Wednesday, July 30, 2008


Monday I was at the nursery school where I teach English twice a month. As a finished teaching, I noticed the children being gathered in the school yard and the teachers were carrying cameras. Always ready for a picture, I hurried out with my camera too.

These kids are carrying a handmade omikoshi. The principal explained that the nursery school had had a "summer festival" on Saturday and the kids had spent a couple of weeks beforehand making their omikoshi for the big day. Among other activities at the festival, snow cones were sold and the children did gold fish scooping (do we even have this event in other countries?) and bought water yo-yos.

So what is an omikoshi? It is actually a portable shrine and throughout Japan, different cities will have festivals and the men will carry these huge, heavy shrines on their shoulders or roll them on hand pulled floats from one end of town to the other. I think the Shinto gods are supposed to be taking a tour around the city, and there is a lot of yelling and cheering and vying for a position to be part of the throng. In different parts of Japan the festivals have evolved into fighting competitions and races and many omikoshi are wonderfully decorated and admired as they parade through the town. (I stumbled upon an real omikoshi last week when in town.)

Schools and children's groups have adopted the custom of decorating and carrying the omikoshi as part of school festivities and I remember my children being part of their classes that made and carried the omikoshi throughout the school before a talent show. The school's and the nursery school's omikoshi usually was based on a theme and was decorated accordingly.

As a Christian, I had a few qualms about my children taking part in this "religious" custom, but most often I didn't even know that there was a omikoshi involved until the day of the talent show and my kids were in the group yelling "Wasshoi! Wasshoi!" (Heave-ho!) True, the Christian kindergarten where I also teach does not practice this custom but I have come to look at the custom as a form of entertainment and I doubt any of the children involve realize the religious origins. Tetsu and I didn't think it was something we needed to draw extra attention to and it is another part of the Japanese culture that is difficult to separate from religious practices.

Back to the nursery school omikoshi. This is an ecology awareness omikoshi. As you can see, it has a "tree" in the middle and handprint leaves hanging from the trees. I think those are supposed to be fallen apples around the tree and the bottom half is decorated with drawings of what the children want to be when they grow up. A couple of the other classes had made other omikoshi but I didn't get outside fast enough to take their picture.

You might have noticed that the children have different colored caps and each class is required to wear their caps when outside. I suppose it is easier for the teachers to keep their own kids together in a group or to notice when one child is still off playing in another group when he is supposed to be getting ready to come back indoors or something.

Summer is upon us! "Wasshoi! Wasshoi!"


artfilstitch said...

What a colorful event, I know the children all had a great time. The art work is beautiful. The first time that I visited Japan we were in Kyoto during the Gion Festival and that was a real experience. I believe this festival lasted for the entire month of July. The parades were like nothing that I had ever seen. The yaha and hoko floats were huge,some decorated with fabrics from many years ago. Does the omikoshi and gion celebration relate to the same festivities? Very interesting...thanks for the pictures and explanation.

Quilt Pixie said...

It must be hard to decide what cultural customs to participate in, and which are "too religious"... I've always thought Japan's culture to be very closely tied to its shinto religion, in much the same way as much of north american culture is tied to Christianity even if people don't know/see the connections anymore...

Michelle said...

Hello there! Where in Japan are you? You talked of the thunderstorms that we had the other night!! I'm at Atsugi NAS. Anywhere close to you? Would love to meet a fellow quilter around.

Michelle Subbert

Shelina said...

Since religion is so intricately tied into culture, I found it impossible to separate the two. I think that it is good that your children got to experience the culture.
The hat idea seems like a good one, although I do see children with missing hats.

Nancy said...

Friend, I never tire of reading your posts explaining Japanese culture. It is all so interesting and you tell it so very well.

n, np

Mary said...

I think I would make the same decision you did, I view it as an opportunity to learn about history and/or another religion. As a Catholic, I have attended other religious worship services and I believe having knowledge and respect for the beliefs of others is an important lesson for our children to learn.

Thanks again for sharing!