Saigu (a vestal virgin princess serving at the Ise-jingu Shrine and her residence) (斎宮)

"Saigu" (also called Saiku or Itsuki no Miya as well as Iwai no Miya) refers to the residence of Saio (a vestal virgin princess) serving at the Ise-jingu Shrine between ancient times and the period of the Northern and Southern Courts (in Japan). From the Heian period, it also began to signify Saio herself to distinguish her from Saio serving at the Kamo-jinja Shrine (called Saiin). She is also referred to as Ise Saio and Ise Saigu.

The Origin of Saigu

According to the Sujin Chronicle of "Nihonshoki" (Chronicles of Japan), Emperor Sujin ordered Imperial Princess Toyosukiirihime no Mikoto to enshrine Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess), who was worshiped in the Imperial Court, in the Kasanui Village of Wa (ancient Japan). This is considered the origin of Saio (or Saigu). During the reign of next Emperor Suinin, Imperial Princess Yamatohime no Mikoto, or the niece of Toyosukiirihime, reached Ise Province after making a round of visits to various places. And she enshrined Amaterasu Omikami there. The Suinin Chronicle of "Nihonshoki" describes the incidence as below.
Iwai no Miya (the residence of Saio) is set up in the upper reaches of the Isuzu River.'
This is called Iso no Miya.'
It is presumed to be the original model of the residence, to which Saio is confined, that is, the residence of Saigu. The Suinin Chronicle also states that 'the Emperor offered Yamatohime no Mikoto to Amaterasu Omikami as Mitsue (a cane assisting Omikami). Since then, Saio came to serve as 'Mitsueshiro' (an object housing Kami, or a divine spirit) of Amaterasu Omikami at the Ise-jingu Shrine for a long time.
(In ancient times, however, Saio did not necessarily exist under the reigns of all the successive emperors.)
(Also, their terms of service are not so clear.)

Afterward, the dispatch of Saio to Ise was stopped once, following the reign of Emperor Yomei. However, it was formally established as a system during the period of Emperor Tenmu. A theory holds that Emperor Tenmu presented his own imperial princess to the Ise-jingu Shrine as gratitude for victory in the Jinshin War. This way, Oku no Himemiko, who was a renowned Manyo Kajin (a poet of Manyoshu, or The Anthology of Myriad Leaves), became the first Saio. Since then, mainly every time the Emperor was succeeded, a new Saio was chosen and set out on a journey from the capital to Ise. This continued until the period of the Northern and Southern Courts even after the transfer of the capital to Heian-kyo.

In this connection, there is a theory which argues that any Saigu before Sukatehime is a complete invention of later generations on the basis of the three points below. In the "Fusoryakuki" (A Brief History of Japan), there is an account stating that Oku no Himemiko was appointed as Saigu for the first time during the period of Emperor Tenmu. There is a blank period of about fifty years between her predecessor, Sukatehime, and her. And Wakatarashihime, Sukaku no Himemiko, Iwakuma no Himemiko, Uji no Himemiko, and Sukatehime no Himemiko did not come to Ise.


Once the last Saigu ends her mission, candidates are picked out among unmarried imperial princesses and princesses (of the Imperial Family). And a new Saigu is chosen by fortune-telling called Kiboku (divination that interprets the fissure that appears after toasting the turtle shell in the fire. Once a new Saigu is selected, Chokushi (an Imperial envoy) comes to her residence to inform her that she was chosen by Bokujo. Additionally, Hoheishi (an imperial envoy who presents offerings to shrines and mausolea) is also sent to the Ise-jingu Shrine. And Saigu immediately begins to purify herself by abstaining from certain foods and activities.

Incidentally, Saigu serving Kami avoids impurity. And she taboos Buddhism. Hence, the words relating to them were also prohibited.
Unique taboo words were used, for example 'die=>recover,' 'blood=>sweat,' 'the Buddha=>Nakago' (the center), 'a sutra=>dyed paper,' and 'a monk=>a long hair.'

Shosaiin (the Hall of Initial Abstinence)

A lavatory (or its temporary location) inside of Kyujo (the Imperial Palace) is determined by Bokujo. And Densha (the Palace) inside of Daidairi (the Greater Imperial Palace) becomes the site of purification for Saigu. This is called Shosaiin. Its location varies by Saigu. However, Gagakuryo (a public office in the political system based on the Ritsuryo codes that administered Gagaku, or ancient court music and dance), the Imperial Household Ministry, Tonomoriryo (a public office in the political system based on the ritsuryo code that maintained and administered Densha and furniture inside the Imperial Court), and the Left and Right Divisions of the Imperial Guards are left on record. It is specified that Saigu spends a year of purification at Shosaiin. However, it is often much shorter according to circumstances.

Nonomiya (a temporary palace where Saigu spends a year of purification)

It is Nonomiya into which Saigu enters at the beginning of August of the next year after the purification at Shosaiin. It is Densha that is temporality built for Saigu in a pure location outside the capital (which was mainly Sagano since the Heian period) determined by fortune-telling. And it was tradition to demolish it after a generation of Saigu.
(Therefore, it is not accurately known today in which parts of Sagano there were Nonomiya.)
Saigu prepared for leaving the capital and going down to Ise until next September, living a purification life in Nonomiya immediately after Shosaiin. Incidentally, Nonomiya was built with black wood (timber with a bark). For this reason, Torii (a gateway to the Shinto shrine) that was made with black wood was considered its symbol.
In the "Genji Monogatari" (The Tale of Genji), a daughter of Rokujo no Miyasudokoro and former Togu (the Crown Prince) (who later became Empress Akikonomu) was selected as Saigu in the book of 'Aoi (of Genji Monogatari).'
And it became necessary for Rokujo no Miyasudokoro to accompany her. It is this Nonomiya which forms the setting of parting with Hikaru Genji in "The Sakaki Volume." Later, it was also chosen as a subject matter for a Noh play.

Hakken no Gi (the ceremony of dispatch)

Saigu departs from Nonomiya and performs her ablutions in September of the third year from Bokujo and after Shosaiin and Nonomiya.
Afterward, she enters Daigokuden (the main building of the Imperial Palace) inside the Imperial Court, where the Emperor is waiting, and attends the ceremony of departure, 'Hakken no Gi.'
Different from common official courtesies, the Emperor sits in the seat prepared on the floor in white clothing and looks to the east in this occasion. After receiving Saigu, the Emperor personally puts a boxwood comb in her hair on the forehead. And he tells her not to 'betake herself to the direction of the capital' so as to pray for the everlasting prosperity of his reign.
(When the Emperor cannot attend the ceremony because of Monoimi [confinement to his residence on an unlucky day] and so on, Sessho [a regent] or Kanpaku [the chief adviser to the Emperor] performs the ceremony on his behalf.)
This custom was called "Wakare no Ogushi" (the Parting Comb). It was a rule that neither Saigu nor the Emperor could ever look around when leaving Daigokuden after finishing the ceremony. In this connection, the oldest example that is recorded in historical material today is the record relating to the event of Princess Kishi (who later became Saigu no Nyogo) in 938. However, according to the "Honcho Seiki" (Chronicle of Imperial Reigns), it was modeled on the example of Saigu Imperial Princess Tenshi of 861. For this reason, it is believed that the ceremony was being held at least before then.

Gunko (Saigu's journey to Ise after three years of purification in Nonomiya)

After Hakken no Gi is over, Saigu gets into Sokaren (a special palanquin only the Emperor and the Empress can usually ride) and at last departs for Ise. A large procession was formed by a company of almost five-hundred people including Saigu, Chobusoshi (an Imperial envoy who escorts her to Ise), Kannin (public officials), Kanjo (court ladies), etc. A journey from the capital to Ise was called 'Gunko' in the Heian period. The party takes a trip of six days and five nights - during which it repeatedly performs a purification ceremony in each of five Tongu (improvised palaces), namely, Seta (where the comb that was put at Hakken no Gi is removed), Koka, Tarumi, Suzuka, and Ichishi - to arrive at Ise from Heian-kyo Capital. It was especially hard to cross the Suzuka-toge Pass that was found between Tarumi Tongu and Suzuka Tongu. It was also the most dangerous spot along the way. FUJIWARA no Sukefusa, who accompanied Saigu Imperial Princess Ryoshi when she went down to Ise in 1038, recorded the journey to Ise at full length in his diary "Shunki" (Spring Journal). This is the only historical material concerning Gunko. In addition, the accurate locations of Tongu are mostly unidentified today. However, the remains of Tarumi Saio Tongu in Tsuchiyama-cho, Koka City, Shiga Prefecture - one of the places where Tongu reportedly existed - are designated as a national historic site. And it formed the setting of Yasuo UCHIDA's novel "Saio no Soretsu" (Funeral Procession of Saio).

Saiguryo (a public office that governs the affairs of Saigu) and Religious Services

The home of Saigu in Ise was Saiguryo that was about twenty kilometers away from the Ise-jingu Shrine (the present Meiwa-cho, Taki County, Mie Prefecture). She usually passed her purification days, worshipping Iwaidono (a building in which Kami is enshrined) that was found in Saiguryo in the distance. She went to Ise-jingu Shrine and gave her service to the Shinto ritual three times a year, only for the Sansetsu-sai Festival, namely Tsukinami no Matsuri Festival in June, Kanname-sai Festival in September, and Tsukinami no Matsuri Festival in December. Over five hundred people in all, including the chief of Saiguryo and others, worked there. It was a large scale construction with grid blocks forming a line in a plot, which had more than 137 hectares. They were brought to light as a result of the excavation of the remains. The excavated green (blue?) glazed earthenware is particularly characteristic. It is thought that the color may have had some meaning. Incidentally, the presence of the remains of Saigu was confirmed in the excavation research of 1970. And they were designated as a national historic site in 1979. The excavation continues today.

Sansetsu-sai Festival (Kanname-sai Festival in September and Tsukinami no Matsuri Festivals in June and December)
Saio attends the second day of the Sansetsu-sai Festival, which is held on the sixteenth and the seventeenth in the Inner Shrine of Ise and the fifteenth and the sixteenth in the Outer Shrine of Ise. She receives a branch of a sacred tree from Guji (the chief priest of a Shinto shrine) and installs it in the east side in front of Mizugaki-gomon Gate.

Toshigoi no Matsuri Festival (in February)
Heihaku (offerings) are distributed to the shrines that are inside the Shingun (special districts born as the precincts of the shrines) of Take and Watarai in the festival, which informs the onset of agriculture.

Shinjo-sai Festival (in November)
The festival celebrates a harvest.


The termination of Saigu's mission was called Taishutsu from the eighth until about the tenth century. However, it was referred to as Taige or Geza afterward. It is specified that Saigu's Taige usually coincides with the Emperor's death or abdication. However, there were also other instances of Taige due to mourning for the deaths of Saigu's parents and close relatives, deplorable events like adultery during purification, and the death of Saigu herself. Not a few Saigu also ended their missions or passed away during purification in Shosaiin and Nonomiya. Thus, not all successive Saigu carried out Gunko. It is also said that Saigu who died during her service in Ise after Gunko was buried on the spot.
(There are two Saigu who died in Ise, namely Princess Takako and Imperial Princess Atsuko from the Heian period.)
(In both cases, the Imperial mausolea that are told to be of their burial sites are found near the remains of Saigu.)
The former Saigu did not return to the capital immediately after Taige. She waited in Ise for a few months until arrangements were made and then returned to Kyoto, accompanied by Hogeshi (an Imperial envoy who welcomed Saigu to the Imperial Family).

Incidentally, there were two routes to return to Kyoto. When the Emperor abdicated the throne, Saigu trudged the same Suzuka-toge Pass and Omi-ji Road as in the outward journey. However, she usually returned home via Iga-Yamato-ji Road (Ichishi, Kawaguchi, Aho, and Sagara) when there were other misfortunes (such as the death of the Emperor and mourning for the deaths of her close relatives). She floated down the Yodo-gawa River in the end of both routes. And she entered Kyoto via Kaya no Miya (the Imperial villa of the Emperor Saga) after performing her ablutions in Naniwa-tsu Port.

With respect to ancient Saigu, there is a record only about Imperial Princess Sukatehime no Himemiko who moved to Katsuragi after carrying out her mission. There is no written record of where other Saigu went after they performed their services. This can be considered to be a simple omission. It can also be presumed that it was left out because there was a place, to which they should naturally return (for instance, the neighborhood of the Emperor's Palace). Alternatively, it may be supposed that the new address of Imperial Princess Sukatehime no Himemiko - that is, Katsuragi - was given to represent other Saigu's new address.

Saigu after returning to Kyoto

Little is known about the lives of former Saigu after they fulfilled their duties and returned to Kyoto with a few exceptions. According to the Ritsuryo codes, a spouse of an imperial princess was essentially limited to a member of the Imperial Family. Thus, former Saigu married only emperors and other members of the Imperial Family after Taige until the end of the Nara period. Even after the beginning of the Heian period, it was only Imperial Princess Gashi (a wife of FUJIWARA no Morosuke) who married a subject among all the imperial princesses.
(However, there was Princess Senshi who married FUJIWARA no Norimichi among princesses.)
In this connection, Imperial Princess Toshi, who committed adultery with FUJIWARA no Michimasa, incurred the wrath of her father, Emperor Sanjo. And they were forcefully separated. Marriage itself does not seem to have been taboo. However, it is believed that many former Saigu lived all their lives quietly without getting married.

On the other hand, four former Saigu married the Emperor, namely Imperial Princess Inoe (who was the Empress of Emperor Konin but was later dethroned), Imperial Princess Sakahito (who was the Consort of Emperor Kanmu), Imperial Princess Asahara (who was the Consort of Emperor Heizei), and Princess Kishi (who was the Consort of Emperor Murakami). Especially, the three imperial princesses - Inoe, Sakahito, and Asahara - are rare cases who became Saigu across three generations of mothers and daughters.
(Imperial Princess Kinshi in the period of the Northern and Southern Courts entered into the Imperial Court after Emperor Kogon abdicated the throne.)

Later, in the Insei (rule by a retired [cloistered] emperor) period, imperial princesses who became an empress or Nyoin (a close female relative of the Emperor or a woman of comparable standing who was given a title of respect, Ingo) appeared. The first such example was the beloved daughter of Emperor Shirakawa, Imperial Princess Teishi (who became Ikuhomonin). She was a former Saigu. Since then, imperial princesses, who became Nyoin via the conferral of Junbo (a status that is equivalent to the Emperor's birth mother) and Ritsugo (the investiture of the Empress) after being Saigu or Saiin, continued to appear until the period of the Northern and Southern Courts.

[Original Japanese]