Translated by Hilary Keyes
Japanese Encyclopedia: Mikoshi ("Portable Shrine")
Written by Hiromasa Uematsu
A key feature in Japanese festivals, "mikoshi" or portable shrines are said to be the temporary home of the deities associated with the local shrine or festival.
You're sure to see a lot of snapshot-like sights when you take part in a Japanese festival. This is a mikoshi (お神輿), or portable shrine. An important implement of festivals, it is believed that the deity of the local shrine rides inside the mikoshi.
Essentially, Japanese deities are believed to reside within the shrine building that they are connected with. Thus, in order for the deity to be able to leave the shrine, mikoshi are used. In fact, mikoshi are made to approximate the shape of the main shrine building, so it can be said that they are miniature shrines.
There are four long poles attached to the base of the mikoshi, projecting forward and backward. These poles are there so that the portable shrine can be carried on the shoulders by festival participants. The Japanese characters for mikoshi include the word koshi 輿, which in old Japanese refers to a palanquin or litter used by attendants to carry people when they needed to travel somewhere. As these vehicles needed a lot of people to carry them properly, they were primarily used by the nobility.
During festivals the participants (local residents mainly) carry the mikoshi on their shoulders, much as palanquins were carried, and walk about the neighborhood with the shrine. While carrying the shrine, the carriers often shout out phrases of encouragement or words related to the festival. This varies by festival and region.
If you happen to see a mikoshi being carried about during a festival, please keep a safe distance from it and enjoy the sight.