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Journey to the Saiku

Today’s fieldtrip was all about the Saiō, an imperial princess dedicated to the service of the kami of the Ise shrines, particularly Amaterasu-ōmikami, during an emperor’s reign. The saiō princess, the saigū system, and the saikū complex are not popularly known in Japan or abroad. To help disseminate information and generate

interest in this interesting facet of Shinto and Ise history, Emura-sensei invited the I+J participants to tour around various sites related to the saigū.

First, a little history. The saigū tradition is said to have begun around two thousand years ago when the legendary 11th emperor Suinin commanded his daughter Princess Yamato to find a new place for Amaterasu-ōmikami to reside. Prior to the reign of Suinin’s father, Emperor Sujin, Amaterasu-ōmikami had been enshrined within the imperial palace. Legend tells that disasters plagued the land of Yamato, and Sujin determined that this was due to the overwhelming force of the kami housed in his home. In order to restore order, Sujin decreed that Amaterasu-ōmikami should be enshrined separate from the imperial palace, and at that time the kami was moved to Kasanui. Emperor Suinin asked Princess Yamato to locate an appropriate residence for Amaterasu-ōmikami, and after years of searching and an oracle from the goddess herself, the princess settled on Ise.

From then on, a young woman from the imperial family typically between the age of 8 and 20, most often the emperor’s daughter, removed herself to the Saikū palace with a few hundred attendants and served as priestess to Amaterasu-ōmikami and the kami of Ise in the emperor’s place. The saiō princess would not return to the capital until the current emperor’s reign ended, except for when there was a death in her family. While there was not strict continuity in the saigū tradition and it was ended in the Meiji period, it’s history is very impressive, if a bit elusive.

In Meiwa town just outside Ise city, there are several sites dedicated to the saigū as a part of Japanese heritage. First, we headed to the Saikū History Museum. We watched a short video reenactment of Princess Nagako’s procession to the saikū with English translation. In the two exhibition halls, we learned about different aspects of the saiō princess’s life, including her customary dress, diet, ritual practice, leisure, etc. What impressed me most were the replicas, as it struck me that these are parts of Japanese history that so few people could know about to such an extent, even at the time. One model of Ise’s Inner Shrine (Naiku) incorporates hologram technology, allowing you to watch as the saiō princess conducts a renewal ritual for Amaterasu-ōmikami. This is something that few eyes would ever have witnessed.

At the Itsukinomiya Tea House, we were treated to a delicious bento lunch that is based on Heian period food that the saiō is thought to have eaten. Notably, there is no meat prohibited by Buddhist tenets, reflecting the influence of Buddhism on early Japanese culture, even in places such as Ise which pride themselves on being set apart from Buddhism.

Next, we headed to the Saikū Heiran Era Park, where you can enter life-size replicas of the saiō princess’s residence and shinden from the Heian Period. Here, you can use a tablet to get a glimpse of the past through a virtual reality (VR) app. As you move the tablet around, like a window the view shifts, and you can see people inhabit the complex and evenhear a Nakatomi priest intone a noritō.

Across some train tracks from the park, you can visit the somber Bamboo Shrine (竹神社) in the saikū woods.

We headed to the Itsukunomiya Hall for Historical Experience where some I+J participants tried on Heian period robes and saiō clothing. The saiō traditionally wore twelve heavy layers of silk robes and a trailing pleated skirt for ritual occasions. In the hall, you can also sit in a replica palanquin, learn some traditional crafts like weaving and Heian period games such as kaiōi, a shell matching game.

We ended our tour with a short trip to Ōyodo seaside park, located on Ise Bay. According to the Ise monogatari, this is where the saiō princess Yasuko met and bade farewell to Ariwara-no-Narihira after a brief forbidden romance. The shore was littered with shells in amazing condition compared to what I’m used to at New Jersey beaches!

All in all, I learned a lot about the history of the saiō princesses. It must have been difficult for them to leave behind their family at a young age for an extended period of time, but they were surrounded by supporters and had a remarkable status, independence, and purpose as servants to the kami. All the staff were knowledgable and kind. If you ever have a chance to visit Ise, they would love for you to consider making a trip to the Saikū museum sites.

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