A mikoshi (神輿 or 御輿) is a portable Shintō shrine, sometimes referred to as a sacred palanquin. A mikoshi, also called shin'yo, is a highly ornate miniature replica of a shrine that rests on two long horizontal poles. Its roof is often decorated with an elaborate gilded phoenix (鳳凰 hōō) or a souka (葱花, knob or onion head). Shintō followers believe that it serves as the vehicle to transport a deity while moving between the main shrine and temporary shrine during a festival or when moving to a new shrine. Often, the Japanese honorific prefix o- (お) is added, turning it into omikoshi (お神輿).


Before the introduction of the mikoshi, a mirror with a branch of the Sakaki tree (Cleyera japonica) or some other object symbolic of a divine presence was carried around, sometimes on horseback. The use of a palanquin-like structure began in the 8th century. The first recorded occurrence was the transfer of Hachiman (八幡) of the Usa Hachiman Shrine in Kyūshū by palanquin to Nara where the deity was to safeguard the construction of the Great Buddha image at the Tōdai-ji.


Mikoshi at Hiyoshi-Taisha (日吉大社) in Ōtsu, Shiga Prefecture; photo credit: 663highland CC BY 2.5)

By the 10th century, it had become a common practice in Kyōto to carry the deity from a shrine through the community in a mikoshi on the occasion of the ekijinsai, a festival aimed at pacifying malevolent spirits that were believed to cause epidemics. In the 12th and 13th centuries, the mikoshi from the Hie and Kasuga shrines were often brought to Kyōto by unruly monks of the nearby Enryaku-ji and Kofuku-ji, two powerful Buddhist temples, in an effort to intimidate the secular authorities into accepting the demands of the clergy.

Nowadays, mikoshi are carried on shrine festival days through the villages or wards on the shoulders of some 20 or 30 people (see below). While the procession is a solemn affair in most cases, it often turns into a ruckus with the participants pushing the mikoshi in a zigzag fashion. These tempestuous movements, in one direction, and then suddenly in another, reflect the turbulent character of the deity enshrined in the mikoshi, often in the shape of a sacred mirror (神鏡 shinkyō).


Sanja-Matsuri, Tōkyō (photo credit: Kok Leng Yeo CC BY 2.0)

The progression of the mikoshi through the community represents a visit of the deity to its local worshipers (氏子 ujiko), meaning that its protection can be extended to them for the year to come. Sometimes mikoshi are placed in a temporary resting place (御旅所 otabisho), where the residents make offerings of sake and food. The otabisho are considered the original sites of the performance of ritual.


Typical mikoshi shapes are rectangular, hexagonal, and octagonal. The body, which stands on two or four poles (for carrying), is usually lavishly decorated, and the roof might hold a carving of a phoenix.


During a matsuri (Japanese festival) that involves mikoshi, people bear the palanquin on their shoulders by means of two, four (or sometimes, rarely, six) poles. They bring the mikoshi from the shrine, carry it around the neighbourhoods that worship at the shrine, and in many cases leave it in a designated area, resting on blocks called uma (horse), for a time before returning it to the shrine. Some shrines have the custom of dipping the mikoshi in the water of a nearby lake, river or ocean (this practice is called o-hamaori, 浜降). At some festivals, the bearers shake the mikoshi frenetically to "amuse" the deity inside.


Akasaka-Matsuri, Tōkyō (photo credit: Gorgo)

Methods of shouldering

The most common method of shouldering is hira-katsugi (平担ぎ), "flat carry"). The bearers chant wasshoi (わっしょい) and sometimes toss and shake the mikoshi.

Other methods include:
  • Edomae (江戸前, "Edo style"), is a common way of shouldering often seen at the Asakusa Sanja Festival. The bearers chant "say ya, soi ya, sah, sorya... etc.". The mikoshi is swayed rapidly, up and down and a little to the right and left.
  • "Dokkoi" (ドッコイ) is seen in Shonan in Kanagawa Prefecture. This shouldering style usually encompasses two poles. The mikoshi is moved up and down rhythmically, and more slowly than in the "Edomae style". The chant is "dokkoi dokkoi dokkoi sorya".
  • "Odawara style" (小田原担ぎ) can be observed in Odawara. This is a peculiar way of shouldering in which multiple mikoshi meet and run. The chant is "oisah, korasah/koryasah"; there is a song called a "Kiyari", a chant traditionally sung by workmen while pulling a heavy load and also by firemen. The bearers do not sway the mikoshi.
  • In the "united" style, the mikoshi uses the full width of the road, moving from side to side and turning corners at full speed.
This article is partly based on the Wikipedia entry Mikoshi and modified under Creative Commons (CC BY-SA 3.0).