|Shouldering the mikoshi: A survival kit /Andrew Conning
To a foreigner, a mikoshi procession may seem like an archaic religious ceremony, an attractively
old-fashioned but somewhat odd survival in the 21st century. Most people
participating in a local festival would be able to tell you that the ostensible
significance of the ritual is indeed a religious one: the local deity surveys
the neighborhood and confers blessings upon it. But in reality, a mikoshi
procession today is more a social than a religious event, one that that
serves a purpose still meaningful in our own time: to highlight the
identity and solidarity of the community. For a foreigner who wants to take part in Japanese community life today,
there's hardly a better way to do it than help carry a mikoshi.
I have shouldered the mikoshi in my neighborhood festival in Tokyo each
of the past two years, and I plan to do it again this year. One of the
neighbors I got to know better through this experience turned out to be
a true mikoshi aficionado, and later invited me to come to see where many
of the mikoshi used in the Kanto region are born ? at the Kamakura workshop
of Mr. Akiyasu Furuya, whose website you are now browsing. In exchange
for initiating me into the secrets of mikoshi assembly, Mr. Furuya asked
me to share with you a few tips on how to gain access to, survive, and
hopefully enjoy the experience of carrying the mikoshi in a real Japanese
How does a foreigner get a chance to participate in carrying the mikoshi?
After all, bearing the mikoshi on one's shoulder
has traditionally been a privilege reserved for insiders only ? even a festival
enthusiast living in the next district would be firmly turned away.
The key of course is to establish one's status as a long-term resident of one's
neighborhood and to build rapport with the people to whom the neighborhood
means the most. It helps to patronize local stores and to participate in other
neighborhood events besides the festival, such as the litter pick-up day, where
you might rub elbows with a real neighborhood insider, or even the almighty
chonai kaicho (head of the neighborhood association). I would venture to
say that most foreigners who are really interested will have an opportunity
to carry a mikoshi, provided there is a festival in their neighborhood
and they live there long enough. But it largely depends on how committed
they are to their neighborhood ? in the end, a neighborhood festival is
not just about having a party, it's about being a community.
Surviving the experience
A mikoshi may not be all that big, but it's heavy. Almost every square
inch is filled with dense Japanese zelkova and covered in solid brass decorations and fittings. Built like a top-heavy
shrine building in miniature, a mikoshi has a thick, broadly-sweeping roof,
supported by several hundred pocket-size rafters and brackets that transfer
the roof's weight upon four corner columns and one inner column. The structure
is solid almost to the core; the empty space at the heart of the structure
is only big enough to fit a small mirror the size of an outstretched hand.
The single heaviest fitting, the delicate-looking Firebird Goddess surmounting
the roof, can weigh upwards of？ kilograms. The coiled brass dragonheads
projecting from the four corners of the roof and the giant yanemon crests
mounted on each of its faces all weigh ？kg or more. The entire structure
is mounted on long ？cm x ？cm beams of hinoki cypress. Bouncing all this heft up and down for two hours can produce a crippling
pain in legs, back and shoulders that lasts for days and is harder to forget
than the experience of the festival itself.
are a few tips to avoid straining yourself:
１．Get in shape first. Focus on building strength in your back muscles
and above all your leg muscles. Shallow squats are a good simulation.
２．Bring something like a small towel that you can use for a shoulder
pad. Make sure you have a way to fix it to your shoulder so that it won't
slip off and trip someone.
３．Bend your knees, rather than your waist or your spine.
４．Although you could cushion the shock by wearing sneakers, make sure
to sign up for pair of tabi (traditional socks with rubber soles attached)
instead. Others will be wearing tabi, and if you step on their toes with
your sneakers, they won't be happy about it. If your shoe size is over
27 cm, give your chokai a couple of weeks' advance notice so they can put
in a special order.
If you're tall by Japanese standards (over 175 cm), you run the risk of
carrying half the weight of the mikoshi by yourself, while the people around
you carry air. Obviously, try to line up next to people who are about as
tall as you. If you can't find anyone your height, making yourself shorter
by spreading your feet is not an option because it would make it impossible
for you to make the necessary up-and-down springing motion (besides, there's
nowhere to spread your feet since you're packed in among other people).
You may also be tempted to reduce your height by leaning backwards, but
beware that this is a leading cause of slipped discs. Instead,
bend a little deeper at the knees until you feel like you're not carrying
more than your share of the weight. If you've done your training squats,
your thighs should be able to manage the strain.
If all else fails, you can go to the front of the mikoshi and be a steersman,
the person who controls the speed and direction of the mikoshi. Because
the steersman uses the length of his own body as leverage to slow or redirect
the portable shrine, it actually helps to be tall. But it is not without
its own challenges. As the steersman, you must keep the mikoshi moving
along at the right pace: too fast, and the mikoshi won't bounce up and
down enough; too slow, and the bearers will get tired. You must keep an
eye on street traffic, parked cars, and other obstacles, and keep people
out of harm's way. You must also act as a kind of coach, keeping an eye
on who's tired and who's not, and rotating in replacements as necessary.
For all these reasons the steersman's job usually goes to someone with
lots of experience. In the end, you may find it more feasible just to be
a humble bearer and resign yourself to shouldering a heavier than average
The above advice may help you avoid undue pain, but it bears mentioning
here that for many if not most participants, the pain and suffering inflicted
by the portable shrine are to be sought, not avoided. These people steadfastly
shun the towel and the shoulder pad. Some deliberately use the same shoulder
at all times, hoping to develop a bulging subcutaneous goose egg called
a mikoshi-dako, the mark of the genuine katsugite (mikoshi-bearer). A few
traverse the city, crashing one festival after another, in search of this
punishment. You may decide it is something to be experienced.
Enjoying the experience
Other than delighting in communal pain and suffering, what can you do to
enjoy the experience of being a human trailer tire? Here it is pertinent
to recall the rule that "Once the priest sanctifies a mikoshi and
installs the deity in it, the mikoshi is…under the deity's control, not
the bearers'." When the mikoshi bobs up and down, when it zigzags crazily, when the bearers
chant loudly and vigorously, the kami (deity) is said to be in good spirits.
When it lumbers along lethargically, and the bearers' chant sounds halfhearted,
people say the kami is dead. This judgment applies to you as well: bearers
and deity are one body.
No, you won't have any fun if you and the kami just trudge along. Unless
you make the mikoshi bounce energetically, spiritedly around the neighborhood,
you will not enjoy the
 Bestor, 239.
true collective exuberance of a Japanese festival. Harmony is essential.
Uncoordinated jerking from one side or one end of the mikoshi does not
satisfy; you must make movements in unison with others. When you sense
the movement reaching a temporary crescendo, such as in front of a store
that made a large gift to the festival or outside the home of a family
that brought out food and drinks, you must render every ounce of energy
for the kami. Give no thought to exhaustion ? when you are spent, someone
else will take your place. Your exertion is the mikoshi's buoyancy. Upon
your and the other bearers' coordinated struggle, the mikoshi can float
like a bird. When it does, people will say that it is alive, and so will