In the Shinto tradition there are countless local festivals, or matsuri, that are dedicated to the kami of a Shinto Shrine. During many of these matsuri the kami is transported by a mikoshi to another sacred shrine, or to neighborhoods that support the Shinto shrine in order, to bestow blessings on the parishioners. This is the only time in the year that the kami is said to leave the Shrine. While the procession of the mikoshi is not the primary focus of matsuri it has become a highlight for the festive occasion; acting as a means to reestablish a bond between the kami and the community as well as creating a sense of solidarity amongst the community itself by the loosening of restraints - thought to be a dispensation of the kami (Ashkenazi) - or what can be termed as “carnival” according to Bakhtin.
It is commonly believed that the ritual of the mikoshi first started during the Nara period in 749 BCE when the kami Hachiman was transported to Toda-ji temple in Usa Jingu to oversee the construction of the daibutsu, or Great Statue of Buddha, ensuring health and prosperity (Japanese Architecture and Art Users Net System). However, the practice of carrying kami in mikoshi is believed to have only become ritualized in the Heian Era (794 -1192 BCE) in which the mikoshi would have, most likely, been in the form of a mirror with a branch of the sakaki tree or some other object of divine presence (Japan: An Illustrated Encyclopedia).
The mikoshi itself is commonly translated as a “portable shrine” but is in actuality a divine palanquin which is believed to be modeled after ancient Chinese forms of palanquins commonly used by the imperial family and the aristocracy (Askenazi). The architecture of the mikoshi resembles a miniature shrine with two or four pillars, walls, a roof, a verandah and a railing. Typically, the mikoshi is rectangular, hexagonal or octagonal in shape and are lavishly decorated with gold-plating and precious jewels which establishes the mikoshi as a work of art with ornate and detailed woodworking, metalworking, lacquer ware and died tapestries. The elaborateness of the mikoshi is believed to please the kami that is being transported inside. Some mikoshi may even have small torii inside to mark the sacred space of the kami inside.
The transportation of the mikoshi is handled by dozens or even hundreds of male individuals depending on the size of the palanquin – some can weigh up to several tonnes. The parishioners bare the structure on their shoulders by means of the poles and carry it through the streets, neighborhoods or to a sacred shrine/designated area for a period of time before returning to the primary Shinto shrine. Following the mikoshi are priests and crowds of people dressed in ancient costumes – often singing, chanting,dancing loudly or jumping up and down. During the procession it is common to see the carriers waving the mikoshi wildly back and forth or up and down – an action that is believed to be directed by the will of the kami for its own amusement.
Overall, it is interesting to note that the mikoshi is a form of miniaturization within Shinto religious tradition as well as a an element of carnival. The liminality and reversal of regulated norms that both the kami and the parishioners embody during the matsuri and mikoshi procession serves to bring the self into contact with the other and create or reestablish a relationship. In this sense, the mikoshi acts as a means for the parishioners of a local community to establish and maintain a relationship with the local kami through the processes of miniaturization and carnival in order to receive blessings of health and prosperity for the upcoming season, year or transitory phase.
Possible links for further interest in Mikoshi: