JAPAN PHOTOS by Philbert Ono

*Due to COVID-19, traveling to and within Japan is currently being discouraged.


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Meiwa is a rural town (pop. 22,500) next to Ise and the site of the Saiku Palace (斎宮) where the Ise Jingu Grand Shrines' High Priestess (Saio princess) resided during the 7th–14th centuries to conduct ceremonies at Ise in place of the emperor.The Saio princess was an unmarried, young Imperial princess closely related to the Emperor, usually a daughter or sister. She was appointed (by divination with a turtle shell that was burnt) to be the High Priestess of Ise Grand Shrines to represent the emperor when conducting official ceremonies at the shrine a few times a year to pray for national peace and prosperity. Each time a new emperor was enthroned, a new Saio princess was appointed as the High Priestess and she traveled from Kyoto to live in the Saiku Palace in Meiwa. The journey, called "Saio Gunko," took 5 nights and 6 days through Kyoto and Shiga Prefectures and her entourage was several hundred. For about 660 years from 673 to 1334, over 60 Saio princesses served at Ise Grand Shrines. Many of them were age 5 to 15, and the oldest was 32. They served for varying periods of time, from 1 to 31 years. The High Priestess conducted prayers at the shrine for the peace, protection, welfare, and prosperity of the nation. As this sign indicates, Meiwa and Saiku is a Japan Heritage Site.
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Meiwa holds the two-day Saio Matsuri (斎王まつり) festival annually on the first full weekend in June to reenact part of the Saio procession traveling from Kyoto to the Saiku Palace.On June 2–3, 2018, the 36th Saio Matsuri was held in Meiwa. It also happens to be the town's 60th anniversary. The festival is held near Saiku Station (Kintetsu Yamada Line) in the area where the Saiku Palace was located. It's now a large park-like area. On the festival's first day (Festival Eve) at 3:30 pm, the Misogi-no-Gi Ceremony is held at a small stream where the Saio dips her hands into the water for purification. Then they move to an outdoor stage near Saiku History Museum to conduct an evening ceremony and entertainment program from 5 pm to 9 pm. (In the case of rain, the event will be canceled.)
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On the second day, the Departure Ceremony is held here at the Saiku Heian-no-mori Park where a few Heian Period structures have been reconstructed. They had a large blue tarp on the ground for spectators.Second day is the main event. There's the Departure Ceremony and Saio Gunko Procession. The Departure Ceremony reenacts the Saio's departure from Kyoto for her journey to Saiku Palace.
At 1 pm, the Departure Ceremony is held at Saiku Heian-no-mori Park where a few Heian-Period buildings have been reconstructed. At 2 pm, the 120 people dressed in Heian-Period costumes walk in a colorful procession called the "Saio Gunko" to an outdoor stage near the Saiku History Museum. The Saio princesses are carried in their own palanquins. It's a short walk.
On the outdoor stage, they hold a ceremony and picture-taking session from 2:45 pm. Everything ends by 3:30 pm. I went to see the festival on the second day on June 3, 2018. In the case of rain, the event will be canceled.
If you want to get close, you need to arrive earlier than the 1 pm starting time. Short walk from Saiku Station.
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The Departure Ceremony at Saiku Heian-no-mori Park gathered all the people in traditional costume. 出発式Saiku Heian-no-mori Park (Saiku Heian Era Park) recreates one of the many rectangular blocks of the Saiku Palace area. This one reconstructs three buildings used by the head of the Saikuryo, the government office of the Saiku Palace. This main building is the Seiden (正殿) dating from the 9th century used to conduct important ceremonies by the head of the Saikuryo and to welcome official messengers from Ise Grand Shrines and Kyoto. Saio Matsuri is a tourist/community festival, not a religious festival held by any shrine. Run by a volunteer committee.
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Large crowd sitting on the tarp and watching the departure ceremony. It's pretty hot under the sun.
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People wore Heian Period (794–1185) costumes from when Kyoto was the capital of Japan. These are Saiku government officials. 斎宮十二司官人
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Saiku government officials. 斎宮十二司官人
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Dancers called Maibito (舞人).
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The Departure Ceremony started with a purification ritual called "Kiyone no Gishiki." A woman at two corners of the Seiden sprinkled confetti. 清めの儀式
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Iris flower offerings followed. Leading court ladies called the Myobu (命婦), assistants who tend to the immediate needs of the Saio princess. 献花の儀式
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Myobu (命婦) getting off the Seiden.
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Myobu (命婦) getting off the Seiden.
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High-ranking court ladies called Uneme (釆女) chosen from an aristocratic family. They were in charge of food and drink for the princess. They give an iris flower offering.
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High-ranking court ladies called Uneme (釆女) chosen from an aristocratic family. They were in charge of food and drink for the princess.
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Flower offering by court ladies called Nyoju (女嬬) who serve in the inner palace (後宮) and take care of the Saio princess' daily living.
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Court ladies called Nyoju (女嬬) who serve in the inner palace (後宮) and take care of the Saio princess' daily living.
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Top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace.
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Top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace.
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Top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace.
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Naishi (内侍) and the Nyo-betto leads the Child Saio princess.
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The Nyo-betto (女別当), who was the supervisor of the court ladies at special occasions such as the Saio procession, offer an iris flower.
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The Child Saio princess offer an iris flower. 子ども斎王
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In 2018, the child Saio princess was portrayed by 10-year-old Nishimura Manami (西村 まなみ) from Meiwa. She was selected by lot from a number of girls. Not all Saio princesses were adults, some were a child. 子供斎王
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Top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace.In green is the Onna Betto (or Nyo-betto) (女別当) who was the supervisor of the court ladies at special occasions such as the Saio procession.
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Ladies wearing a red band across their shoulders are court ladies called Nyoju (女嬬) who serve in the inner palace (後宮) and take care of the Saio princess' daily living.
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Everyone here are volunteers, includng the festival staff behind the scenes. The festival is directed by a group (named Komachi 小町) of former Saio princesses and other characters who train the current year's festival participants.
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The Saio princess appeared from the Seiden and gave an offering of an iris flower and prayed toward Ise Grand Shrines.The Saio was an unmarried, young Imperial princess, often the Emperor's daughter, who was appointed (by divination) to be the High Priestess of Ise Grand Shrines to pray for national peace and prosperity a few times a year in place of the emperor.
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The Saio princess wears a juni-hitoe (12-layer) robe reserved only for Imperial family members.
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In 2018, the Saio princess was portrayed by 26-year-old Nakaho Yuri (中保 友里) from Tsu, Mie. She was selected from among 27 applicants. It was her fourth time to apply for this honor and was finally selected. It's confusing that she's called the 34th Saio at the 36th Saio Matsuri. It's because the festival didn't have a Saio from the 1st festival. She served well.
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The departure ceremony included live gagaku sacred music and a Nara Period (8th century) sacred dance called Ranryo-o. (舞樂蘭陵王). Gagaku music was performed by Kogakkan University's Gagaku club. It's a Shinto university in Ise. 皇學館大学 雅楽部
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Ranryo-o court dance originally came from China and was a warrior hero dance. (舞樂蘭陵王).
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Ranryo-o court dance dating to the Nara Period (8th century). Chinese warrior Ranryo-o was Prince of Lanling (Gao Changgong), a victorious 6th c. general. (舞樂蘭陵王).To hide his gentle-looking face, Ranryo-o wore a fierce mask in battle. Notice the dragon head mask.
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Nara Period (8th century) sacred dance (舞樂蘭陵王).Gagaku music was performed by Kogakkan University's Gagaku club seen in the background. 皇學館大学 雅楽部
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Saio Matsuri Departure Ceremony at Seiden Hall, Saiku Heian-no-mori Park. 正殿
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Saio princess gave a farewell speech.
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The Saio gives farewell remarks before leaving her family in Kyoto for Saiku. See the video to hear what she said.
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After the Departure Ceremony, the Saio exits showing her long, flowing black hair.
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Palanquins for the Saio (middle), Nyo-betto, and Child Saio standby for the procession. The orignal palanquins had no wheels.
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The procession is about to leave the starting point at around 2 pm. Purple irises is another symbol of Meiwa, probably why they hold the festival in June.
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Until the 19th century, wild irises grew extensively in Saiku's natural wetlands. A National Natural Monument, Saiku/Ise irises are one of Japan's few natural iris strains from which hybrids were created. Wetlands have been recreated in Saiku to grow irises.
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Irises in early June in Meiwa, Mie Prefecture. Meiwa's official flower. Ancient texts mention that pilgrims going to worship at Ise Shrines described it like walking on clouds of purple.
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Saio Matsuri banners were put up by local jr. high students.
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Patch of trees are the Saio Woods where the Saiku Palace was supposedly located. 斎王の森
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Torii in Saio Woods. 斎王の森
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On Nov. 3, 1968, Ise Jingu Shrine erected this stone monument in the Saio Woods to indicate that the Saiku Palace was located in this area.斎王の森
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Stone monument in the Saio Woods indicating the location of the Saiku Palace. "Site of the Saio Palace" erected in On Nov. 3, 1968.斎王の森
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About the Saio Woods.
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In the Saio Woods, Historic Site marker for the Saiku Palace. The Saiku Palace was constructed anew for each new Saio. 斎王の森
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Saio Woods 斎王の森
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Saio Woods explanation as of 1968.
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The Saio princess procession (斎王群行) had about 120 people dressed in Heian Period (794–1185) costumes.
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The Saio Gunko Procession started at around 2 pm.
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High-ranking court ladies called Uneme (釆女) chosen from an aristocratic family. They were in charge of food and drink for the princess.
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Ladies wearing a red band across their shoulders are court ladies called Nyoju (女嬬).
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Nyoju (女嬬) followed by Warawame (童女) daughters of the Imperial family or nobility.
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In front of the Saio princess palanquin are girls are called Warawame (童女). They are daughters of the Imperial family or nobility and are learning the customs of the Saiku while living in the Saiku Palace. They wear chihaya costume. 千早
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The first palanquin carries the Nyo-betto (女別当), the supervisor of the court ladies.
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The first palanquin carries the Nyo-betto (女別当), the supervisor of the court ladies.
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Myobu (命婦), assistants who tend to the immediate needs of the Saio princess.
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Naishi (内侍) coordinator of court ladies in Saiku Palace. They have a fancy umbrella bearer called furyu-gasa. 風流傘
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Naishi (内侍) coordinator of court ladies in Saiku Palace. She has a fancy umbrella bearer called furyu-gasa. 風流傘
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Girls called Warawame (童女) wearing chihaya costume 千早. Part of the festival route was the actual route where the Saio princess traveled to Ise Grand Shrines.
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In front of the Saio princess palanquin are girls are called Warawame (童女). They are daughters of the Imperial family or nobility and are learning the customs of the Saiku while living in the Saiku Palace.
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This is the Saio princess sitting in a palanquin on wheels. In Saiku, the Saio's palanquin is called Sokaren (葱華輦), meaning "Onion Flower Palanquin" in reference to its onion-shaped giboshi roof ornament.The Saio palanquin bearers are called Kayocho (駕輿丁) who were chosen from the best gentlemen.
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Saio princess in a palanquin in Meiwa, Mie Prefecture.
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Saio princess in a palanquin in Meiwa, Mie Prefecture. Very photogenic makeup and costume.
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Saio princess in a palanquin in Meiwa, Mie Prefecture. The Saio princess was selected from tens of candidates. This was her fourth time to apply for the honor and she was finally selected.It is to promote the town so she was very willing to pose for pictures. The makeup person did a very good job.
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Saio princess in a palanquin in Meiwa, Mie Prefecture.
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Saio princess in a palanquin in Meiwa, Mie Prefecture.
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Child Saio princess. 子供斎王
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Child Saio princess. 子供斎王
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As the Saio procession went through the park, the crowd followed. 上園芝生広場
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Naishi (内侍) coordinator of court ladies in Saiku Palace. She has a fancy umbrella bearer called furyu-gasa. 風流傘
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Aristocratic boys wearing a Heian-Period suikan costume. 童男人形「水干」
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The procession walked through a lawn of food stalls and headed for the outdoor stage. This is near the Saiku History Museum.
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High-ranking court ladies called Uneme (釆女) chosen from an aristocratic family. They were in charge of food and drink for the princess.
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Court lady called the Uneme (釆女) chosen from an aristocratic family and who was in charge of food and drink.
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High-ranking court ladies called Uneme (釆女) chosen from an aristocratic family. They were in charge of food and drink for the princess.
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Court ladies called Nyoju (女嬬).
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They started gathering on the outdoor stage near the Saiku Historical Museum.
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Girls called Warawame (童女) wearing chihaya costume 千早. They are daughters of the Imperial family or nobility and are learning the customs of the Saiku while living in the Saiku Palace.
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Girls called Warawame (童女). They are children of the Imperial family or nobility and are learning the customs of the Saiku while living in the Saiku Palace.
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Almost an hour later, the procession arrived at this park with this outdoor stage for the welcome ceremony. The Saio arrived.
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On this outdoor stage, they were to hold the Shato-no-Gi welcome ceremony at 2:50 pm when head honchos give speeches. 社頭の儀. This is the Saikuryo Government Director General. 斎宮寮長官
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In green is the Onna Betto (or Nyo-betto) (女別当) who was the supervisor of the court ladies at special occasions such as the Saio procession.
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Everyone arrived here and the ceremony started with a few speeches.
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Warawame (童女) daughters of the Imperial family or nobility. They wear chihaya costume. 千早
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In green, Nyo-betto and the Child Saio princess.
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Before the Saio moves or poses, her attendants arrange her juni-hitoe kimono.
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The man on the far right in dark blue is Ise Kokushi (伊勢国司) Governor of Ise Province. Next to him also in blue is the Chobusoshi (長奉送使) director of the Saio procession.
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Posing with Meiwa's mascot Mei-hime. めい姫
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Saio posing with Warawame (童女) dressed in Heian-Period suikan costume. 水干
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After the arrival ceremony, they held a picture-taking session with the Saio princess who posed with each group of characters. Anyone could take pictures. This was a great PR strategy. Obviously, social media fodder. Got some good photos of everyone.
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Saio posing with Warawame (童女) dressed in chihaya costume. 千早
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Ladies wearing a red band across their shoulders are court ladies called Nyoju (女嬬) who serve in the inner palace (後宮) and take care of the Saio princess' daily living.
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Posing with Saio palanquin bearers called Kayocho (駕輿丁) who were chosen from the best gentlemen.
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Posing with Saio palanquin bearers called Kayocho (駕輿丁) who were chosen from the best gentlemen.
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Posing with Saio palanquin bearers called Kayocho (駕輿丁) who were chosen from the best gentlemen.
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Saiku government officials. 斎宮十二司官人
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Posing with dancers called Maibito (舞人).
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Posing with dancers called Maibito (舞人).
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Saiku government officials. 斎宮十二司官人
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Saiku government officials. 斎宮十二司官人
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Kadono-osa, the security detail. They hold a tachi sword. 看督長
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Posing with court ladies called Nyoju (女嬬) who serve in the inner palace (後宮) and take care of the Saio princess' daily living.
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Posing with court ladies called Nyoju (女嬬) who serve in the inner palace (後宮) and take care of the Saio princess' daily living.
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Posing with court ladies called the Uneme (釆女) chosen from an aristocratic family and who was in charge of food and drink.
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Posing with leading court ladies called the Myobu (命婦), assistants who tend to the immediate needs of the Saio princess.
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Posing with top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace. They have fancy umbrella bearers called furyu-gasa. 風流傘
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Posing with top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace. They have fancy umbrella bearers called furyu-gasa. 風流傘
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Posing with top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace. They have fancy umbrella bearers called furyu-gasa. 風流傘
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Posing with top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace. They have fancy umbrella bearers called furyu-gasa. 風流傘
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Posing with top-ranking court ladies called the Naishi (内侍) working at the Saiku Palace. They have fancy umbrella bearers called furyu-gasa. 風流傘
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Posing with the Emperor's Messenger who is the highest ranking person in the procession. (Konoe Tsukai). 近衛使
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Posing with the Nyo-betto (女別当) who was the supervisor of the court ladies at special occasions such as the Saio procession.
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Child Saio princess and adult Saio princess.
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Yellow banners read "Saio Matsuri" (Saio Festival).
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The Saio princess wears a juni-hitoe (12-layer) robe reserved only for female Imperial family members or women marrying into the Imperial family.
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In the end, the Saio princess slowly walked through the palace door that opened for her. Her long, black hair and way of walking were very elegant. After she entered, the doors closed and the festival was over.
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Everyone quickly dissipated and all the food stalls closed up. It was only 3:30 pm.
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After the festival is over, be sure to visit the Saiku Historical Museum nearby. See this album.
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Sign saying "Saiku" which was designated as a National Historic Site in 1979. 国史跡
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The actual road where the Saio princess traveled to Ise Grand Shrines. Called "Kodai Ise-do" (Ancient Ise Road). 古代伊勢道
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The actual road where the Saio princess traveled to Ise Grand Shrines. Called "Kodai Ise-do" (Ancient Ise Road). 古代伊勢道
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Saiku Heian-no-mori Park (さいくう平安の杜) opened in Oct. 2015 with three reconstructed buildings.
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Saiku Heian-no-mori Park recreates one of the many rectangular blocks of the Saiku Palace area. This one reconstructs three buildings used by the head of the Saikuryo, the government office of the Saiku Palace. The left building is the Nishiwakiden, center is Seiden (main building), and right building is the Higashiwakiden. The buildings are only approximations of what they actually looked like. Only the size could be determined from pillar holes, but not the actual apperance. This is where the Saio Matsuri festival's Departure Ceremony is held.
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The Nishiwakiden is thought to be an auxiliary to the Seiden and used for rituals and banquets. 西脇殿
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This main building is the Seiden dating from the 9th century used to conduct important ceremonies by the head of the Saikuryo and to welcome official messengers from Ise Grand Shrines and Kyoto.Normally open to the public, free admission. 正殿
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The Higashiwakiden is only partially walled with an earthen floor, used as a waiting room or preparation room during ceremonies. 東脇殿
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About Saiku Heian-no-mori Park. Open 9:30 am to 5 pm (until 4 pm during Nov.–Feb.). The buildings are aso available for rent for private events.
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Opened in Oct. 1999, Itsukinomiya Hall for Historical Experience is in the same area. Various hands-on activities like weaving and dressing in Heian-Period costumes. Open 9:30 am–5 pm, closed Mondays. Admission free. いつきのみや歴史体験館
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Itsuki Chaya rest house and gift shop. いつき茶屋
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Inside Itsuki Chaya rest house and gift shop. Posters of past Saio in past Saio Festivals. いつき茶屋
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The Saiku was a lost palace and its exact location was unknown until 1970 when the land here was being prepared for a housing project. Ancient pottery pieces and remains of building foundations were unearthed.In fact, local residents for generations had passed down the story of the palace being located here. In 1903, a local group led by the Saiku village headman erected this stone monument from recognize Saiku as the palace site. It wasn't until June 1970 when remains of the Saiku Palace were found in Meiwa.
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An outdoor 1/10-scale model of the Saiku Palace site (700 m x 2 km) was created near the Saio Woods. It had a grid layout of blocks as shown here. The site included buildings for the Saikuryo Government that govenred the Saiku Palace.Known blocks are labeled like here. The trees in the background in this photo shows the Saio Woods where the princess lived.
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They also have a scale model of the palace with many buildings over a wide area.
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Ryoko storehouses of the Saikuryo government.
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Scale model of buildings in this block called the Nai-in which was the living quarters of the Saio princess. Surrounded by a pillared fence. 内院
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The Nai-in block was enclosed by a pillared fence. 内院
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This brown building was the Saio's modest living quarters. Not as large as you would expect.
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About the Nai-in, the living quarters of the Saio princess. 内院
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Shinden shrine buildings for religious services.
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The train line cuts right across the Saiku site.
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Line of stumps indicate the position of pillars of a fence that surrounded the Saio's Palace.
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Meiwa town has been excavating Saiku Palace digs all over the place. They found pillar holes, pottery, etc. The digs will continue for many more years. Relics are displayed in the local museum.
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The Saiku area is a Japan Heritage site.
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The Saiku area is a Japan Heritage site and this Ise road has been renovated.
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Saiku Station on the Kintetsu Yamada Line which is the same train line that goes on to Ise-shi (Ise Grand Shrines) and Toba Station (Mikimoto Pearl Island).
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Saiku Station on the Kintetsu Yamada Line.
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Saiku Station on the Kintetsu Yamada Line.
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Today, Meiwa is a sleepy little town bypassed by most tourists going to Ise or Toba. Official Saiku info
     
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