If you have been to a Japanese festival, you have probably seen a mikoshi before. Often translated as ‘portable shrine’, mikoshi are used to carry gods around the town during a Shinto festival. The gods usually reside in the shrines dedicated to them, but once a year they ride on the mikoshi around the town to visit the citizens, who celebrate and pray for the blessings of nature and stability in their lives. This tradition is known as mikoshi togyo.
On August 3, four Ibaraki ALTs and I joined the Mito Kōmon Festival mikoshi parade as a part of the Ibaraki Prefectural Government Mikoshi Association. We helped to carry the one tonne mikoshi up one of Mito’s main streets on the north of the station. The street was closed off from traffic and packed with people, both onlookers and mikoshi bearers. Whilst it was a hot day, we did not start until 2pm, by which time the sun had moved behind the buildings and a cool breeze flowed through the streets, much to the relief of the parade participants.
Each mikoshi had its own bearers, dressed in the uniform of their group. After the opening ceremony, the bearers took their positions beside their mikoshi. When the signal to begin came, the air filled with energetic cries of ‘Souya!’ as the bearers heaved the weighty shrines onto their shoulders and begin the slow procession up the street. It took over and hour to reach our destination, but each group had enough people to take turns carrying the shrine, and took regular breaks, placing it down on wooden supports called uma.
The bearers keep their steps in time thanks to one leading member who walks in front with clapping sticks and leads the chant. What the bearers shout differs from region to region – when I carried a shrine in Oita Prefecture, the chant was something like ‘Sen to sa! Ya to sa!’, but in Mito the chant is ‘Souya!’ shouted back and forth between the leader and supporters and those carrying the mikoshi. When the mikoshi procession stops, before placing the shrine down on the uma the bearers will sometimes cry ‘saa saa!’ as they shake the mikoshi (rather violently, much to the protest of my shoulders) up and down to amuse the god. The mikoshi groups compete to be the loudest and showiest, and you cannot put the mikoshi down until the group in front of you does, so these displays of heart and endurance can continue for quite a while.
The Ibaraki Prefectural Government Office mikoshi is a little different than most in that it does not actually house a god. Instead, inside the shrine you will find a list of the members of the Mikoshi Association. So why go to the trouble of making a mikoshi that has no religious affiliation? The mikoshi tradition is an ancient one that has been passed down through generations, and it is an essential part of the culture of almost every region in Japan. Regardless of its religious origins, mikoshi togyo is an event that brings people together to celebrate and pray for the health, wealth, and happiness of the community.
A group of young workers from the Ibaraki Prefectural Government Social Services Department started the Mikoshi Appreciation Club in 1977. At a time when interest in Japanese cultural properties like mikoshi was waning, this group was formed with the intention of having fun participating in festivals while honouring the mikoshi tradition and passing it on to future generations. That year they participated in the Mito Tanabata Kōmon Festival where 11 mikoshi took part, signalling the start of a mikoshi boom.
The Prefectural Government Office mikoshi was made by the Toyama Penitentiary as part of a rehabilitation program. It was completed in 1989 with the membership fees of the Mikoshi Association members and donations from other prefectural employees. It has participated in the Mito Komon Festival and a number of other events every year since. When it is not taking part in events, it is on display on the second floor of the Ibaraki Prefectural Office.
I asked the head of the of the Mikoshi Association, Mr. Nemoto, to give me some information about the Prefectural Office mikoshi and why it is important to the Mikoshi Association and the community. He explained that mikoshi help people to discover the wonderful things their local area has to offer and foster solidarity among community members. It is important not just for those carrying the shrine, but also those watching and supporting the bearers from the sidelines. These things make mikoshi an invaluable cultural property, and the Mikoshi Association plans to continue to actively participate in community events and treasure the enjoyment this brings festival goers with the hope that these activities will help foster healthy and spiritually rich citizens.
The day does not end when the mikoshi reaches its destination – that evening everyone who helped to carry the shrine is invited to join a party in the cafeteria of the Prefectural Office. This is not just a way to celebrate the end of a hard days’ work – it is based on the traditional naorai no gishiki, or ritual feast. After the god has been taken around the town, those who carried the mikoshi hold a special party where they eat, drink, and celebrate together in the presence of the god. The Governor of Ibaraki also attended this lively event and chatted with the prefectural employees. It was a wonderful end to a wonderful day, one that will become a treasured memory for all who participated.