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A World Heritage Site in Japan That Cannot be Entered! What is Okinoshima, the Island of Gods?

Registered as a World Heritage Site, Okinoshima in Munakata – known as an “island where the gods live” – and its related properties have been attracting a lot of attention. In ancient Japan, trade and exchange by sea were actively done in order to get hold of new technologies and ideas from Mainland China and the Korean Peninsula. It was during this period when the faith that prays for navigational safety in the waters of Munakata was born. In this article, the associated sites that pass on the traditions of that faith to the modern world will be discussed in detail!

What Kind of a Place is Okinoshima, the Island Where the Gods Live?

Okinoshima is a solitary island with a circumference of 4km that floats along the Sea of Genkai that is approximately 60km from mainland Kyushu. From the 4th to the 9th centuries, a ritual (worshipping the deities) for praying for safety at sea was held at this island. Also called Umi no Shosoin (Shosoin of the Sea), Okinoshima is where consecrated items with rich international characters were unearthed, with about 80,000 treasures on this island designated as national treasures of Japan.

This Strict Tradition is Still Being Observed at This Island Today!

Okinoshima itself is a sacred object of worship that is believed to be occupied by the spirit of a deity, so it is not an island that is meant for people to live on. In light of this, there are many restrictions and traditions that are strictly enforced on the island, such as “Ordinary people are banned from entering”, as well as “Before you enter the island, take off all your clothes and go through the purification ceremony”, “Never tell anybody about what you saw or heard at this island” and “You cannot bring home even a piece of tree, grass or rock from the island”. As a result, this island has been kept away from the prying hands of humans, so it remains shrouded in mystery today.

Eight Sites That Create a World Heritage Site! What is the Group of Sites Associated With Okinoshima?

Okinoshima in Munakata – known as the “island where the gods live” – and its associated sites that have collectively been registered as a World Cultural Heritage Site are made up of eight spots. These spots are Okinoshima, Koyajima, Mikadobashira, Tenguiwa (Munakata Shrine Okitsumiya), Munakata Okitsumita Yohaisho, Munakata Shrine Natsumiya, Munakata Shrine Hetsumiya, and Shimbaru-Nuyama Mounded Tomb Group. All these sites are related to the faith that prays for navigational safety.

Okinoshima and the three surrounding reefs (Koyajima, Mikadobashira and Tenguiwa) are inside the precinct of Munakata Shrine Natsumiya. They say that when you travel to Okinoshima, these three reefs play the role of torii (shrine archway).

The rituals that were held in Okinoshima spread to Nakatsumiya (Nakatsu Shrine) in Oshima and Hetsumiya (Hetsu Shrine) in mainland Kyushu, with the Munakata Okitsumita Yohaisho put up in Oshima in order to worship Okinoshima from afar, since it cannot be entered by humans.

It is said that the ritual at Okinoshima was started and developed by the ancient Munakata Clan. The Shimbaru-Nuyama Mounded Tomb Group (Fukutsu City) talks about the existence of that Munakata Clan. At this site, keyhole-shaped mounds, round tombs and various small and large ancient burial mounds were built on the platform overlooking the sea that goes to Okinoshima. It is only when you put together these assets that you can start to talk about the value of this island as a World Heritage Site.

The Purpose of its Registration as a World Heritage Site Revealed!

Some people may think that it’s unfortunate that while it is a World Heritage Site, nobody is allowed to go to Okinoshima. However, the purpose of its registration as a World Heritage Site is to ensure that everything that has been preserved thus far continues to be valued and protected for a long time. The hope is that letting the world know of the value and meaning of Okinoshima and its associated sites will lead to the protection of the island.

Even though it is not possible to set foot in Okinoshima, you can still go to Nakatsumiya, Hetsumiya, Munakata Okitsumita Yohaisho and Shimbaru-Nuyama Mounded Tomb Group in Oshima and mainland Kyushu, as well as tour the following exhibits: Sea Road Munakatakan (588 Fukata, Munakata-shi, Fukuoka), Oshima Koryukan (Oshima Exchange Center, 901-4 Oshima, Munakata-shi, Fukuoka) and Camellia Stage (1-7-2 Tsuyazaki, Fukutsu-shi). If you want to further deepen your knowledge of Okinoshima, then you might want to go and check out these spots.

[This article was originally published in Walkerplus on 08.15.2017]

*Please note that the information in this article is from the time of writing or publication and may differ from the latest information.

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