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A mikoshi being carried throughout the street.
A mikoshi being carried throughout the street.

Mikoshi: The Ultimate Guide to Japan’s Portable Shrines!

Savannah WalkerSavannah Walker
Published Time
Posted on July 08, 2024
Modified Time
Updated last July 17, 2024

When you think of Japanese festivals, one word that should come to mind is mikoshi. These portable shrines are the heart of many Japanese celebrations, bringing communities together in a fun display of culture and tradition. But what exactly is this, and why is it so important?

What is a mikoshi?

A mikoshi is a portable Shinto shrine, often beautifully decorated and carried on the shoulders of excited local festival participants. These shrines are believed to house the spirit of a god, called a kami, and are paraded through the streets during festivals to bring blessings and good luck to the community.

A bunch of men in blue carrying a portable shrine.
A mikoshi is a portable shrine. Image via Shutterstock

The word “mikoshi” comes from “mi” (an honorific prefix) and “koshi” (palace), showing its sacred and unique nature. Seeing one of these shrines, along with the cheerful chants and energy of the carriers, is a lively and essential part of Japanese festival traditions.

When did they make the first mikoshi?

The tradition of mikoshi dates back to ancient Japan. The first one is believed to have been created during the Heian period (794-1185). These early shrines were simpler but transported the kami from the main shrine to temporary resting places during festivals!

A mikoshi in Gion tilted upwards.
Most of them resemble palanquins. Image via Shutterstock

Over the centuries, they evolved into the elaborate and richly decorated structures we see today, complete with gold leaf, intricate carvings, and vibrant colors, which makes the festivals extra fun!

Is a portable shrine expensive?

A purple and gold mikoshi.
Each mikoshi carries a god, or kami. Image via Shutterstock

Mikoshi can be pretty pricey to make! The cost also depends on the materials and the skills needed to build them. Additionally, some shrines use fancy wood, gold leaf, and lots of intricate artwork, which can add up. But the great thing is that many communities join forces to raise money for these shrines. This teamwork also shows how important they are to their culture and how they bring everyone together. It’s all about community spirit and keeping traditions!

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Which summer festivals feature mikoshi?

Japan is home to numerous summer festivals where mikoshi takes center stage. Here are three of the most famous ones you can visit:

Satte Summer Festival (Saitama)

The Satte Summer Festival in Saitama is a spectacular event that features a dazzling display of these portable shrines. The festival takes place in mid-July and attracts thousands of visitors each year. This year, the main festival takes place July 13th and 14th!

The highlight is the mikoshi parade, where participants, often dressed in traditional festival attire, carry the portable shrines through the streets to the beat of taiko drums and the cheers of onlookers. As a result, the energy and excitement are contagious, making it a must-see event.

Kanda Matsuri (Tokyo)

A bunch of people carrying a portable shrine at the Kanda Matsuri.
The Kanda Matsuri is one of the Three Great Festivals in Japan! Image via Shutterstock

One of Tokyo’s most famous festivals, the Kanda Matsuri, is held in May and features impressive displays. This festival has a rich history dating back to the Edo period and is celebrated in honor of the Kanda Myojin Shrine’s kami. The parade includes dozens of shrines, each carried by teams of locals who energetically shout and chant as they navigate the city streets. Overall, seeing these beautiful shrines moving through the modern cityscape is a unique and unforgettable experience.

Kurayami Matsuri (Tokyo)

A woman in traditional Japanese dress at the Kurayami Festival.
The Kurayami festival is a fun event that takes place at night! Image via Shutterstock

The Kurayami Matsuri, or Darkness Festival, occurs in early May in Tokyo’s Fuchu City. As the name suggests, much of the festival happens at night, creating a mysterious and thrilling atmosphere. The mikoshi parade begins at dusk, with participants carrying the shrines through the dark streets, illuminated only by lanterns. The contrast of the glowing shrines against the night sky makes this festival especially enchanting and worth the visit!

Why are mikoshi important in Japanese culture?

Mikoshi holds a significant place in Japanese culture for several reasons. First and foremost, they connect the physical world with the spiritual, bringing the blessings of the kami to the community. Carrying these is seen as a form of worship and devotion, with participants believing they are helping transport the divine presence.

A woman carrying a mikoshi.
Have you ever been to a mikoshi festival before? Image via Shutterstock

These festivals also foster a sense of community and togetherness. They unite people of all ages and backgrounds, creating bonds and shared memories. Preparing and carrying out these festivals requires teamwork, coordination, and camaraderie, reinforcing social ties and communal identity.

Mikoshi are a vital part of Japan’s cultural fabric because they embody the spirit of community, tradition, and spirituality. Have you ever attended a mikoshi festival or carried one yourself? Please let us know and share your experiences and thoughts in the comments below!

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