My recent trip to Asia also took me to Okinawa — the Japanese island in the middle of the Pacific Ocean. It was a brief visit as I did an extended layover in between flights from Osaka to Tokyo. Naha, the main city in Okinawa, greeted with warmth, sun, and some kind of magic in the air. While walking in the streets of the city I saw many sculptures of two lions. They are called Shisa and are a couple (one male and one female) of island’s mythological guardians, who protect people from natural disasters. Besides mythological beings, Hawaii-like weather, nice people, and great food, Okinawa has some exciting pilgrimage sites. Let’s explore some of them in the Southern Okinawa.
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Utaki in Okinawan means “a sacred place of prayers”. The tradition of visiting utaki comes from the times when Okinawa and surrounding islands were a part of Ryuku kingdom. Every year the king accompanied by the highest priestess was making an annual pilgrimage during the harvest festival in April. As the pilgrimage route went east from the Shuri castle, it has a name of Agariumai which means “eastern rotation”. The term Agariumai is also mostly connected to pilgrimage to the areas of Chinen, and Tamagusuku, also including areas of Ozato and Sashiki. Nowadays all these areas are parts of Nanjo city.
Shuri castle was the main political and religious center of Okinawan people before it was destroyed during the World War in 1945. Today it is rebuilt and open for visitors (see the official Shuri castle website in Japanese and English). Due to limited information on the Internet in English, I couldn’t figure out the exact Agariumai route. However, I found three places which would make a nice pilgrimage visiting two of the four regions along the king’s route and one island:
- Tamagusuku Castle is located in the center of the Tamagusuku area and is open 24 hours. The castle is considered the oldest one in Okinawa dating back to the Ryuku dynasty times and was built in honor of Amamikyu, the goddess of creation. Nowadays there are only castle ruins left. Nevertheless, the site is known for its special atmosphere, beautiful views, and peacefulness. As an open site, it does not have any official website. The easiest way to reach it is by car, however, there is also a bus No. 53 that goes from Naha bus terminal and its last stop is 1,4 km from the castle site (the address of the site is 444 Tamagusuku, Nanjo, Okinawa 901-1400, Japan).
- Sefa-utaki is around 7 km away from Tamagusuku castle, in the Chinen area. As it seems that there is no public transport connecting two places, the only options to reach it are by car or on foot (why not walk a mini Camino!). Unlike Tamagusuku castle, Sefa-utaki is an active place of worship, where locals still come to pay their regards to the deities. Actually, it is the most sacred place in the whole Okinawa island, therefore, visitors are asked to be respectful during their visit. The short history, visiting hours, directions, rules and recommendations are listed in the visiting guide (also in English).
- Closely related to Sefa-utaki is Kudaka island. The locals believe that the goddess of creation of Ryuku kingdom and people in general Amamikiyu was born on this island and Sefa-utaki was created as a worship place of it. Therefore, there is a special energy that connects these two special places. Kudaka Island is also known as Island of Prayers as it is an active place of rituals and worship. Therefore, some parts of the island are prohibited to enter for the outsiders, others have rules and restrictions (links for more visiting information: Visit Okinawa Japan, Matcha-jp, Map it Okinawa). The ferry (ferry schedule) leaves from the Azama Port, located in the city of Nanjo, ~11 km away from Sefa-utaki (so it’s a car, or another mini Camino haha). Otherwise, there is a bus 38 Shikiya Line from Naha (the link to the timetable is Japanese only, but it is possible to figure it out with the help of good old Google translator).
Next, on the king’s pilgrimage route are areas of Sashiki and Ozato. Unfortunately, I wasn’t able to find specific names of the sacred sites visited on the route. It seems that Sefa-utaki is the main utaki for the southern area of the island. Do you have recommendations? Let me know in the comments sections!
Birthplace of Karate martial art
Yes, Okinawa is the place where the martial art Karate was born. Many Karate practitioners make a pilgrimage to Okinawa to spend time and learn from the Okinawan Karate masters. Some of the schools have a day introduction course for beginners where you can experience the daily routine of Karate student and try out the martial art for yourself. Here is a fun and insightful guide on how to find an Okinawan Karate course.