At the Saio’s Court

Live sized model of the Saio's court (Saio and one court lady)

Yesterday morning (Saturday, March 1) we took a trip to Ise’s 斎宮歴史博物 (“Saiku Rekishi Hakubutsukan”, Saiku Historical Museum). The 斎宮 (Saiku) was the palace of the 斎王 (Saio). Starting from the late 7th century, a Saio was a princess sent to Ise to serve at the Ise Jingu, and represent the emperor there. I suppose she could be seen as some kind of envoy to Amaterasu-omikami, who is seen as the ancestral deity of the imperial family, and to the shrine in general. After this tradition ended in the 14th century, the Saiku fell out of use and decayed. Excavations officially started in 1970, and now the museum stands on top of part of the former Saiku area.

Litter decorated in black lacquer and with patterned curtains
Reconstruction of a litter the Saio used to travel from Kyoto to Ise

A new Saio was appointed whenever a new emperor was crowned, whether the previous one had died or retired (it was was new to me that the latter was possible). The new Saio would undergo purification rituals for three years before traveling from Kyoto (Japan’s old capital) to Ise in a large procession, which needed six days for the trip. She would not return to Kyoto unless the emperor died or retired, or in case of a death in her family. In case of the emperor’s death, she would take a different route for the journey back to Kyoto, otherwise go back the same way.

Model of the Saio's Procession
Model of the Saio’s Procession

A Saio had to be unmarried, which I assume is part of the reason why newly appointed Saio were often teenagers or younger. We saw a movie at the museum which showed the appointment as Saio and travel to Ise in the 11th century of Princess Nagako, who was only 8 years old at the time. The description of the journey was mainly based on the well preserved diary of one of the nobles who were managing the procession, which also reports his troubles with bad weather and certain local rulers who were not as welcoming as they should have been.

During the farewell ceremony in Kyoto, the new Saio traditionally received a comb from the emperor, and after the formal goodbye she had to leave without looking back to her father even once according to protocol. Considering Princess Nagako’s age, that seems quite harsh to me. On the other hand, on the third morning of the trip, an imperial messenger arrived for the princess with a letter from her father and a basket of sweets, which I found rather touching.

Live sized model of the Saio's court (Saio and one court lady)
Live sized model of the Saio’s court

Part of the explanation for the display above was that court ladies at that time never cut their hair. However, they did write, and some of them probably wrote the hiragana on the pottery shards below.

Fragments of pottery with Hiragana writing
Pottery found at the Saiku, with Hiragana writing

These shards are some of the oldest known examples of hiragana writing. At that time, official documents were written in kanji only, so it is likely that the letters were written by some of the court ladies. Due to my personal interest in the Japanese scripts, these were the most interesting pieces in the museum for me. Sadly, getting good photos was kind of difficult because the lights in the museum were rather low and using flash was not allowed.

The object below is an inkstone, which was used to prepare ink from dry pigments and water. The museum tour guide emphasized that the sheep head design was rare and probably inspired by foreign art, because these animals were hardly known in Japan back then.

Pottery inkstone decorated with a sheep head
Inkstone decorated with a sheep head

From the museum we went to いつきのみや歴史体験館 (“Itsukinomiya Hall for Historical Experience”), which introduces visitors to the history of the Saiku in a different way: by offering various activities to try. I played a game of 盤雙六 (Bansugoroku), a board game which was popular at the court. Simply put, it’s a race with dice determining how far you can move your pieces. As the Japanese guy I played against rightfully pointed out, people were probably also betting on the outcome, which today would run counter to gambling laws.

Board with black and white stones, two dice
盤雙六 (Bansugoroku) board mid-game

For the girls, they had (simplified) court garments in Heian era style to try on. Simplified, because the real court ladies usually had servants help them get dressed and it still took a long time. Nonetheless, Puckchan looked quite regal in her robe.

Puckchan in a pink Heian era style robe
Puckchan in a Heian era style robe

Afterwards we had lunch in the museum’s tea house, and surprised both the shop assistant and our tour guides by collectively buying more than half their stock of 斎王せんべい (Saio Senbei). Senbei (kanji: 煎餅, but usually written in hiragana) are a kind of rice crackers, so the name means something like “Saio’s Rice Crackers”. The samples we could try were really good, and giving that kind of name to anything that wasn’t would be highly inappropriate anyway. 😉

As I was leaving the shop I heard our guides talk with the shopkeeper, who used the term 想定外 (“souteigai”, beyond expectations) to describe the amount of Senbei sold. I guess we left a lasting expression. Not that there’s anything wrong with that, I love Senbei, and these are particularly good. :mrgreen:

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