Nara National Museum’s “On-Matsuri and the Sacred Art of Kasuga: The Kasuga Shrine Maidens”


A mannequin dressed in a full “Mikanko” dance costume used today at the On-Matsuri stands at the centre of Nara National Museum’s new exhibit: On-Matsuri and the Sacred Art of Kasuga: The Kasuga Shrine Maidens. It is a lovely example of the costume: red and white robes, bright red hakama trousers, decorative chihaya over-garment with long sleeves that conceal the hands, Ogi fan tucked into the belt, and headpiece adorned with purple wisteria and droplet-shaped metal prongs that shimmer along with the dancer’s movements. This year, Nara National Museum is highlighting Shrine Maidens, their roles, apparel, and accoutrements as a special feature of its annual exhibition on the arts of the twelfth century On-Matsuri festival which is still held today at Kasuga-taisha Shrine, and which honours the Kasuga Wakamiya god.


from the Nara National Museum exhibition flyer: Shrine maidens in “Illustrations of the Kasuga Wakamiya Festival” (17th C)


Not every Shinto shrine is able to count a Miko (or several) as part of its administration but the larger ones are equipped with a regular group that is well-trained and highly accomplished in the arts of Kagura dance, purification rituals, song and musical performance, as well as the various tasks involved in the operation of a shrine. While they are often seen sweeping in flashes of red and white between buildings in shrine complexes, long hair clipped back with a folded hemp and paper clutch, or performing graceful ceremonial dance in front of the shrines in which the gods reside, they are not well understood, which is why the focus accorded them in this exhibition is very welcome. Kasuga Taisha Grand Shrine, in fact, has long been famed for its Miko –– or Mikanko, as they are (unusually and honorifically) known there –– and especially for their Yaotome dance piece which, threatened with prohibition during the upheavals of modernization, is said to have been refined. Elegance and control, one can surmise, were the keys to survival, while their opposites intrigue with the possibility – hinted at by comparison with dance by closely related Korean female shamans at their own shrines – that these female dancers were mediums who embodied the gods.


Ethnomusicologists also suggest that many such dances became slower and more measured as time went by, and while the nature of this development remains unclear this centuries-long morphing has produced the mesmerizing form of dance performed today. The role of the Mikanko at the On-Matsuri festival is to carry out the “Akatsukisai” opening section of the ceremonies, offering food and performing a night dance to welcome the Wakamiya god who has been escorted through pitch-darkness to the temporary shrine, the O-tabisho, where it will be lavished with one elegant performance after another of traditional dance by different groups. The Akatsukisai serves to deliver prayers to the god. From the earliest days of the festival in the mid-twelfth century the Mikanko would dance until morning before mounting horses to join the grand procession.


The Mikanko can be seen in exhibited hand scrolls and folding screens from the 17th, 18th, and 19th centuries – all “Illustrations of the Kasuga Wakamiya Festival” – which provide celebratory records of the (mainly-processional) programme of festivities. An 1812 work by Kyoto artist Yano Yachi is notably striking in its humour, portraying a lively and breezy set of characters, including the shrine maidens, and events that seem a little less solemn to what takes place today. One can see some of the characteristics of developing handscroll art here, where figures seem to be dancing through a narrative series of events and the light, confident brushwork brings it all to life, but we also  get a sense of the changes in the On-Matsuri that must have taken place over the centuries, despite the unbroken tradition of the performance itself, and many of its aspects.  Today the festival is primarily governed by a supreme elegance and pervaded by an atmosphere of reverence and mystery.



The Mikanko figures are not the only participants of the On-Matsuri to be highlighted in the exhibition. The “Shunnichi-ko”, confraternities of locals who worshipped the gods of Kasuga in their residences and are believed to have formed at around the time the On-Matsuri was, are also well-represented by a number of hanging scroll mandala paintings that served as their icons. Old textual records and modern photos show how these were displayed in tokonoma alcoves with floral decorations and offerings of rice and sake. These meetings are still held today, but the “Kasuga Deer Mandala” and “Kasuga Shrine Mandala” have become prized museum and collection holdings.


Kasuga Deer Mandala, Muromachi period (AD 1333-1568), Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia


These are important examples of the syncretic nature of Kasuga belief: although the On-Matsuri seems to be entirely “Shinto”, the mandalas display the relationship of the gods to buddhas. A colourful 16th century scroll depicts a blue-eyed white deer with a group of buddhas in a mirror erected on a branch of the sacred sakaki tree on its saddle. The deer was the vehicle of the Kasuga god, father of the Kasuga Wakamiya god, which means the buddhas placed on its back are considered the equivalents to the god/s. Elsewhere, in imaginatively designed Buddhist reliquaries from the 14th century, the connections are even more evident. The sakaki branch is arrayed with purple wisteria, a nod to the powerful Fujiwara family – Kasuga Taisha Grand Shrine was their clan shrine, wisteria their symbol. The wisteria are found on the headpieces of the Mikanko too. As we observe these paintings, their connections with the nobility as well as the locals more broadly and to Buddhist beliefs, a picture emerges of a network of community figures in the old capital of pre-modern Japan. The On-Matsuri as an event represents this community well, and the exhibition is a good explanation of it, through a remarkable array of exceptionally beautiful paintings, informative textual records, and fine Mikanko dance costumery and apparel.


On-Matsuri and the Sacred Art of Kasuga: The Kasuga Shrine Maidens

Nara National Museum, West Wing.

December 9th-January 14th 9:30-5pm. The museum is closed on Mondays (except for January 8th) and on public holidays (Thursday, December 28th to Monday, January 1st and Tuesday, January 9th).

Entrance: General Admission 700 yen; University students 350 yen


Please feel free to contact us here at Kansai Treasure Travel anytime for further details, travel advice, or a custom tour and see our 1 Day Nara and Uji Private Tailor-made Tour


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