CARRYING ON A TRADITION: The history of the festival’s portable shrines

RIDING ON A SHRINE — The taru mikoshi, a portable shrine that’s believed to be inhabited by a deity, has been a part of the festival since 1967 (above). Over the years, additions have been made to the mikoshi, which now weighs 1,500 pounds and holds nine barrels of sake and two adults. photo courtesy of San Francisco Taru Mikoshi Ren

Every year, one of the Northern California Cherry Blossom Festival’s biggest highlights is the taru mikoshi, one of the entrants in the Grand Parade. The mikoshi is a portable Shinto shrine, which a deity is believed to inhabit. Legend has it that shaking the shrine spreads its blessing.

The San Francisco Taru Mikoshi Ren leads 150 people in carrying the 1,500-pound taru mikoshi, with nine barrels of sake and two adults adding another 300 pounds.

In 1967 a group of Japanese college students learned that the first ever Cherry Blossom Festival was to take place in San Francisco.

“We said, ‘You can’t have a festival without a taru mikoshi,’” exclaimed Kunihiro Takeshita, one of the founders of San Francisco Taru Mikoshi Ren. “So we scrounged up some sake barrels, got happi coats from Kikkoman, and borrowed the houou (phoenix) ornament from the JETRO (Japan External Trade Organization) office in the Kintetsu Mall (now Japan Center West Mall) and joined the first parade, which was called the kasou gyoretsu (costume parade).”

The group of 25 students bought planks of Douglas firs, some balsa wood and ropes to cobble together a modest mikoshi in just one week. They won the first place prize of $50 in the parade and made $150 more in donations.

The group had no intention of making this a yearly tradition, but a chance encounter at the now-closed Uoki K. Sakai Company convinced Takeshita otherwise.

“It must have been two or three days after the parade, these two elderly ladies were chatting in front of me and they were talking about how much they really liked the mikoshi,” said Takeshita. “You know, these Issei had left Japan and they hadn’t seen a mikoshi since … It really touched me, so I felt we had to continue,” he said in Japanese.

The mikoshi from 1968 is still used today, though the group has added more sake barrels and decorations. The mikoshi in its current form, with nine sake barrels and a two-tier platform, was completed 20 years ago.

The group will also carry a second mikoshi, which Kanda Myojin of Tokyo donated.

TARU MIKOSHI — Masafumi Ohara rides the taru mikoshi each year. “If everyone enjoys it, I’m happy — it’s the volunteer spirit,” says Ohara. photo by Andrew Slusser

The people who carry the mikoshi vary from year to year, but the men on top have become perennial figures, along with the sake barrels and golden phoenix statue, a golden bird that symbolizes immortality and rebirth. Masafumi Ohara has stood on top of the taru mikoshi for 31 years. Each year, he strips down to his fundoshi (undergarments) and clings on to the side of the towering shrine, all for the benefit of parade attendees.

“If everyone enjoys it, I’m happy — it’s the volunteer spirit,” said Ohara. “The Taru Mikoshi Ren is a group to make everyone happy!”

Ohara believes that the volunteers help to bring the customs and culture of Japan to life. “We let people from all cultures participate. We can teach them about our customs by having them experience it for themselves,” he said.

This year, Taru Mikoshi Ren is soliciting the help of 170 carriers for the parade. Costumes for volunteers will be loaned on a first come, first serve basis. Those who are unable to carry heavy loads, however, are advised against participating.

For more information or to register to participate, go to Nihonmachi Terrace, located at 1615 Sutter St. in San Francisco’s Japantown, during the festival. In advance of the festival, call Shuichi Oikawa at (650) 278-0249 or Akira Takada at (415) 203-6117.

The San Francisco Taru Mikoshi Ren purification ceremony will take place on Saturday, April 21 at 11 a.m., beginning at the Konko Church of San Francisco, which is located at 1909 Bush St. in Japantown. The phoenix statue will be purified at the Konko Church before being carried to the front of Union Bank, at 1675 Post St., for its mounting on the taru mikoshi. The visiting head-priest from Kanda Myojin also will hold their own purification ceremony at 10:30 a.m. on Post Street for their mikoshi.

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