Japan emperor to pay last homage at Shinto holy site before abdication

FILE PHOTO: Japan's Emperor Akihito, top, and Empress Michiko, bottom, react to the well-wishers as they visit Kodomonokuni, or Children's Land, marking the 60th anniversary of the royal marriage of Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko in Yokohama near Tokyo Friday, April 12, 2019. Eugene Hoshiko /Pool via REUTERS/File photo

TOKYO (Reuters) - Japanese Emperor Akihito, along with Empress Michiko, on Wednesday started a three-day pilgrimage to the Ise Grand Shrine, the holiest site in Japan's Shinto religion, as part of a series of rituals for his abdication this month.

This is their last trip as emperor and empress to the shrine in central Japan, dedicated to sun goddess Amaterasu Omikami, mythical ancestress of the emperor.

Prime Minister Shinzo Abe, who escorted U.S. President Barack Obama and other Group of Seven leaders to the shrine on the sidelines of the G7 summit in 2016, saw Akihito and Michiko off at a Tokyo railway station.

The royal couple are travelling with a legendary sword and a jewel, encased in black boxes and carried by chamberlains. The two items, together with an ancient mirror, are known as the Three Sacred Treasures of Japan and symbols of the imperial throne.

Akihito, 85, will step down on April 30, the first abdication of a sitting Japanese emperor in two centuries, and will be succeeded the next day by his elder son, Crown Prince Naruhito, 59.

(Reporting by Kiyoshi Takenaka; Editing by Michael Perry)