The History of Mikoshi

By Staff Writer
November 10, 2023
Mikoshi or Omikoshi is a highly decorated portable shrine on log poles that contain a deity. The first recorded mention of a mikoshi dates back to the Nara period (710-794) when they were used as vehicles to transport deities to battlefields for warfare.
A mikoshi at Sanja Matsuri in Tokyo
According to tradition, when the spirits of these deities that normally reside at a shrine leave the shrine to go to town or to an otabisho (a place where the god rests and stays) during festivals, they enshrine themselves in a mikoshi.

Many mikoshi have houou (Chinese phoenix and sacred bird) and giboshi (decorations shaped like onion flowers) on their roof. The phoenix represents all good things and is believed to bring happiness, whilst the smell of onions is said to ward off evils.
A houou on the roof of a mikoshi
There are few theories about the origin of mikoshi. It is said that it originated from harvest festivals held during the Jomon (c. 14,000 and 300 BC) to Yayoi (c. 300 BCE to 300 CE) periods when people made a living mainly hunting and gathering food. It was around this time that people began to worship deities belonging to a particular region or village to pray for a good harvest or a big catch.

At the same time, it is said that it originated from the vehicle of God Hachiman. When a rebellion known as the Hayato Rebellion broke out in Kyushu in 720 during the Nara period, the Imperial Court prayed for the protection of the nation and the subjugation of the Hayato (people of ancient Japan who lived in southern Kyushu) at Usa Hachiman Shrine in Oita prefecture.

Another theory is that mikoshi originated from Emperor Shomu’s vehicle. During the first year of the Tenpyo-shoho era (749), the Emperor ordered the construction of the Great Buddha at Todaiji Temple in Nara, the then capital of Japan, but was concerned that aristocrats would object to the enormous expense incurred from it. This was followed by the Hachiman God’s delivery of a divine message approving its construction. Emperor Shomu then had the Hachiman God relocated to Nara, and at the time of the relocation he rode on a vehicle called horen, which had a golden phoenix on its roof. This is believed to be the prototype of the mikoshi.

A mikoshi  at the famous Guion Matsuri in Kyoto
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