearer as well. So, nothing is impossible. And believe me, if you have an opportunity at least once to be in the center of the festival procession carrying a portable shrine, grab it. Your shoulders will be in severe pain and head will be spinning from free alcohol that you receive from local people as a bearer along with free food. But those emotions and feeling that you are going to experience are priceless and will stay with you forever.

If you are around Tokyo in October and would like to see a nice Mikoshi procession and become a bearer, go to see Yokosuka Mikoshi Parade. Yokosuka is about an hour away by train from Tokyo and there is a US Naval base there. Local people really like to pull foreigners to carry the shrine while the parade so you might have a great chance to be in the center of a real Japanese Matsuri!

Closing Remarks

I hope this small article explained to you briefly what is Mikoshi and why they are so important for the festivals in Japan. Some people say that the tradition of carrying Mikoshi during the festivals started around 8th century A.D. However, I think it is older. I will never stop admiring exquisite Mikoshi during the festivals along with the traditions that they represent. If you also like Japanese culture and want to experience a Japanese festival being right in the center of the Matsuri procession, please connect with local people who can show you around and find the best festival for you! Click on the banner below!

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Image courtesy of Tomomarusan

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Japan is a country of festivals indeed. Matsuri is an essential part of traditional Japanese culture. Thus, every day somewhere in Japan a festival takes place. There are traditional and modern festivals, on the sea and on the ground, in summer and winter. Japanese are hardworking people. However, when you attend at least one festival in Japan, you will understand how locals like to party. The article under the link below will introduce you to a celebration on any day of the year. I am sure you will find an event that suits your interests utmost!




I`ve been living in Japan for over 10 years and still fascinated with this unique country. I always discover something new about the land of the rising sun when there is a chance!

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