There are festivals in Japan year round. Living in Tokyo, I often see festivals being conducted around me. It’s like there is one almost every weekend.
I used to think that a shrine festival is all about food stands and scooping up goldfish, but after coming to Japan I learnt that the main event is carrying the mikoshi between shrines.
In last weekend’s Shibuya Matsuri, there were several mikoshi paraded around to bring safety to the area. And in an interesting turn of events, I got to help out in carrying one of them around!
What is a mikoshi?
As you may know, in the Shinto religion there are many gods. Each shrine in Japan belongs to one of these gods.
Although the gods spend a lot of their time in their respective main shrines, during festivals they are taken to temporary shrines for various reasons.
The vehicle used to transport them is called a mikoshi. It is thought of as being like a miniature, portable shrine.
Shibuya Tourist Information Center helped organise for me to participate in the festival and prepared the outfit for me.
As mikoshi are traditionally carried by men only, it was the same outfit for men and women. I had no idea how to tie it up so the staff at Shibuya TIC helped me. It looks a bit like a short mens yukata.
They also gave me a piece of cloth to tie around my head. I felt a bit silly at first but once I got outside I could find a huge group of people dressed the same!
I got outside to find a huge amount of people, and many different groups carrying mikoshi. I think they carried them from different shrines throughout Shibuya ward. The one I was to carry was designated, and I could see the separations in groups based on the patterns of their clothing.
The first thing I noticed about them was the expressions of pain on the people’s faces. It
After some preliminary carrying around, there were announcements from important people, including representatives from the shrines and the mayor of Shibuya ward.
It was then our turn!
As the mikoshi is for the god, it should not touch the ground. There is a special stand to put it on when people are not carrying it.
There was a chant that everyone carrying the mikoshi and people around were doing.
I pretty much just went along with it! I asked someone what they were saying but apparently the words didn’t have a particular meaning.
I think the front of the group is one of the more tough places to be. The wooden pole on my shoulder was really heavy, and it didn’t help that the mikoshi was being bounced up and down! I think everyone’s shoulder was quite bruised by the end.
To minimise shoulder pain, I would recommend standing between two taller people 😉
In between carrying the mikoshi, there were several times we had breaks.
During the breaks, we could socialise with the other participants while enjoying onigiri and drinks like cold tea or even beer!
I didn’t know before that foreigners could participate in something like this, so I was pleasantly surprised at how welcoming people there were.
There were also chances to wave the giant fan and carry the paper lanterns at the front of the parade.
You can see the people who are are clapping and cheering, while taking a break from carrying something.
I was surprised to see a little kid even stand up on top during the parade! I think he must have done some kind of special training, because he seemed to know what he was doing. He was leading the chants, and everyone copied anything that he yelled.
Don’t worry, he was not naked. He was wearing something like fundoshi (think sumo loincloth).
It was interesting to see the familiar streets of Shibuya transformed for the festival.
During each break time, the atmosphere was lively and people all chatted together. It is quite unusual for strangers in Japan (particularly Tokyo) to start a conversation, but the atmosphere of the festival had that sort of energy.
Most of the photos above were of the high energy group that I was in, but there were also other groups carrying mikoshi with a more formal appearance.
I think they must have been some kind of important people, but I’m not quite sure who.
There was even a parade of people wearing samurai armour!
Taking part in a festival like this really was a once in a lifetime experience, where I could really feel Japanese culture. It was one of the unforgettable things I did in my time in Japan!