Mikoshi Arai – fire, water, kami and the Gion Festival

Flanked by bamboo torches, a group of around 50 men carry a portable shrine (mikoshi) on their shoulders. At intervals they stop and shake the temporary home of the kami, then move onwards to their destination – the Kamogawa in Gion, Kyoto where the mikoshi will be purified with sacred water from the river. Following the mikoshi down Shijo-dori I clap and shout ‘hoitto, hoitto‘ along with others in the crowd. The energy in the street is palpable. The Mikoshi Arai, part of the world famous Gion Festival, sets the stage for a series of events in Kyoto over the month of July.  The Yamaboko Junko Parade on July 17th, featuring two distinct kinds of enormous wooden floats, is the best known and attended of these events. A week earlier the Mikoshi Arai, which stretches across dusk and darkness, purifies the entire Gion Festival.

Three large and one small mikoshi, the temporary homes of the kami associated with Yasaka Shrine, are the centre-pieces of  the Gion Festival. They take pride of place in locations around Gion between July 17th and 24th.  On these two dates the procession of large wooden floats around the streets of Kyoto welcome and farewell the kami that reside in the mikoshi. The ceremony on July 10th (Mikoshi Arai) purifies the mikoshi and the entire Gion Festival. It involves one of the large mikoshi being carried to the Kamogawa (Kamo River) from Yasaka Shrine to be cleansed by sacred water. The other mikoshi stay at Yasaka Shrine to be adorned with sumptuous gold fittings and beautiful textiles.

Over two hours of preparation precede the purification of the mikoshi at Shijo Bridge on the Kamogawa. The portable shrine carried to the river is unadorned. Not so the two mikoshi that stay at Yasaka Shrine. Arriving there at 5.45 pm I saw the first portable shrine being carried to a covered stage where it would be transformed.

The second large mikoshi was carried to the covered stage ten minutes later.

Adorning the two large mikoshi in the covered stage took an hour. The officials at the Shrine told onlookers that there was no event occurring during that period, saying that we should return at 7 pm when a large bamboo torch would be lit and carried to the Kamogawa. Many of the crowd left. I remained to respectfully watch the temporary homes of the kami being ‘dressed’ in their finery. A light wind gently caressed the lanterns surrounding the mikoshi, adding to the atmosphere. This quiet and reflective time was the precursor of the boisterous events to come.

A set of large gold bells, seen on the right, are about to be attached to the largest mikoshi. The portable shrine has already been draped in beautiful fabric, seemingly orange and gold.

The adornment of the mikoshi continues. In the mid-ground emergency service workers have gathered to watch over the lighting of the large bamboo torch.

As well as the attention being paid to the mikoshi, there was considerable activity around the Shrine grounds during the ‘non-event’ period. Many festival participants came and went including the yocho, the strong men who carry the mikoshi.  The special festival clothing and adornments they wear are illustrated below, with appreciation to the gentleman who was happy to be photographed.

The vermillion and white main gate of Yasaka Shrine, through which the mikoshi is carried, can be seen behind the yocho. Each mikoshi bearer carries around 40 kg in weight for the largest shrine. The duty of serving the kami this way is executed with iron determination and great pride.

At 5 minutes to 7 pm, the next ‘main’ event of the Mikoshi Arai started to take form. A large group of men walked towards the main (south) gate of Yasaka Shrine with lanterns in hand. They were taking their places to accompany the large bamboo torch to the Kamogawa.

The lanterns on the covered stage were lit at 6.45 pm, around 25 minutes before sunset. The smaller lanterns being carried by the men were lit once the procession to the river began.

The large bamboo torch at the entrance of the Yasaka Shrine was set alight by a priest precisely at 7 pm, then carried to the south gate of the Shrine. Given my position in the crowd I was pleased to capture the lighting of the sacred fire. The image below illustrates the importance of this element in the Mikoshi Arai. I would like to learn more about role of fire in the festival.

Once lit, the large bamboo torch was carried to the Kamogawa, returning to Yasaka Shrine 30 minutes later. During this period I stayed at the Shrine in anticipation of the mikoshi making the same journey to the river.

All the while the two transformed mikoshi sat surrounded by glowing lanterns.

The return of the large bamboo torch to Yasaka Shrine signalled the next phase of the Mikoshi Arai.

Officials at Yasaka Shrine told onlookers that the purification of the mikoshi was the main event of the Mikoshi Arai. The time had come to find a new viewing spot, or spots, to experience this remarkable occasion. The following images illustrate the procession of the mikoshi from Yasaka Shrine to the Kamogawa.  Starting as an observer from the side-lines, half way through I joined the exuberant crowd following the portable shrine along Shijo-dori.

Traditionally dressed men, with their lanterns alight, lead the way.

Many paper lanterns were displayed along the route, donated by local Gion businesses I assume.

This striking puffer fish lantern particularly caught my eye.

Many children took part in the procession following the mikoshi. The atmosphere was joyful and inclusive.  Participants clapped and joined the chanting, giving support to the yocho for their challenging task.

Sacred fire flanked the start and finish of the procession from the shrine to the river. Three people carried the large bamboo torch, the flame growing ever closer to the front pair as the evening wore on.

Once the mikoshi reached Shijo Bridge the yocho lifted it up above their heads and turned it to face the direction of Yasaka Shrine. Given the weight of the portable shrine this was a major and impressive undertaking, yet was done with relative ease. The shared chanting and comradery between the mikoshi bearers appeared to give them additional strength.

Having reached its destination, the mikoshi was placed on Shijo Bridge. A Shinto priest recited a norito (prayer) as part of the purification ceremony. A sacred branch with folded white paper (shide) attached was then used to splash the mikoshi and surrounding crowd. Being touched by this sacred water bought smiles to people’s faces. Many families sought a prime place for their children around the mikoshi to enhance their chances, or so it seemed to me. I received a sprinkle or two of sacred water, so it was my lucky day.

The mikoshi being turned on Shijo Bridge.

A purification prayer for the mikoshi

Before it began its journey back to Yasaka Shrine an opportunity was provided to view and take photos of the mikoshi. What a stunning temporary home for the kami it is, even before it is adorned with gold and brocade.

After the purification ceremony the mikoshi is returned to Yasaka Shrine with fire once more flanking the start and finish of the procession.

A stronger evening wind blew the bamboo and shide on either side of Shijo bridge. They were used to define the sacred space where the mikoshi was purified.

The three deities honoured in the mikoshi  – Susanoo no mikoto, his wife and their children – could only be impressed by the Mikoshi Arai. The final phase sees the purified mikoshi taken on a circuit around the two adorned shrines at Yasaka Shrine. It then joins them under the covered stage and is suitably adorned. I left the festivities  pleased that I had finally participated in the Gion mikoshi purification rituals: fire, water and kami, Gion Festival style.

(For earlier posts about fire and water in Shinto (written in 2014) and Shugendo (written in 2016) in Japan, click here and here.)

2 thoughts on “Mikoshi Arai – fire, water, kami and the Gion Festival

  1. Your experience of being present at the mikoshi arai part of the Gion Festival is beautifully written and so evocative! It was great to see so many images of the event, I really did get a sense of being there. It was interesting to see such a large crowd – it clearly is a popular and well attended festival. It was good to read that you felt a few sprinkles of sacred water. That is a bonus. I also liked the wording on the tee shirt worn by the young person in the crowd
    – nature never sleeps. I’m sure it is very meaningful!


    • Nature never sleeps. That was an unexpected bonus of attending the Matsuri Arai. It really got me thinking! The crowds were reasonable at the festival, although nothing like the numbers that attend the parade of wooden floats on July 17th. That is advertised and promoted as the ‘Number 1’ event of the Gion Festival. Events such as the one I attended are considered principally of local interest. And the ‘locals’ may like to keep it that way. Fortunately they welcome others with an interest to join in. In that way the significance and sentiments of the festival can be shared through words and images with those unable to attend in person.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.