- 'Abstinence Palace'. It refers to the residence and person of the virgin priestess despatched to the Ise shrine to perform rites on behalf of the emperor. The institution of saigu lasted from at least the Heian period to the fourteenth century, after which it died out (see Ise Jingu) to be revived in the modified form of saishu after the Meiji restoration. When a new emperor succeeded to the throne (a frequent occurrence since emperors were often appointed young and 'retired' before reaching adulthood) a girl as young as five would be selected by divination. After two years seclusion and abstinence (i.e. avoidance of taboos) at the palace she would make a ritual journey to Ise and remain there in the compound called saigu, attended by priests, maids-in-waiting and servants and observing the imperial rites, with the exception of Buddhist ceremonies. Buddhist words as well as words like blood, sweat, meat, grave and cry were taboo—imi-kotoba. She emerged only three times a year to worship at the Ise shrines. On the death or retirement of the emperor or the death of her mother she returned to the ordinary life of the capital and usually married. The formal instructions for her preparation and journey are given in the Engi-shiki and other documents. The saigu represented an inviolable symbol of imperial authority which to some extent substituted for and in other ways reinforced imperial power. Her virginal 'purity' and strict enactment of court rites were reinforced by taboos not against Taoism or Onmyo-do but against Buddhism, the religion of the real world and the bustling capital.See also Saio.
A Popular Dictionary of Shinto. Brian Bocking.