Face-to-face interview with part-time miko that most women yearn to be like! A Glimpse into the World of Shrine Maidens

When you visit a shrine over the New Year holidays, it’s more than likely that you will bump into a “miko” (shrine maiden). Quite a lot of women actually admire the dignified presence of these shrine maidens who walk around the shrine precinct in their bright scarlet hakama (divided trouser-like skirt) that sways every step they take. In this article, three women who work as temporary miko at shrines for the New Year holidays were interviewed to get a glimpse into their life as part-time miko. They were each asked about what motivated them to become a part-time miko, what their job entails and their impressions after their short stint as miko.

What is a “part-time miko”?

A “part-time miko” is a miko, also known as a shrine maiden, who is hired to work at a shrine on a temporary basis during busy periods such as the New Year holidays. Officially called an “assistant miko” and not a “part-time miko,” this type of shrine maiden provides services to a shrine for a specified period.

The period when potential miko are recruited varies depending on the shrine, but it usually starts around September to October. Temporary apprentices may not be subject to rigid conditions, but those who apply are basically required to have black hair, with preference given to girls with hair long enough to be tied in a single ponytail. They are also banned from wearing earrings, rings, and other accessories in most shrines, and many shrines apparently impose age limits on those who can try out as assistant miko.

An interview with three part-time miko

Three apprentice miko for the New Year holiday period gave interviews for this article. From left, they were Ms. Usui, Ms. Sou, and Ms. Sakai, all of whom are college students. It was the first time to serve as apprentice miko for Ms. Usui and Ms. Sakai, while it was the second time for Ms. Sou. All three were interviewed about their stories in the job after serving as miko over the holidays.

*It’s nice to meet you. I apologize for going straight to the point right away, but could you tell me why you decided to become a “part-time miko”?

Usui: I was invited by my friend who had experienced being a part-time miko. I have worked various part-time jobs, but the work undertaken by a miko was all new to me, so I decided to try.

Sou: I wanted to try the hakama. I went to middle school and high school in the Suginami district, so I applied for this position in hopes of contributing to the district by serving at a shrine in Suginami.

Sakai: I also longed to become a miko and wear their hakama, so I applied for the job.

*Before you started working as one, what was your image of “assistant miko” before you began working as one?

Usui: I thought these women have a sacred image.

Sou: They had a clean image, of course.

*Now, how did you feel after wearing the miko outfit for the first time?

Sou: The belly area was tighter than I thought!

Sakai: When I tried it on me, it really did feel like I was doing cosplay (dressing in costume).

*Please tell me what kind of work you engaged in as a miko.

Sou: I basically handed out the omamori (lucky charms) and omikuji (fortune slip) at the gift shop. Sometimes, I would even be assigned to take care of the final step in making the omamori.

*What did you realize when you worked as a miko, something that most women long for?

Sakai: We had to memorize a lot, such as the ceremony fees for and types of omamori, so I was very careful not to forget those things. As for the matters that I just couldn’t memorize however hard I tried at home or anywhere else, I would ask the miko next to me or a Shinto priest and then cram what I have learned inside my head.

Usui: I do other part-time jobs, so when I was a miko, I was constantly conscious not to blurt out expressions that are improper for a miko, such as “welcome” and “thank you.” Further, I had zero knowledge on shrines, so I really studied about proper manners when worshiping and how to offer good luck charms, among other things. When it comes to matters I could not memorize from the materials given by the shrine and the training, I would also look at and memorize the reactions of those around me while I served.

*What was it about your job that was especially difficult and made you suffer?

Sakai: It was really hard not to commit a mistake in mental arithmetic when I worked at the gift shop.

Sou: There were times when I grew a little flustered when worshipers asked me about matters not usually asked in relation to shrines and omamori.

*But when you actually became a miko, was anything different from how you imagined it would be?

Usui: There was a time when I was asked to handle the making of the omamori, and I didn’t expect that.

Sou: Unlike the clean image, it was quite hard to be a miko because my feet were exhausted from standing all day and my throat got so dry. I also thought it would be cold, but it was not really that cold.

*Do you have any inside stories and trivia about miko?

Sou: Many of us were close in age, so we got along really well!

Sakai: I just couldn’t get used to the shrine’s unique expression of “yokoso no omairi de gozaimasu” (“we welcome your visit”). Further, I had no idea that I needed to bow my head and take three steps when crossing the approach in front of the honden (main shrine building), so that left an impression on me.

*Finally, how do you feel now that your time as apprentice miko is over?

Sakai: It was a great life experience. I have turned into someone who values annual events more. While I am sorry for constantly causing troubling or inconveniencing the shrine priests, it was really a lot of fun.

Sou: Never in my life have I been thanked by that many people in a single day. I also learned a lot of things for the first time, so it was a great experience. While there were some rough times, it was still a lot of fun.

Usui: I love historical novels, so when I got serve as a miko, one of the traditional jobs in Japan since the olden days, it made me really happy as I felt I got to touch that part of our history. This is a job that others would never get to experience, so I feel really good that I got to try to be a miko.

*Thank you.

The Asagaya Jinmeigu Shrine that collaborated in the interview

The Asagaya Shinmeigu Shrine, which collaborated in the interview, is the sole shrine in Japan that is known nationwide as a place where worshipers can petition for the eradication of the eight (difficult) circumstances, and offer 88 kinds of prayers called Suehiro Prayers. Its main shrine building enshrines the sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, while the auxiliary shrine on the right is dedicated to Tsukuyomi no Mikoto and the one on the left enshrines Susanoo no Mikoto. This shrine was bestowed with the sacred mirror and arrow by the Ise Grand Shrine in September 2016 following the torii (Shinto shrine gate) in 2015.

Starting February 25th (Saturday; tentative), this shrine’s original bracelet-type omamori called kan-musubi (800 JPY) in two time-limited colors of cherry blossoms will begin to be distributed, so please check them out.

Asagaya Jinmeigu Shrine

1-25-5 Asagayakita, Suginami-ku, Tokyo

While a miko looks quite alluring at first sight, it seems that she has to engage in an unexpectedly large amount of work such as memorize the ceremony fees for and types of omamori, and perform mental arithmetic while continuously standing on her feet for several hours. The real appeal of being a part-time miko that is hard to replace is that it enables them to experience things related to the traditions of Japan that can only be done here, as well learn a lot of things. The three miko that were interviewed completely shifted from their dignified stance when serving and then merrily talked about their own experiences from beginning to end. It certainly looked like they consider their time as part-time shrine maidens as a valuable experience that will remain with them all their lives. [This article was originally published in Walkerplus on 02.24.2017]

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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