From Sailor Moon to Inuyasha, one of the most famous figures to come out of Shinto into mainstream Japanese media is the shrine maiden, or the miko. With the elegant red and white kimono ensemble, the image of a mysterious maiden with supernatural, shaman abilities has found itself in popular Japanese stories ranging from anime to live-action films and more.
Over the centuries, the position of miko within Japan has shifted and changed. Yet it’s always remained an integral part of Japanese culture. Today, you can see miko at major shrines, selling omamori and helping maintain the shrine.
Recently, the establishment of the first-ever miko School opened a new chapter for miko in Japan. For many people, including most Japanese, this seems like a curious concept at first. Isn’t miko today only a part-time job? Why would there be a need for a formal school?
In 2021, I had the privilege of enrolling in this school and have completed up to my intermediate level certification. Lately I’ve reflected upon what a wonderful journey it’s been. I’d like to introduce you to the school and its goals for promoting the role of miko within Japanese traditional culture.
A Brief History of Shrine Maidens
A miko is a woman who belongs to a Shinto shrine and assists the priest in performing rituals. The age limit varies from shrine to shrine. Typically they are unmarried, though that’s no longer a strict requirement; the same goes for the age of the miko. Virginity was required in the past as well. But as with age and marriage requirements, this has also become obsolete.
Since ancient times, shrine maidens were often seen as shamans. They performed the sacred Kagura dance, praying, telling fortunes, and acting as a mouthpiece of the Kami as oracles.
However, not everyone has always celebrated miko as an intricate part of Japanese culture and history. The Nara and Heian periods both saw government attempts at controlling not only miko, but other spiritual practitioners.
In 1873, an ordinance called the Miko Kindanrei (巫女禁断令) banning miko was issued, causing some miko to lose their livelihoods. Others ended up affiliating themselves with religious Shintoism, quietly continuing their practices from before. The government lifted the ban around 1940. The national spread of the Urayasu no Mai, a woman-performed religious dance dedicated to the 2600th anniversary of imperial rule, brought upon the revival of miko. Since then, the role of miko has changed to that of an assistant for Shinto priests.
Today, the main principles of a shrine maiden are to honor the Kami and treat our ancestors with respect. Mikos are to serve with sincerity while leading a joyful life of gratitude.
Within Shinto, regardless of branch, it’s important to remember that we are alive thanks to the great workings of nature and the Kami that dwell there within heaven, earth, and the universe. That gratitude – towards life and reverence of the miracles within nature and the universe – is the ideal core tenet a miko carries in her heart as she works.
Why was the Miko School Established?
Nowadays, being a miko is primarily a part-time job. The position consists mainly of volunteers who take monetary donations and help the shrine sell Omamori or clean the shrine. Often, they don’t learn much more than that, as it’s nothing more than a casual job for these women.
If a miko wishes to learn things such as Kagura, this requires special training that they usually pay for out of pocket. This includes the price of items such as Kagura Suzu bells, the miko uniform, Sanbou offering trays, and more. These items can be quite expensive. They are made by traditional craftsmen, and not mass-produced. Usually, you buy them once and only once for their purpose. Websites like Mercari often have listings by former part-time miko selling their items.
Most part-time miko also don’t learn certain ritual practices, such as how to read Norito prayers or make offerings. The average person would need to go to Kokugakuin University to learn things of this nature. Alternatively, they could apprentice with a Shinto priest or shrine before taking an exam to receive a license.
It’s a very particular knowledge set. And few part-time miko are doing this with the intention of serving the Kami for a long time. Such knowledge isn’t necessary for a bit of pocket money.
The Miko School arose in response to a desire to restore more Japanese cultural knowledge. The school explores the significant meaning behind being a shrine maiden, going beyond the position’s recent history as a part-time job.
The cultural and spiritual impact of miko is something worthy of devout study and respect. Therefore, the goal of the school is to make this knowledge truly accessible, increasing the number of women who learn the manners and etiquette of miko as part of Japanese culture.
The founder of the school, Momoyama Kiyoshi, was born to a seventh-generation Shinto priest, and succeeded the shrine in 1999. Renamed Negai no Miya (Shrine of Wishes) in 2004, it’s open to all regardless of personal religious belief.
The Mikosan project had a former incarnation as a miko experience to promote interest in true miko studies before the COVID pandemic hit in 2020. Since then, the operators took the opportunity to solidify the project as a training school. In May of 2022, the Association for the Promotion of Miko Culture (一般社団法人巫女文化伝承協会) was founded.
The school itself, called Mikosan Tsumugi, has enjoyed a steadily growing attendance. Lately, it’s started expanding beyond the Kansai area into the rest of Japan, and even overseas.
What you Learn in the Miko Shrine Maiden School
First of all, I should mention that at the moment, there are no lectures available in English. I personally recommend at least a level of N3 in Japanese if you’re interested in attending. Don’t worry if you don’t know a lot of the more particular Shinto vocabulary. Many ordinary Japanese don’t either! Teachers explain every concept carefully and expand upon them during lectures.
There are three levels of training: beginner, intermediate, and advanced. At the time of writing this, I have completed both beginner and intermediate.
The beginner level teaches the history and basic knowledge of miko via a classroom lecture. It includes the vocabulary associated with formal manners and gestures. This includes how to walk, and the basics of how to give offerings.
At this level, we learn how the rituals are used in Shinto ceremonies. We also learn how to apply these rituals to our own daily lives. Finally, we had the opportunity to practice chanting Norito prayer in front of the Kami. None of these are typically things a part-time miko would learn at this depth.
Thanks to my formal training in kimono, I found walking and learning how to dress in the Miko uniform quite easy. However, that’s definitely an aspect other students struggle with at first.
I felt very intimidated chanting Norito. Miko aren’t trained to recite the same way a priest would, which I fully admit sounds infinitely cooler. However, I’m now much more used to it. In the (rare) event that a priest isn’t available to lead Norito, I feel a bit more at ease.
The intermediate level teaches how to perform purification rites. This brings even more detail about offerings and Shinto knowledge, including learning how to purify with Kagura Suzu bells. Of course, the knowledge obtained during the beginner level is reviewed as well as expanded upon.
There is a lot more hands-on training with manners and the practice of giving offerings. You also learn the more intricate details of how to perform each task. For the first two levels, the school supplied the items, including the uniform, bells, and offering trays. However, once you finish the intermediate level, they encourage you to purchase items such as your own miko uniform.
I haven’t completed the advanced level yet but I dearly hope to soon. That level focuses on how to perfect your knowledge in order to train other miko.
In my lectures, I was guided by two Shinto priests and one miko senpai. Everyone was incredibly gracious and encouraged me to ask questions. They complimented whatever I did correctly. But they also explained and demonstrated any weaker areas so warmly that any clumsiness I felt quickly vanished.
The format of the classes is very similar to what I experienced in kimono school. Plenty of knowledge and lots of practice until the movements felt more natural. Each level contained a test I had to complete and a certificate declaring I had completed the training.
I feel genuinely grateful for this opportunity. Becoming more than a basic part-time miko is not easy to do, nor is it very cheap. Of course, I had to pay fees for my training here too. They covered rental for the supplies used and insurance in case someone gets injured or something is damaged. I also paid for the time and care that went into the lectures my teachers provided.
Perhaps I’ll end up using this knowledge someday to become formally ordained and licensed beyond being a certified miko! I suppose only time will tell. But in the meantime, I have learned so much and I hope to continue with the advanced level soon.
At the moment, there are over a hundred students who have joined the miko School and begun training. The school has five locations in Japan and the number of students in the Tokyo area is increasing rapidly.
The school is open to all women regardless of nationality. I’m mixed Japanese American, but there have been other Americans who have joined, some Chinese, and more.
There is also no age limit to the school. Some miko students are so young as to be in junior high school, and some are even in their seventies. The only thing that matters is approaching Japanese culture via miko studies with sincerity. It’s critical to bring a heartfelt desire to serve the Kami and assist Priests and Shrines.
Once training is completed, there are events to continue refreshing your skills. The school provides plenty of assistance in finding a job as a miko. There are numerous smaller shrines, not only in cities but also in more rural areas, that are struggling to stay afloat. Some have one priest managing several shrines all by themselves, an exhausting endeavor for any one person.
The school’s goal is to preserve and promote Shinto culture. Miko assisting priests across Japan is only one opportunity that can arise from such training.
Several miko associated with the school also assist with projects such as remaking discarded kimono into one-piece dresses, collaborating with shrine carpenters regarding helping people coordinate Kamidana in their homes, and even volunteering at dog and cat shelters to help them be adopted into their forever homes.
The groups of miko, both students and those who have completed their training, are supportive and lively. It’s a community of those who value Japanese culture and a shared experience of being miko. It’s more than just an opportunity to earn money on the side.
Over the next ten years, the school hopes to expand all over the world. It aims to create a cultural exchange and increase interest in Shinto beyond just Japan. The first step is creating an image of the shrine maiden that goes beyond a part-time job someone takes at New Year’s. Ultimately, the goal is to promote and advance Japanese culture through one of its most iconic figures: the shrine maiden.
Looking for More Information?
If you’re interested in learning more about the activities of the Miko School and its students, you can follow them on social media! There are several accounts to follow, such as the account for Mikosan Tsumugi, the Kansai branch and the Kanto branch of the schools. Events that the miko participate in are posted about often, so please feel free to follow and like the content.
The main website for the school can be found here. It includes basic information about the training and an introductory video, all in Japanese.