Part-Time Priestess | cultural | Metropolis Japan
During my COVID-19 gap year at Yale University, I worked as a priestess at a Japanese shrine. Okay, that’s not as dramatic as it sounds, but “priestess” is the best translation I can think of. More specifically, I worked as miko-san. Sales omamori from amulets to dancing at important ceremonies, my role was to help with the chores around the shrine. I’ve seen English writings refer to miko-san as “shrine daughters” before, but I shy away from this translation because it seems to emphasize miko-san’s youthfulness and purity, and well While this is historically true, often times the modern miko is just a student who has a vested interest in shrines and Shintoism.
It’s embarrassing to write on paper, but my initial interest in becoming a miko-san actually stemmed from his clothing. I was not brought up in a very religious home and did not know the deeply rooted values and customs of Shinto shrines. Also, I was technically Catholic. Was a miko-san something I might not be interested in? So, like any great researcher, I Googled it. Sure enough, shrines in Tokyo looking for help have appeared. One of them, Akagi Shrine in Kagurazaka, just a few stations from where I was staying, stood out to me. With a grand marble staircase leading up to the glass-walled building of the shady (the main shrine where the god is), I had never seen such an architecturally modern shrine. They also had a cafe. Thinking I had nothing to lose, I emailed them. They responded within the day. I went to an interview that week.
On the first day, I didn’t know what to expect. The head miko, Udagawa-san, immediately taught me how to put on my hakama. I felt like I didn’t really have the right to be in uniform so soon. I tied my hair in a low ponytail and looked at my reflection, and for the first time I realized: I looked, well, legit. But what if a visitor asks me a question, thinking I’m a seasoned miko, and all I can do is stare at him with wide eyes and frantically call for help?
However, I really had nothing to fear; the first tasks i did as miko were simple. As it was mid-autumn, the stairs were covered in yellow leaves from the neatly trimmed trees. Udagawa-san pressed a bamboo broom to my chest and sent me on my merry way. I did a lot of other small tasks, like making goshuin, a sheet of paper with stamps and calligraphy that serves as proof of his visit to the shrine, selling amulets and guiding visitors through ceremonies. The guji-san (head of the shrine) told me to observe constantly and learn by observing. I loved watching the ceremonies – I stood in the corner of the shaden with my hands clasped lightly in front of me as the guji-san warded off evil spirits and prayed for patrons in carefully practiced movements. I was even able to beat the wadaiko drum sometimes, to mark the beginning and the end of each ceremony.
Because the main god of Akagi Shrine is the god of fire, many of the big events I attended centered around passion, love, and success. I have seen parents bring their babies to their hatsumiyamairi (rite of passage for newborns), companies come as a team to pray for good deals and even for luxury cars that still smell like the factory brought in to be purified for safe driving. I’ve helped at weddings, where the bride and groom in their pristine wedding kimonos walked to the dissonant and eerily beautiful music of the Japanese bamboo flute. I even attended a ‘Big Hit Ceremony’, where the cast of a soon to be released film came to pray for box office success, with reporters and cameramen recording the whole event. Although he never actually said it, I had a feeling that guji-san liked flashy events to take place in his shrine.
The guji-san, a gruff but humorous man with a tendency to give gifts to everyone around him, was born into Shintoism. His grandfather became the guji of Akagi Shrine, after the samurai were left jobless. It wasn’t as if the guji-san was chained to his destiny as head of the shrine; although they often are, the guji need not be connected by lineage. In fact, after passing an exam (much like the MCAT or the LSAT), really anyone can become a shinshokua priest authorized to conduct the ceremonies.
The guji-san told me outwardly that he was not particularly devout but invested in preserving Japanese traditions. And he doesn’t hide the fact that running a sanctuary is often like running a business. Unlike Buddhism or Christianity, Shinto does not openly ask for donations, and even though it is the national religion, Japan does not currently offer any financial support to struggling shrines. The guji-san often worried about less popular shrines that didn’t have a steady flow of guests and told me that in the coming years many smaller shrines might be forced to close. He often entrusted Udagawa-san with technical tasks, such as answering emails and going to the bank.
Unlike guji-san, Udagawa-san was not raised in a Shinto family, but always loved shrines. During her fourth year of college, she found herself running out of ideas about what she wanted to do after graduation. While looking for a job, she came across a job posting for a nearby shrine. Realizing that working at a shrine was a possible career path, she dug deeper. After some research and feeling a connection to their approach to visiting the shrine as something accessible and interesting, she contacted Akagi Shrine. The rest is history.
Observing the friendly service that Udagawa-san and the other miko were capable of, I quickly completed much of the work as miko-san was an accessible (and not as intimidating) resource for patrons visiting the shrine. From asking where to put the donations to finding out if there was a bathroom they could use, visitors often feel uncomfortable disturbing shrine officials. The miko-san, however, who are young women with an open demeanor, seem easier to talk to. At many ceremonies, guests looked at me with apologetic “help me” eyes, not knowing where they were allowed to sit, and I gently guided them.
For the New Year, the biggest holiday in the Shinto tradition, I ended up working at Otori Shrine. As the clock struck midnight and the calendar year moved from 2020 to 2021 – or, if we’re thematically appropriate and referring to the years of Japanese eras based on the Shinto Emperor, from two to three – I was selling amulets and hamaya (New Year’s charm in the shape of an arrow) to a crowd of worshipers. The patrons were mostly respectful, but I was politely amused by rowdy visitors, drunk from their New Year’s Eve parties, and a bit shocked to deal with a few rude guests, who complained about how slow our work was. I laugh in a low voice at their audacity; even if they didn’t find me intimidating, they were in the presence of a god. If anything was ominous, it would be to speak ill of a miko-san on New Year’s Day.
At the end of my shift, I stepped out of my hakama, shaking from sitting by an open window all night. I helped a girl who had never worked part-time before, much less as a miko, acquire her hakama. She was 16 and bright-eyed, and so small that the white kimono top that rested on my shins was dragging on the floor for her. I shortened her top by folding the fabric to her waist, already feeling like a sempai.
I worked a few more shifts at the shrine that year, but as the busiest Shinto vacation drew to a close and my other obligations resumed, my time as a miko-san came to a natural end. For the moment.
Shrines have always had a special place in my heart, but after my time as a part-time priestess, my love for shrines is less specific but all over the place. Whether it’s the inexplicable sacred energy or the reverent silence that descends on its grounds (I feel like it’s a combination of the two), the shrines instill in me a sense of reflection and calm that I do not know anywhere else. But Shintoism has always been inextricably steeped in Japanese culture, steeped in me, long before I started working as a miko-san. Simple things like saying itadakimasu before a meal, or taking off one’s shoes inside a house as a mark of respect are the epitome of Shinto morality.
I won’t pretend to be an expert in religion or Shintoism, because I’m not even close. There are centuries of history and traditions that I couldn’t learn everything in a few months. If you think about it, the Declaration of Independence wouldn’t be written for 500 years when Akagi Shrine was built, and it’s not even a particularly ancient shrine. I may not know what all the words mean in a ceremony, but my experience of miko-san lives within me in my instinct to bow when entering a shrine and in the muscle memory of my fingers when I tie a hakama. So the next time you see a shrine, whether it’s tiny and squeezed between brand new office buildings, or grand and historic like the Meiji Shrine, smile at the red hakama-wearing miko-san working behind the counter – it really isn’t. so different from you.