Wife and sister of Emperor Akihito

Last month, I came across two elderly ladies related to the Japanese Imperial Family.

The first one was Empress Michiko. When I was walking along a road in Kyoto on November 2, I noticed policemen standing at every corner. I asked one of them if any incident had taken place there. He told me in an undertone: "Emperor is coming here soon". So I decided to wait for the Emperor and his party there. According to the policeman, the Emperor was staying in Kyoto for attending an event for celebrating the thousand-year anniversary of the Tales of Genji, and at the time the Emperor Akihito was to visit the tomb of Emperor Go-Nijō (reign: 1301-1308).

After a while, the party on vehicles passed in front of me. I could see Empress Michiko in one of the vehicles but I could not spot the Emperor who should have been in the seat next to the Empress. It seemed that the Emperor canceled the visit to the tomb as he wasn't in good health. Empress Michiko was smiling in the vehicle as always.

The second one was Atsuko Ikeda who is a younger sister of the Emperor. On November 22 - 24, I visited Ise Jingu shrine in the Ise city in Mie prefecture. Ise Jingu is a complex of shrines that is composed of many shrines centered on two main shrines, Naikū (内宮, or inner shrine) and Gekū (外宮, or outer shrine).

After staying in a hotel near Gekū, I visited Gekū in the early morning of November 23. There were again many policemen in the shrine area. They were all in the special uniform as the guards for the Imperial Palace and properties related to the Imperial Family. At first, I thought it was normal circumstances in the Ise Jingu since it is the place that the Emperor administers. However, when I entered the space in front of the main building, I realized that I happened to visit there in the midst of a special ceremony. Asking a guard in ancient uniform who was standing by torii, I learned that the ceremony was Niiname-sai (新嘗祭), or harvesting ceremony, that is held only once a year. The following quote is from the Web page of Ise Jingu shrine.

The Niiname-sai ceremony in Jingu is composed of both Omikesai and Hoheisai. These ceremonies are conducted in the name of the Emperor. The Niiname-sai is held parallel to the ceremony at which the Emperor officiates and offers the newly harvested rice to Amaterasu Omikami in the Imperial Palace. By partaking of the food offered he ritually receives the deity's blessings.
In front of the main building were sitting a priestess in ancient white clothes, a dozen or so of priests in the same white clothes and two people in authentic clothes for court nobles in the Heian period (8th-12th century). The latter two were emboys sent by the Emperor to report this year's harvest to the deities of the shrine. The priestess was the Emperor's younger sister, Atsuko Ikeda, who is saishu (祭主), or the most sacred person of the Ise Jingu shrine. Secularly, she is a wife of a zoo owner, Takamasa Ikeda, who is a direct descendant of the feudal lord of Okayama and the eldest son of former Marquis Nobumasa Ikeda. Mr. Ikeda liked to raise animals so much that he opened his own zoo named "Ikeda Zoo" in Okayama. Mme. Ikeda has been working as the wife of the zoo owner, and at the same time she has been working as the chief priestess of Ise Jingu shrine; Chief priestesses of the shrine has traditionally been chosen from women related to the imperial family.

Mme. Ikeda looked to have difficulty in sitting and standing during the ceremony as she is 77 years old. Those who were born to the imperial family seem to have some obligations even after they were detached from the royalty through marriage to commoners. Mme. Ikeda succeeded her ailing elder sister as the chief priestess in 1988. If it would have become impossible for Mme. Ikeda to work as the priestess, a daughter of the Emperor Akihito, Sayako Kuroda, may be succeeding.

Sayako Kuroda was reported to be fond of anime. In her marriage party, she wore a dress that was designed after the dress of the heroin of Hayao Miyazaki's anime, The Castle of Cariostro. She would be able to enjoy the role as a priestess to some extent if she succeeded.