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Ise-mairi: Pilgrimages to the Ise Shrine

(Text and Photos by Peter Ujlaki)

Ise shigeharu


One reason so many people love ukiyo-e prints is that occasionally they throw light on little-known but fascinating aspects of old Japan. The three sheets shown here, for example — the right half of a six-sheeter from 1830 by the Osaka artist Shigeharu (1803-53; active 1821-41) —  depicts pilgrims on their way to Ise Shrine (just coming into view on the far left), the holy of holies in Japan's native Shinto religion.

For commercial publishing reasons many of the faces in the crowd are kabuki actors, (including superstar Utaemon III on the horse), but rather than a stage play this print records a strange social phenomeon of that year. Like Mecca is to Moslems, Ise stands as a compelling once-in-a-lifetime destination for almost every Japanese; but citizens of all ages and, well, walks of life spontaneously dropping everything to go there at the same time — effectively turning main roads into a vastly elongated jamboree — occurred only once every generation or two. 

At such times men, women and children simply abandoned home and work and, depending on how far from Ise they lived, took to the road for three to six months. Casualties, it seems, were few because townspeople along the way offered shelter, food and water, (note the ladles tucked-in belts and held aloft on the far right); nor, of course, could anybody be punished by families and officaldom because that would constitute an insult to the gods.

Like many good ukiyo-e this Ise-mairi print harbors dozens of interesting details. Food, clothing, and geography are delineated, as well as the all-important pilgrimage paraphernalia. As for the writing on the banners and hats, that mostly lists home towns and how many folk are walking together in one party, but also seen are expressions like 'nuketa', which may be translated as "I escaped!"

Indeed, given the confining nature of Edo period society, one might well suppose that pilgrimage mania was merely an excuse to sample the (relatively) classless freedom of the road, and let off steam. On the other hand, many scholars feel that genuine religious fervor did in fact periodically sweep the land. What is clear is that the last mass pilgrimage to Ise occurred at the very end of the shogunate, and nothing similar took its place for Japanese until, in our own era, their lemming-like invasions of Waikiki Beach.

This article originally appeared in Daruma, no. 11, Summer 1996. Copyrighted © text and pictures reprinted with permission.

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