Hobei (hohei) means to offer heihaku (paper, silk cuttings or red and white cloth presented to deities) to shrines and the Imperial mausoleums by the Emperor's command. The Emperor may visit the site himself to pray and offer the heihaku himself. However, often times hobei is done by sending the Emperor's messenger or Imperial envoy. This messenger or envoy is called hobeishi.
Engishiki jinmyocho (a register of shrines in Japan) records a list of shrines worthy of receiving hobei, and 3132 of them are recorded.
The hobeishi had to be someone of a court rank higher than Goi (Fifth Rank) as well as a person of the deity's will in accordance with bokusen (divination). Furthermore, for some shrines the hobeishi was already predetermined. There was a rule that the members from the O clan (the Shirakawa family) served at Ise-jingu Shrine, the members from the Wake clan served at Usa-jingu Shrine and the members of the Fujiwara clan served at Kasuga-taisha Shrine. Normally, hobeishi was accompanied by a senmyoshi (a messenger of imperial edict), and after the hobei ritual the senmyoshi read the imperial edict.
After the medieval ages, the hobei ritual at Kanname-sai festival held at Ise-jingu Shrine was given the special name of reihei. The hobeishi serving at the reihei ritual was called reiheishi (or Ise reiheishi, to distinguish from Nikko reiheishi mentioned later). Occasional hobei rituals for reporting to Ise-jingu Shrine the dates of the emperor's enthronement, Daijo-sai festival and genpuku ritual (celebration of one's coming of age) is called yoshinohobei.
The Edo period
With the decline of the Imperial Court the ritual was gradually reduced and lost substance. After the Onin War, no more hobei rituals were performed except for the ones at Ise-jingu Shrine. From the mid-17th century the Edo bakufu (Japanese feudal government headed by a shogun) began to place a high esteem on the ceremonies of the Imperial Court. In 1744, the hobei ritual was revived for the first time in 300 years at 22 shrines belonging to the Seven Upper Shrines. The Nikko reiheishi system, in which the messengers were sent to the reisai (regular festivals) at Nikko Tosho-gu Shrine, began in 1646. During the Edo period, the mere mention of reiheishi often referred to Nikko reiheishi.
Going to Nikko at the time was a tremendous 'trip to the countryside' to a Nikko reiheishi, and therefore, there was a desire to finish the hobei ritual as soon as possible and return home. Furthermore, having to go via Edo during the trip meant many troublesome issues such as visiting the bakufu. Therefore, reiheishi took the inland route of Nakasendo Road - Kuraga no shuku Post Station - Reiheishi Kaido Road for the trip to Nikko, without going through the Tokaido Road and Edo.
Nikko reiheishi was normally a low-ranking, poor court noble. However, they held a tremendous influence during the trip because they bore the authority of the Imperial Court and the bakufu. Because the trip was a government service, post stations and sukego-mura villages (government assigned villages along frequently-traveled roads that provided inns and resources for travelers) were made to contribute their support for free, which caused them a tremendous inconvenience. The following stories have been passed down.
When the palanquin shook even a little bit the rider jumped out of the palanquin and insisted by saying "I fell off the palanquin because of the improper pace of the palanquin carriers, I will report this insolence to the bakufu." Then he wrangled compensation from the people of the post station and the palanquin carriers to settle the dispute.
The reiheishi brought large amounts of empty nagamochi (trunks) and made requests such as six carriers (carried by six people) or eight carriers (carried by eight people). Furthermore, he insisted on having a number of carriers far beyond what the post station could provide. This was done so in order to wrangle money from the post station to compensate for the insufficient number of carriers (the reiheishi supposedly had to hire carriers himself). Needless to say, the people at the post station were also shrewd, and haggling over price reduction often took place.
In Edo, the reiheishi stayed in a mansion provided by the bakufu. However, upon departure he packed all the furniture and household goods, including even the stone weight used for making pickles, into the empty nagamochi mentioned before, then departed.
In 1908, detailed regulations on hobei were established by "Koshitu Saishi Rei" (Imperial household religious rites ordinance). In 1911, the official name of hobeishi was established as heihakukyoshinshi.
After the war
After World War II, hobei rituals at events such as reisai held at Chokusai-sha (shrines attended by imperial envoy), such as Ise-jingu Shrine, and hobei rituals at Shikinen-sai festival (religious festivals held on fixed years) at sanryo (Imperial mausoleum) have been performed. In such cases, ceremonial staff members served as hobeishi.
Meanwhile, the messenger for bringing heihaku from Jinja Honcho (The Association of Shinto Shrines) to the subsidiary shrines is called kenpeishi.