Okage Mairi (a pilgrimage to the Ise-jingu Shrine) (お蔭参り)

Okage mairi refers to mass pilgrimages to the Ise-jingu Shrine, made in the Edo period. Millions of pilgrims flocked three times on a 60-year cycle. The pilgrimages are also called Ise mairi.

The most distinctive feature of the okage mairi lay in the fact that servants and children would make a pilgrimage without receiving permission from their masters and parents respectively. Therefore, okage mairi is also referred to as nuke mairi (stealing away on pilgrimage). The shogunate and clans implemented regulations for such pilgrimages, but were not successful.

As they became popular, the pilgrimage spread almost throughout Honshu (the main island of Japan), Shikoku, and Kyushu, but was not widely accepted in areas where the Jodo Shinshu sect (the True Pure Land Sect of Buddhism) was dominant.

Okage mairi, as well as other pilgrimages, was accompanied by many folktales, such as one about the dead coming back to life, and there were sometimes stories where followers of the Shinshu sect who refused to join the pilgrimage were punished by God. The most common tale is of ofudafuri (falling paper charms). The tale says that jingu taima (shrine amulet) fell from heaven over village houses. It is also said onshi (a low-ranking Shinto priest) who spread the Ise faith among the people scattered the amulets.


Court nobles, families that owned and resided in temples, as well as samurai families, would make an incantation and pray at Ise-jingu Shrine which as dedicated to Amaterasu Omikami (the Sun Goddess), wars during the medieval period devastated the shrine precinct, leading to the complete destruction of the shrine, such that the deity could not be transferred to a new shrine building, which was supposed to be performed once every prescribed number of years. In order to rebuild the Ise-jingu Shrine, onshi who performed rituals of the shrine focused on Toyouke no Okami (Grand Divine Toyouke) enshrined in the geku (the outer shrine) and performed missionary work in various areas, such as distributing calendars, to encourage peasants to visit the Ise-jingu Shrine.

In medieval times, people that despaired of their world, made a pilgrimage to temples in hope of happiness in the afterlife. Later, pilgrimages to shrines also came to be performed actively.

After the country was unified, checking stations on the roads were removed, so obstacles to the pilgrimage were cleared.

After the Edo period, Go-kaido Roads (five highways) and other traffic networks were developed to make pilgrimage easier than before. As the world became settled, the pilgrimage came to be aimed mainly to gain benefit in this world instead of salvation in the afterlife, and also came to contain the purpose of sightseeing. Improvement in rice varieties and development of agricultural technologies had increased crop yields (especially rice which was the mainstay of the tax in the Edo period) and made it easier for peasants to earn cash. Also the development of commodity economy led to the appearance of what is equivalent to today's travel guidebooks and accounts.

Around that time, the movement of commoners, especially of peasants, was strictly regulated, but in most cases they were allowed to make a pilgrimage to the Ise-jingu Shrine. Even if they traveled without permission, when it was confirmed that they had intended to visit the Ise-jingu Shrine, a traveler would not receive a punishment that was worse than a "reprimand."

It was also a dream of commoners to make a pilgrimage to the Ise-jingu Shrine once in their lives.

Oiseko (religious association organized for pilgrimaging to Ise-Jingu Shrine)

Travel expenses to visit Ise were a heavy burden for ordinary people of the time. It was difficult to raise such a huge sum of money in their daily lives. Then, a structure called 'oiseko' was established. Ko' members contributed to pay for the journey.
Reserve funds were sometimes used for acquiring farm lands and other properties belonging to the 'ko.'
The pilgrim was chosen by 'lot,' but consideration seemed to be given to ensure every member of 'ko' could be chosen sooner or later. The person chosen by lot made a journey to Ise on behalf of other 'ko' members, taking advantage of the agricultural off-season.

A grand send-off ceremony was held before departing. Local residents also prayed for a traveler's safety during the journey. Pilgrims would sightsee along the way, pray for all other members in Ise, and buy talismans, seeds of new varieties of crops, specialties and the latest products (light, compact, and strong products were commonly purchased) found in the neighboring areas of Ise as well as along the way, such as textile fabrics of Matsuzaka City and Kyoto, as souvenirs. After they come home safely, people celebrate their return. Thanks largely to this 'ko' structure, people in Edo, including the poor, could travel around at least once in their lives.

This 'oiseko' also worked as an association of shrine parishioners in ordinary times. Oiseko' had been seen since the mid-Muromachi period in the Kinai region (the five capital provinces surrounding the ancient capitals of Nara and Kyoto), but it was only after the Edo period that 'oiseko' spread throughout the country. This structure survived to the end of the Edo period, but the General Headquarters of the Allied Powers (GHQ) regarded the 'ko' as gambling and dismissed it after the war (see the "Mujin-ko" (beneficial association) section). In some areas, however, iseko continues its activities even today.

In areas where iseko was not organized, going-away gifts covered most of the travel expenses.

Onshi's activities

As discussed in the "Background" section, onshi focused his attention on Toyouke no Okami enshrined in the geku in order to rebuild the Ise-jingu Shrine, and spread the Ise faith among peasants, leading to the appearance of okage mairi. Onshi were divided into groups of several people, were scattered around the country, and made a living by receiving rice harvested in the year as hatsuho ryo (ceremony fee) in return for distributing calendars and praying for a good harvest in rural areas. In the middle of the Edo period, the variety of improvement and development of agricultural technologies led to an increase in the number of peasants who earned cash and gave rise to those who decided to go on a journey in search of new knowledge, experience, and products. A good reason was required, however, to make a journey in the Edo period when the movement of peasants was restricted, and the pilgrimage to Ise came to be used as justification for their journeys. This justification was used, partly because onshi conducted activities to invite peasants to join in on a pilgrimage to Ise.

Those who set out for Ise against such a background usually stayed with onshi who covered the pilgrim's village, during his/her stay in Ise. Many onshi ran the inn in their house to entertain visitors to Ise. In an onshi's inn, dressed up onshi would entertain visitors to keep them from being bored, by serving all sorts of delicacies in Ise and Matsuzaka City and other lavish meals on fine dishes, offering kabuki performance, and letting the peasants sleep on a silk futon which they had never used at home. Onshi also worked as a guide for visiting the Ise-jingu Shrine and sightseeing in Ise, and taught the peasants how to offer prayers and took them around famous places and entertainment districts in Ise. In such cases, onshi gave peasants only a quick tour of honden (main shrine building) where Amaterasu Omikami was enshrined, and showed them mainly around geku dedicated to Toyouke no Okami that the peasants worshipped.

Influence of okage mairi upon rural villages

Because those who went out for okage mairi traveled to Ise on behalf of all the people in his/her village with the money gathered from the villagers, they avoided returning empty-handed. Visiting Ise was often just an excuse to set out on a journey, and the journey was also made in order to acquire the latest knowledge and skills, know what is in fashion, and experience new things. Those who returned from okage mairi spread the latest fashions (e.g., the newest patterns of textile fabrics in Kyoto and Matsuzaka), farming tools (e.g., new varieties of crops were introduced, and winnowers to separate the chaff by means of a current of air created with a hand operated windmill was spread to replace winnowing baskets), and music and performing arts (music and dance originating from Ise Dance were spread around the country) across the country by actual products, word of mouth, and notes of a journey.


(Years without detailed description indicate the year which saw many group pilgrimages which technically were not okage mairi.)

Medieval period

As a preliminary stage to okage mairi, a group pilgrimage occurred several times.

Early stage



There are not many records of okage mairi of the Keian era, so details of it are not known. "Kanmei Nikki" (Kanmei Diary) says merchants in Edo started the pilgrimage boom. According to a survey by a checking station on Hakone-toge Pass, 500 to 600 people made a pilgrimage a day on average from late February to early April, and 2100 people made a pilgrimage on average from middle April to July. Pilgrims were all dressed in 'Byakue' costumes.

Number of pilgrims:

Total population in Japan at the time: 17.81 million (in 1650)

Region of occurrence: Edo

Duration: February to July




Okage mairi of the Hoei era really marked the beginning of okage mairi, and 3.3 to 3.7 million people visited the Ise-jingu Shrine for two months. Norinaga MOTOORI wrote, in his collection of essays "Tamakatsuma," that 2,000 to 3,000 people, and up to as many as 230,000 people, passed through Matsuzaka City each day from late April.

Number of pilgrims: 3.3 to 3.7 million

Total population in Japan at the time: 27.69 million (in 1700)

Region of occurrence: Kyoto







Middle stage


On May 24, a group of women and children left the tea hill in Uji City, where they worked, without permission and with only the clothes they were wearing, and this is said to be the beginning of okage mairi of the Meiwa era.

A diary at the time says that during peak periods, in the neighboring Matsuzaka City there were so many visitors passing through the town that the author had trouble going to the house across the street from his/her own.
Pilgrims walked, singing 'okage de sa, nuketa to sa.'
At first each group held up the flag with its hometown and members written on it, but the number of flags showing comical and obscene things gradually increased. Everyone, young and old, men and women, also came to sing all sorts of obscene things.

Number of pilgrims: two million

Total population in Japan at the time: 31.1 million (in 1750)

Region of occurrence: Uji City in Yamashiro Province

Duration: May to August (for five months)

Economic effects:

Prices increased sharply along the road. The market price of 1.8 liters of white rice was 50 mon (obsolete unit of currency), but it soared to 58 mon on May 31, 66 mon on July 1, and 70 mon on July 30. Straw sandals sold for 8 mon on June 15, but the price surged to 13 to 15 mon on June 19 and 18 to 24 mon on June 21.

Rich people living along the road also actively performed 'almsgiving.'
A child who had left with no money reportedly came home with silver. At first almsgivers gave charity partly because of religious ideas, but receivers came to take alms for granted. Some people began to join a pilgrimage only for the purpose of receiving money.


Late stage


Okage mairi of the Bunsei era occurred in consideration of 'okage year' (the year following the transfer of a deity to a new shrine building) which came about every 60 years. Okage mairi of the Bunsei era did not spread over as wide areas as that of the Meiwa era, but the number of participants increased greatly.

It was somehow common for worshippers to take a ladle with them and leave it at the north gate of the geku of the Ise-jingu Shrine. Some say this came from pilgrimage manners that spread from Awa Province.

Number of pilgrims: 4,276,500

Total population in Japan at the time: 32.28 million (in 1850)

Region of occurrence: Awa

Duration: Late April to middle October

Economic effects: More than 860,000 ryo (obsolete unit of currency)

It was recorded that prices rose, with the price of a pair of straw sandals increasing from 13 mon to 200 mon in Osaka and the price of a ladle from 16 mon to 300 mon in Kyoto.


Final stage


Eejanaika (never mind; frenzied dancing and chanting)
This is not included in okage mairi to be exact, but is influenced by okage mairi. See the "eejanaika" section.

In the Meiji period, Emperor Meiji's visit to the Ise-jingu Shrine transformed the nature of the shrine and the Meiji government prohibited onshi's activities, and as a result, people lost their interest in visiting the Ise-jingu Shrine.
In 1890, which was the "okage year," a newspaper published an article saying 'no signs of okage mairi.'
("Shiru wo Tanoshimu Rekishi ni Kokishin" (Enjoy to Know and Have an Interest in History) by Japan Broadcasting Corporation Educational TV, broadcasted in October)

Celebrities who participated in okage mairi (nuke mairi)

Kokichi KATSU (a father of Kaishu KATSU): He joined nuke mairi in his boyhood. The detailed background can be found in his book "Musui Dokugen" (Musui's Monologue).

Shigenori TOKUGAWA (the eighth lord of the Kishu Domain)

[Original Japanese]