Mikoshi

 

 

     A mikoshi is a portable shrine which gets paraded through the streets during a Shinto matsuri (Japan痴 native religious festival).  The origins of mikoshi can be traced back to Shinto ceremonies.  According to the book, Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia:  釘efore the introduction of mikoshi, a mirror with a branch of the sakaki tree or some other object of divine presence was carried around, sometimes on horseback, during Shinto ceremonies.sup>1  The name of sakaki is thought to mean 菟rospering tree,and the ancient idea that gods dwell in evergreen trees led the Japanese to use this tree to demarcate sacred space or as an offering to the deities in Shinto rituals.2  The first recorded use of a mikoshi was the transfer of the god of the Usa Hachiman shrine in Kyushu by palanquin to Nara, where the god was to safeguard the construction of the Great Buddha at the Todaiji Temple (749).3  However, the practice of carrying a mikoshi started around the middle of the Heian Era (794 to 1192 A.D.).  People did this because they believed that there were vengeful spirits on earth which held grudges or spite toward the world and couldn稚 go to either heaven or hell.4  They also believed that these evil spirits were the cause of plagues which were common at that time.  In order to get rid of these evil spirits, people began to carry mikoshis to shinsen-en (sacred places).5  By the 10th century, it had become a common practice in Kyoto to carry a god from a shrine through a community during the ekijinsai, a festival aimed at pacifying malevolent spirits.6

     Carrying a mikoshi has become one of the most important Japanese traditions during Shinto festivals.  It symbolizes how people share the difficulties, hardships, richnesses, and happinesses of their lives.  Carrying a mikoshi  is also important because it serves as a tool to hand down the traditional customs of Shinto festivals to future generations.  This paper will show what a mikoshi is, why it is important, and why people carry a mikoshi on their shoulders during a festival.  It is worth learning about this traditional object because we can learn about certain aspects of Japanese culture and history such as how Japanese people have contact with religion, how they form their communities, and how they hand down their cultural traditions to future generations.  In this way, the identity of Japanese culture will not be lost or forgotten.

     First, before learning about a mikoshi, a person must know the basic ideas and historical background of Shinto festivals.  The beginning of festivals can be traced back to the Jomon Era (about 12,000 B.C. to 2,300 B.C.).7  People already lived in groups in the Jomon Era and small scale festivals were carried out at the time.8  However, according to the book, Japanese History: the form of Japanese festivals which are held now came into existence around 300 B.C. after rice paddy cultivation was brought to Japan from China at the beginning of the Yayoi Era (300 B.C. to 300 A.D.).  At that time, Japan was an agricultural society and rice paddy cultivation was the basis of economic life.9  Agricultural society made progress partly because festivals played a role in strengthening the community.10  Japanese people were not allowed to live life on their own terms when they lived in a group because they had to work together.  They needed something that strengthened their social ties and yet allowed them to blow off some steam and have a little self-expression.  Festivals gave them the opportunity to release their tensions and bond together as well as dream and pray seriously for good harvests of rice.  According to the book, An English Dictionary of Japanese Culture, 擢estivals originated from ancient rites related to agriculture and the spiritual well-being of individuals and local communities.  While religious rites are carried out with ceremonious formalities, festivals following them are energetic performances free from strict rules.sup>11

     The structure and organization of festivals were also derived from religion and history.  Festivals consist of two parts: rituals and programs.  They are basically religious observations whereby participants enter a state of active communication with the deities.12  People invite gods (kami) to Shinto shrines and provide offerings such as rice and vegetables which they harvest and sake (rice wine).  They celebrate good crops and give thanks for rich harvests.  They also ask for the blessings of the gods.  They applaud, worship, and admire the gods, and these acts are called rituals.  According to Bates Hoffer and Nobuyuki Honna:

 

          迭ituals emphasize a man-god communion.  They are carried out in

     spring and fall.  On the other hand, programs are characterized by playful

     elements; carrying a mikoshi, pulling a dashi (festive floats), dancing,

     watching a kagura (a Shinto dance accompanied by music and performed on

     a sacred occasion), and marching in parades.  The programs occur mostly

     in summer stressing human comradeship.sup>13

 

In a nutshell, festivals are events in which people can communicate with each other. They play an important role in bringing the community together.14  

     In order for people to have some focus during a festival, certain objects are usually used to capture people痴 attention or motivate them to participate in a festival痴 activities.  A mikoshi is one such object.  A mikoshi is a portable Shinto shrine, and Shinto gods are supposed to be inside of a mikoshi.15  The basic shape of a mikoshi is a cube which has a roof.  The roof is about 140 cm long and 50 cm high (see figure 1: 1).  Some are hexagonal prisms or octagonal prisms which also have roofs.  The middle of a mikoshi is made from zolkova trees because the trees are strong.  There is one small torii (gateways at the entrances to Shinto shrines) on each side so that they look like real shrines.  Around the middle of the mikoshi are decorations which are made of metal plating and are painted gold.  There is a phoenix on top of each mikoshi.  It is about 40 cm high and the length from its head to tail is about 80 cm (see figure 1: 2).  It is made of copper and it is also painted gold.  They hold rice plants which are harvested each year in their mouths.  The phoenix spreads its wings and stands on the small cube.  It is a symbol of agricultural society.  Next, sacred purple silk ropes with bells are placed under the each corner of the roof.  Purple is the color of nobility and the sacred ropes which are made of purple silk symbolize good fortune.  The bells symbolize creation, they are also a symbol of men痴 testicles and they represent people痴 hopes of having many children.  Lanterns are hung from each corner of the roof, like decorations, and a small phoenix is on each corner of the roof.  All of these symbolic objects are combined to form a miniature Shinto shrine.

     Since the main part of the mikoshi is quite heavy, a strong supporting structure is needed so that it can be carried.  There are six poles under the middle of the mikoshi, which are made of Japanese cedar and are painted black.  Four of the six poles run lengthways and the other two run crossways.  They are fixed under the middle of the mikoshi so that people can carry it on their shoulders.  The bottom of the middle of a mikoshi is about 140 cm long and 20 cm high (see figure 1:3).  The distance between its bottom and its roof is 100 cm (see figure 1: 4).  It痴 body is about 90 cm wide (see figure 1: 5).  The weight of a mikoshi is about 1,120 kg, which is really heavy.16  This mikoshi is only for adults to carry.  There are smaller and lighter mikoshi for children; however, they are still heavy.  The weight of the mikoshi symbolizes the great richness and hardships that people experience in everyday life.  People encounter many difficulties in their lives, especially farmers; however, after working hard and enduring the hardships, they can earn a lot of money or have rich harvests.  While they are carrying a mikoshi, people talk more closely than usual, understand each other, and strengthen their relationships to make a better community.  They also carry a mikoshi to get rid of their stresses, and ask for the godsblessings in order to bring them happiness.  They enjoy themselves and release their excess energy by carrying a mikoshi.  Carrying a mikoshi is a way for people to experience the primitive excitement of past festivals and appreciate what their ancestors experienced many years ago.

 

 

Figure 1.

These are the dimensions of the middle of a mikoshi.

     Symbolic objects are not the only things that are part of the mikoshi experience.  People wear white uniforms called hakucho when they carry a mikoshi.  They are made of cotton and they are like yukata (a light, informal, unlined cotton, kimono ); however, they are shorter than yukata.  Their sleeves are longer than yukata.  In order to ease the burden on people痴 shoulders, people wear the sleeves of the yukata over both of their shoulders.  They also wear black hats called eboshi and white tabi  (Japanese socks with a cleft toe) whose bottoms are made of rubber.  Eboshi are made of paper and tabi are made of cotton.  Some people wear hachimaki (head bands) instead of hats.  A Hachimaki is regarded as a symbol of mental concentration and hard work.17  People wear these uniforms to serve the gods, and they feel a sense of unity while carrying a mikoshi in those uniforms.

     Before carrying a mikoshi, the people who carry it and the mikoshi are exorcised of evil spirits by a Shinto priest.  This ceremony is called oharai (the Shinto ceremony of purification).  According to Bates Hoffer and Nobuyuki Honna:

 

          的n Shinto ways of life, purity is an indispensable concept.  Impurities

     are believed to invite evil spirits and thereby lead to calamities.  Therefore,

     people are supposed to perform the rite of purification.sup>18

 

     After everything has been purified, people start to carry the mikoshi.  They carry the mikoshi shouting /span>wasshoior /span>seiya which is said when heaving up heavy things to pep themselves up.  Then, they parade through the streets.  Along the way, they lift up the mikoshi in front of houses whose people present congratulatory gifts such as sekihan (festive red rice: rice boiled with red beans), sake, or money.  Noshi (a decoration which is made of folded pieces of paper and thin strips of dried abalone) is usually attached to these gifts.  If the gift is money, it is put in an envelope with noshi printed on it.19  People lift up a mikoshi a few times in front of houses to wish for the welfare, happiness, and safety of the people and their homes.20  After they parade through the streets, they return to the Shinto shrine where the mikoshi was and they put the mikoshi down where it originally was.  Then, people share their happiness by drinking beer or juice, and have a sense that they strengthened their relationships and made a better community.

     In conclusion, carrying a mikoshi seems to symbolize a part of Japanese society which shares everything among everyone, for better of worse, because a mikoshi symbolizes both the richness and hardships of everyday life.  There can be no rejoicing if people don稚 experience difficulties or hardships in this world.  A long long time ago, people might have held festivals in order to get rid of the stresses of their lives, to pray for and give thanks for good harvests, their health, and peace to the gods.  Japanese society is changing and the role of agricultural society has been reduced nowadays.  As a result, people tend not to hope for or give thanks for good harvests.  They have festivals in order to get rid of the stresses of their lives, to pray for and give thanks for their health, and peace to the gods as their ancestors had done in the old days.  They also have festivals to enjoy their lives.  People participate in festivals, carry a mikoshi, pull a dashi, dance or watch a kagura, and march in parades even if individuals follow different religions or have different principles.  Festivals are a way for people to trace the origin of their lives by reproducing the conditions or the conventions of older days.  Festivals allow people to get away from the usual routines in their everyday lives and give them a chance to confirm the significance of their society and their personal relationships.  The feelings of community solidarity also become stronger and people can socialize.  Finally, people can keep a connection with their ancestors by keeping the traditional rites and practices which were handed down to them from past generations.  Festivals are an important tradition which must be preserved in today痴 rapidly changing society.  Festivals are the heart of Japanese culture.  Japanese people should participate in their local festivals, concern themselves with mikoshi and carry a mikoshi in order to strengthen their community, hand down and maintain their traditions and cultures.