Today begins Saiō Matsuri (斎王まつり), a 2-day festival held on the first weekend of June in the town of Meiwa, Mie Prefecture, in Japan. The Saiō Matsuri celebrates the town’s history of once being an Imperial residence. The festival re-enacts the march of the Saiō and her entourage to the nearby Ise Shrine. The festival consists of over 100 people dressed in Heian period costume, marching down a section of the Ise Kada, the old Ise Pilgrimage road, toward the Saiku Historical Museum.
In pre-modern Japan, Meiwa was best known as the location of the ancient Saikū, the residence of the Saiō, an unmarried Imperial princess who, in place of the Emperor, was sent to serve as the High Priestess of Ise Grand Shrine to perform three important Shinto rituals. During the Edo period the area developed into a thriving agricultural center and shukuba (rest station), providing lodging to people making the pilgrimage to Ise Grand Shrine.
According to Japanese legend, around 2,000 years ago the divine Yamatohime-no-mikoto, daughter of the Emperor Suinin, set out from Mt. Miwa in Nara Prefecture in search of a permanent location to worship the goddess Amaterasu-omikami. Her search lasted for 20 years and eventually brought her to Ise, Mie Prefecture, where the Ise Shrine now stands. Prior to Yamatohime-no-mikoto’s journey, Amaterasu-omikami had been worshiped at the Imperial Palaces in Yamato.
According to the Man’yōshū (The Anthology of Ten Thousand Leaves), the first Saiō to serve at Ise was Princess Oku, daughter of Emperor Temmu, during the Asuka period of Japanese history. Mention of the Saiō is also made in the Aoi, Sakaki and Yugao chapters of The Tale of Genji, as well as in the 69th chapter of The Tales of Ise (Ise Monogatari).
In the 13th century, Jien recorded in the Gukanshō that during the reign of Emperor Suinin, the first High Priestess (saigū) was appointed for Ise Shrine. Hayashi Gahō’s 17th century Nihon Ōdai Ichiran is somewhat more expansive, explaining that since Suinin’s time, a daughter of the emperor was almost always appointed as high priestess, but across the centuries, there have been times when the emperor himself had no daughter; and in such circumstances, the daughter of a close relative of the emperor would have been appointed to fill the vacancy.
The role of the Saiō was to serve as High Priestess at Ise Shrine on behalf of the Emperor, to represent the role first set out by Yamatohime-no-mikoto. Three rituals a year were conducted at the Shrine in which the Saiō prayed for peace and protection. In June and November each year, she journeyed to the Shrine to perform the Tsukinamisai Festival. In September she performed the Kannamesai Festival 神嘗祭 to make offerings to the gods of the year’s new grain harvest.
For the rest of the year, the Saiō lived in Saikū, a small town of up to 500 people approximately 10 km north-west of Ise, in modern Meiwa, Mie Prefecture. Life at Saikū was, for the most part, peaceful. The Saiō would spend her time composing waka verses, collect shells on the shore of Ōyodo beach, or set out in boats and recite poetry upon the water and wait to be recalled to Kyoto.
The Ise Grand Shrine (伊勢神宮 Ise Jingū), located in the city of Ise, Mie Prefecture,, is a Shinto shrine dedicated to the sun goddess Amaterasu. Officially known simply as Jingū (神宮), Ise Jingū is a shrine complex composed of a large number of Shinto shrines centered on two main shrines, Naikū (内宮) and Gekū (外宮).
The Inner Shrine, Naikū (also officially known as “Kotai Jingū”), is located in the town of Uji-tachi, south of central Ise, and is dedicated to the worship of Amaterasu, where she is believed to dwell. The shrine buildings are made of solid cypress wood and uses no nails but instead joined wood, rebuilt exactingly every 20 years. The Outer Shrine, Gekū (also officially known as “Toyouke Daijingu”), is located about 6 km from Naikū and dedicated to Toyouke-Ōmikami, the god of agriculture, rice harvest and industry. Besides Naikū and Gekū, there are an additional 123 Shinto shrines in Ise City and the surrounding areas, 91 of them connected to Naikū and 32 to Gekū.
Modern Ōyodo Village was established on April 1, 1889 during the Meiji period establishment of municipalities. It was elevated to town status on February 1, 1924, and was renamed Sanwa on September 3, 1955. In 1958, the town of Sanwa and the village of Saimei merged to form the town of Meiwa.
Inarizushi, a type of sushi, is a good dish to celebrate this festival. Inarizushi (稲荷寿司) is a pouch of fried tofu typically filled either with sushi rice alone or with a mix of rice and vegetables. It is named after the Shinto god Inari, who is believed to have a fondness for fried tofu. The dish is normally fashioned from deep-fried tofu (油揚げ, abura age), but regional variations include pouches made of a thin omelette (帛紗寿司, fukusa-zushi, or 茶巾寿司, chakin-zushi).
Inari Ōkami (稲荷大神, also Oinari) is the Japanese kami (spirit) of foxes, of fertility, rice, tea and sake, as well as of agriculture and industry, of general prosperity and worldly success, and one of the principal kami of Shinto.
This video gives an excellent description of preparing inarizushi. You can buy the deep fried tofu at a good oriental store: