Omikoshi, Portable Shrine
The centerpiece of most local festivals is the omikoshi (portable shrine) parade and this is where
you come in. Dress as though you are going jogging.
A few weeks before the festival is scheduled to take place, the omikoshi, an incredibly elaborate
structure of carved black and red lacquered and gilded wood, with brass fixtures and maybe an
intricately worked phoenix on top, is put on display for everyone to marvel at. Omikoshi are the
single largest product of Japanese craftsmanship you are likely to run across. Specialists
require a year to make one, at stupendous cost, and the oldest ones are 300 years old.
Omikoshi are the residence of the local kami, the local god. It is felt that once a year, the god
in the omikoshi should be taken out, bounced up and down a bit (to amuse him), and shown
around the neighborhood.
On the morning of the festival, a ceremonial rigger comes along to tie the omikoshi to a sort
of raft which is to be hefted on the shoulders of carriers from the community (and anyone else
who would like to join in) so the local god can be jogged through the streets. The rigger is
soon joined by virtuoso knot-tiers, all offering varying advice, and all garbed, even though
they may have come from far away by subway, in the manner prescribed by the organizers
of the festival: short happi coat, short white shorts, tabi and straw sandals, and a hachimaki
headband tied over the brow to keep sweat out of the eyes. A good number of the
participants may not be from the area at all, but will be members of one of Tokyo's
dozens of matsuri (festival) clubs, changing their uniform as required, just because they
love the feel of a lively matsuri.
The prime mover of the omikoshi is likely to be an old man, ordinarily slightly bent over but
now rejuvenated by the spirit of the matsuri. At his signal, the carrying team will lift the omikoshi
onto their shoulders. There may be a dozen carriers in the case of a modest omikoshi, or a
hundred in the case of the one-ton battleship omikoshi of the older neighborhoods. The
omikoshi transcribes an uneven trajectory until the carriers find their rhythm. They are trying
to bob the omikoshi up and down while keeping it level, not awkwardly at an angle or from side
to side. The omikoshi is very heavy and it not easy to coordinate movement. The shoulders of
the experienced carriers are heavily calloused as a kind of badge of honor, and the carriers
chant washoi washoi or soya soya to help set the rhythm. They are as tightly packed as a
rugby scrum, the sweat begins to flow, the straw sandals begin to shred against the concrete
roadway: they are dancing and in a kind of trance.
Washoi washoi washoi washoi.
There may be young women in the carrying team, with their hair swept up and secured by
hachimaki. Their fresh appearance is in contrast to the demeanor of the men,
hough they are in combat. The omikoshi proceeds in fits and starts, retreating several steps
before surging on ahead, as in a wobbly barn dance. The carriers begin to experiment with
more complex steps - a heel-and-toe clog or a splay-toed shuffle. A team of reinforcements
follows carrying rice balls and sake to keep the energy level up and to replace anyone faltering.
Taking a god out for a spin is punishingly hard physical work, a tremendous, very conspicuous
expenditure of human power in the name of community. A kid is lifted onto the raft and he
blows a whistle in time with the bounces; he rises to his feet and everyone cheers. A gathering
crowd follows the omikoshi which is clearly the festival's center of action.
Wa-shoi wa-shoi wa-shoi.
Join in. Nestle in between two of the carriers. You'll be welcome. Wa-shoi wa-shoi. Voices are
getting raspy. Carriers drop out to wrap a bandage around a scuffed toes, put down some
sake, then get back in. The riggers who follow carrying wooden hammers in their sashes come
in to tighten up the ropes which have been loosened by bouncing. WA-SHOI wa-shoi WA-SHOI
wa-shoi WA-SHOI wa-shoi - the women are chanting in the offbeat between the chants of the
men. Everybody is together, like a great scraggly half-drunken team of rowers stroking a barge.
When you are carrying a omikoshi you have a license to be crazy. The joy of crowding together
belly to back, back to belly, the joy of being Japanese.
After an hour or two, after the omikoshi has been duly bounced throughout the neighborhood,
it will be lifted reverently onto a set of black lacquer blocks to rest and the carriers, with
cracked voices and tattered footgear, will sit on the curb to slump against lampposts to eat
and drink and recover their senses. Most matsuri clubs will be back at it again next week.
Omikoshi carrying can be addictive.