Japan from the inside out

Miko make the season bright during New Year’s in Japan

Posted by ampontan on Friday, January 2, 2009

MOST OF THE TIME, a Shinto shrine is all but deserted. Shinto isn’t a religion in the way people usually understand it—there are no written doctrines and no set times for worship. People visit a shrine when it suits their mood, their circumstances in life, or to participate in a few festivals or other events.

During the New Year’s holiday from 1-3 January, however, the shrines will be packed with people on a hatsumode, the customary first visit of the year. In most cases, people will visit three shrines in one day.

It would be impossible for the regular crew to handle the immense influx of visitors descending on the shrine in such a concentrated period of time. The chores required to receive those visitors, as well making and selling good luck talismans for the year ahead, require that the staff be reinforced with part-time employees. These are young women hired to serve as miko, or shrine maidens, who roughly correspond to altar boys at a Catholic church. While the larger shrines already have a few miko on call, particularly to assist at wedding ceremonies, most shrines have to hire them for the season.

Left over right? Right over left?

Left over right? Or right over left?

Because they’re working in the service of a religious institution and not a convenience store, the miko must conform to certain standards (i.e., no dyed hair). The priests provide additional training for the proper speech and deportment to be employed when greeting the shrine-goers, which demands a level of courtesy beyond that usually required in Japanese society.

This training includes instruction for dressing oneself in the traditional red and white garments, one of which is a hakama, or divided skirt. That’s normally part of a man’s formal wardrobe, particularly for traditional wedding ceremonies. While they aren’t as difficult to deal with as a kimono, wearing one is not intuitive and requires that someone show the wearer the ropes, or the drawstrings in this case.

The first photograph shows some miko-in-training learning how to dress at the Fukuyama Hachiman-gu in Fukuyama, Hiroshima. The training session, which also included lessons in the manner of address and the correct way in which to hand over lucky talismans to purchasers, was held about a week ago for the 40 women who will help out this year. The shrine needs the help: They expect 200,000 visitors over the three-day period.

Said the shrine’s priest, “The role of the miko is to connect the worshippers with the spirit of the divinity. I want them to approach that role with a pure heart.”

Santa’s elves

The shrines have plenty to do to prepare for New Year’s, which is still the most important holiday on the calendar. Some of the shrines that sell the talismans make them on the premises. That means the miko have been beavering away in the workshop as if they were a Japanese version of Santa’s elves.


The second photo shows a group of the 17 miko at the Onoyama-cho Gokoku shrine in Naha, Okinawa, making traditional fukusasa talismans by tying them into bundles after the materials were purified in a ceremony. Fukusasa is a combination of the words “lucky” and “bamboo grass”. A lot of lucky items will be sold to Japanese over the next few days in addition to bamboo grass, including fukubukuro, or lucky bags from department stores filled with merchandise and certificates for bigger-ticket items. One woman interviewed on television today was so intent on getting her fukubukuro that she rented a hotel room near the department store to ensure a spot in the queue enabling her to elbow her way inside when the doors opened in the morning.

The bamboo grass was specially cut by the priests in some nearby mountains. Said the chief priest Kaji Yorihito, “The bamboo grass grows pointing straight to heaven and is symbolic of the life force. We hope that as many people as possible will visit the shrine and add a sense of stability to their lives.”

The fukusasa are affixed with bells and small gourds, and then purchased and displayed by the parishioners who hope the luck will rub off in the form of domestic safety and business prosperity. It doesn’t take long for the miko to create a lot of potential luck. They can make 1,000 fukusasa in two days, as well as 10,000 hamaya, or exorcising arrows. When you expect 240,000 visitors, it’s good to have sufficient stock on hand. Besides, if you absolutely had to have an exorcising arrow, would you want to stand in line at the shrine and then be told they were sold out?

Cocoon balls

Meanwhile, work lasted for more than a week at the Kinomiya shrine in Atami, Shizuoka, to make the mayudama talisman for sale to those looking to get lucky in their business dealings. A mayu is a silkworm cocoon, and once upon a time the shrine attached real cocoons to willow branches and offered them over the counter.

That’s too expensive these days—silkworm cocoons were sold until recently on Japanese commodity exchanges, and the adventuresome investor can still buy raw silk from the cocoons on the Tokyo Grain Exchange. (For an idea of how people in East Asia view silkworms, the single kanji for the word is written by combining the characters for heaven and insect: 蚕.)

The more economical option today is the use of brightly colored balls (the tama of mayudama) made of rice meal. These and other decorations are attached to the branches of the hagi, or Japanese bush clover. The girls at the Kinomiya shrine made 3,000 this year, and you can see an example of their handiwork in the third photo.

Cleaning house

The miko are also responsible for performing the more housewifely tasks at the shrine, such as the yearly cleaning and dusting. Here’s a 40-second video of the miko banishing the cobwebs from the high ceilings using three-meter-long bamboo poles with bamboo grass on the business end instead of a mop or feather duster. Note how the priests are the model of liberated males, grabbing poles and working alongside the miko. But considering those spotless white outfits they’re wearing, one has to wonder how much dirt they expect to remove. Then again, how dirty can the inside of a shrine get in a year?

That’s the Hokkaido Jingo shrine in central Sapporo, by the way. They’re expecting 730,000 people to drop in this year. The end of the video has a shot of the shrine exterior that’s worth seeing for its stark Japanese beauty. Besides, it’s a lot better to view the shrine from the outside by video instead of in person at this time of year. Judging from the amount of snow on the ground and surrounding trees, I’d be hibernating until spring if I lived there.

Supersized kagami mochi

If you think cleaning the corners of the ceiling with bamboo poles and leaves is an unusual assignment, watch what the miko do at the Yasuzumi shrine in Takanezawa-machi, Tochigi. The shrine is noted for offering a jumbo three-level kagami mochi (decorative New Year’s rice cake) every year at this time in the hopes the divinities will see fit to bless them with a good harvest and that Japan’s print and broadcast media will see fit to give them a minute of free publicity. It works like a charm—this video is one of at least three from Japanese TV floating around on the web.

It shows some parishioners pounding the very glutinous mochi rice with wooden mallets to form the uncooked cakes, a forklift bringing in the first two layers, and the miko bringing in the third mochi cake in a procession as if they were transporting a daimyo in a palanquin. It concludes with the priests topping off the creation with one of the most delicious citrus fruits known to humankind: the bampeiyu. They resemble grapefruit about half the size of a basketball but without the sour tartness. And they’re coming into season soon!

Take a few seconds to imagine a ceremony that involves a forklift, a traditional pallet carried by young women in ceremonial clothing, and a giant citrus fruit used in place of a cherry to top off an enormous food offering. Ain’t Japan grand?

Takanezawa is one of Tochigi’s prime rice growing districts, and the shrine began making the jumbo kagami mochi in 1982. It took the parishioners two days to make this bruiser. The first level is 110 centimeters in diameter (3.6 feet), the second is 80 centimeters, and the third is 60. It’s about 90 centimeters high and weighs about 500 kilograms (1,100 lbs.) when fully assembled. If you’re passing through Tochigi, you can stop by and see it until the 20th. After that, the monster mochi will be removed and chopped up into smaller pieces for distribution to parishioners during the Setsubun festival on 3 February, unless Godzilla comes ashore and swallows it whole first.

Restoring a two-year tradition

There’s more to a miko’s lot than wearing traditional costumes to fashion handicrafts in the shrine sweatshop, serve as cleaning ladies, or do the heavy lifting of decorative rice. The two miko shown in the next photo are practicing the Urayasu-no-Mai (a dance), which was performed for the first time in 67 years at the Teruhi Shinto shrine yesterday in Osaki-cho, Kagoshima.


The dance for women is performed to music resembling gagaku with an elegant and deliberate choreography. It appears traditional, but it was actually created and first offered at the Ise shrine in 1940 to celebrate the 2,600th year of the Imperial line. (That anniversary was a very big deal in 1940, but that’s another story.)

The 79-year-old Fujioka Tomio of the local kagura preservation society says he was in the audience during the inaugural performance as a lad of 10 and has never forgotten it. The dance was performed for only two years—the Japanese had other fish to fry by 1942—and he’s been at the forefront of efforts since then to bring it back. He worked with a local teacher of traditional Japanese dance to teach it to two girls, one a first-year junior high school student and the other third-year high school student. They began practicing in November, and shown here is a photo of the miko in a dress rehearsal last week at the shrine. Mr. Fujioka and the shrine parishioners hope this will start a new tradition that will last longer than two years this time.

It might seem as if there is a sense of Japanese exclusivity and exoticism hovering about all these activities—young women dressing in traditional Japanese clothing to make traditional Japanese crafts for the celebration of New Year’s at Shinto institutions that they cleaned with ritual implements and adorned with ritual food offerings, and then performing a special dance created at a shrine closely associated with the Imperial house to celebrate more than two millennia of Imperial rule. Some might like to think the Japanese are so exclusionary and this behavior so defining that participation by anyone else would be unthinkable.

Think again. There’s another video floating around the web of a recent TV report on a miko training session at a shrine in Nagasaki City. The video wasn’t particularly distinctive, so I didn’t include it here, but a brief interview of one of the trainees casually tacked on to the end might cause cognitive dissonance among those who enjoy being narrow-minded about Japan.

This particular trainee was a 21-year-old Korean university student attending a local university. The woman was not learning about miko practices—she was taking a refresher course. She had already worked as one during the 2008 New Year’s holidays and enjoyed it so much she wanted to do it again.

You didn’t really buy that line about the Japanese being xenophobic Korean-haters, now did you?

Lest old acquaintance be forgot, let’s not forget this post from last year all about miko and some of the other delightful things they do.

Akemashite o-medeto gozaimasu!

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One Response to “Miko make the season bright during New Year’s in Japan”

  1. Jazmin said

    Do you know any shrines or temples that hire teenagers as a miko?

    Do any shrines or temples hire english speaking miko’s?

    I understand that a miko can’t have dyed hair, but what about skin color?
    Hi, J., Thanks for the note.
    1. Not specifically, but they do. Probably 18+, but I’m not sure.
    2. Probably not possible.
    3. I’ve seen stories of Korean and Italian miko helping out with the New Year’s rush, so, depending on the shrine, that might not be a problem.

    – A.

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