Turning to Okinawa and its rituals in search of a happier new year

by Hillel Wright

Special To The Japan Times

Without a shred of a doubt, 2011 stands out to me — in a way that hopefully will never be surpassed — as the most catastrophic I have ever known.

March 11′s magnitude-9 Great East Japan Earthquake, followed by a monstrous tsunami and then three reactor meltdowns at the Fukushima No. 1 nuclear power plant is a related series of disasters arguably unprecedented in recorded history.

At 2:46 p.m. on March 11, my wife, Shiori Tsuchiya, and I were both at home in Kawasaki, Kanagawa Prefecture. I was sitting at the second-floor kitchen table addressing envelopes and Shiori was in the adjoining living room. For most of the next 3½ minutes we were huddled together under our sturdy wooden kitchen table while our house shook violently from side to side. We fully expected the whole building to collapse, and just hoped and prayed the table would offer enough protection to enable us to crawl out of the rubble.

Fortunately, the house didn’t turn into wreckage, and at 2:50 p.m. we went down the stairs and out into the relative safety of the street — where the entire neighborhood was celebrating its survival even though the power was out. It wasn’t until later in the day that news of the tsunami that hit the Tohoku region and the nuclear crisis some 250 km north-northeast as the crow flies came to us on the transistor radio we kept in our quake-survival kit.

Although we didn’t know the precise extent of the radiation danger caused by the explosions at Fukushima over the next few days — later reportedly said to be the equivalent of 39 Hiroshima-type atomic bombs — the threat of radiation and the government’s oft-repeated but unconvincing claims of there being “no immediate health risk” led us to assume that the health risks might be great in the future.

So on March 16, the two of us, along with our black cat, Snow, flew to Okinawa. We had decided to leave our life in the Kanto region of Honshu and start a new life, from scratch, in Okinawa.

In most of the 12 years we’d lived in Kawasaki, I had made a shichi-fukujin meguri (seven lucky gods pilgrimage) every New Year’s. Our Nakahara Ward neighborhood there had seven Buddhist temples, each dedicated to one of the seven lucky gods, and I would make the rounds over a three- or four-day period. With me I’d always carry a shikishi (formal certificate card), which would be stamped by a priest at each stop. Then, at the end of the pilgrimage I would frame the shikishi and hang it on the kitchen wall.

Although the disruption of one’s career and lifestyle might hardly be considered lucky, the fact that we survived the disaster unharmed, that I found a similar post in Okinawa to my former one as a university lecturer, and that Shiori, who is an accomplished guitarist, found a teacher of the Okinawan sanshin (a three-stringed lute similar to a samisen), indicate to us no small measure of continuing good fortune.

So a few weeks ago, with 2012 looming and millions of people hoping and praying for better fortune, I began to search for a good luck pilgrimage I could make here in Okinawa. It turned out I didn’t have to search long or hard.

We now live in Naha, in a area in the northeast of the city called Matsugawa. Looking north from our veranda, two red buildings are visible surrounded by a large area of forest high up on a slope. The woodland, whose entrance is but a 12-minute walk from our apartment, is Sueyoshi Koen (Park), the only natural forest left in modern Naha — and the red buildings are Sueyoshi Jinja (Shrine).

I had already visited the forest a few times before New Year’s, and had been immensely impressed both by its magnificent natural beauty — it is an Okinawan Special Wildlife Protection Area — and by the use of local Okinawa limestone to surface its trails.

Okinawan religion, while adopting some aspects of Japanese Shinto, Chinese Confucianism and Buddhism, remains essentially animistic, and spiritual power resides mainly in ancestors and in Nature — especially in trees, but most especially in stone. Certainly, whether you have animist leanings or not, just walking along those limestone trails surrounded by lush greenery and giant trees that are hundreds, or perhaps thousands, of years old, does impart an undeniable feeling of strength, healing and spiritual comfort.

So, on the morning of Jan. 1, 2012, I rose early, made a flask of coffee, and set out on a pilgrimage to Sueyoshi Jinja. After wandering along some trails I’d never before explored, I found a map board which gave a clear picture of the route to the shrine. The way there is steep and paved with natural, unfinished blocks of limestone — and the scenery was spectacular. There were large rock formations penetrated by tree roots, with the trees themselves forming a dense green canopy high above. There were also side trails which led to caves and other rock formations, some fronted by stone altars used, even today, by noro (traditional priestesses) and yuta (female shamans).

There were a few other pilgrims on the trail and we all climbed cautiously up until we reached a building. That was the shrine office, where there was a Shinto priest who sold omamori (lucky charms) and omikushi (fortune-telling notes).

Continuing from there up a stone stairway designated an Okinawa Cultural Property soon brought us to the shrine. Originally built in the mid-15th century in the reign of Sho Taikyu (1454-60), whose father, Sho Hashi, was the founding King of the Ryukyu, it was restored in 1972. The shrine is actually two buildings, one behind the other, but only the front one is open to the public. So it was there that we tossed a coin into the collection box, bowed, clapped and prayed for a better future in the Year of the Dragon.

That afternoon, Shiori and I went to Naminoue Shrine, overlooking the East China Sea in the western part of Naha. Naminoue, which means “above the waves,” is the primary Shinto shrine in Okinawa, and it was near this site that, according to legend, a fisherman caught a magic stone in the sea and henceforth began to catch many fish. Eventually, though, the stone was stolen by local kami (spirits) and the fisherman fled.

Soon after that, yuta began worshipping here and, in 1605, a shrine was built by King Sho Nei (1587-1620), the first Ryukyu king to be a vassal of the Satsuma fiefdom following that Kyushu’s clan’s invasion in 1609. Then, in 1890, 11 years after the kingdom was formally annexed by Japan as Okinawa Prefecture, the shrine was absorbed into the Shinto religion. Destroyed in the 1945 Battle of Okinawa, it was rebuilt in 1953.

We found Naminoue Jinja thronged with thousands of pilgrims, so we decided to explore the area, once known as Kume Village. Before long we happened on a Buddhist temple named Naminoue Tera that was almost empty. It was there that Shiori made her new year prayers and bought us omamori for good luck.

Having prayed at both Shinto and Buddhist sites, we were most desirous of making a new-year pilgrimage to Seifa Utaki (Sacred Grove), which is in Nanjo City near the Pacific on the east coast of Okinawa Island. This grove, which was consecrated in the reign of King Sho Sin (1477-1526), is the most sacred site of the indigenous Ryukyu religion. Indeed, seifa means “a place holding divine power,” while utaki means “prayer place,” and for centuries Seifa Utaki was reserved for the royal family and a High Priestess.

Consistent with Okinawan religion, the grove, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site, contains no buildings. The trees, caves and stones are themselves the “temple,” and the natural stone platforms the “altars.”

The most important prayer site is a triangular-shaped opening in the rocks named Sangūi, which contains two of those altars. There, people pray by placing their hands on the rock formation which is penetrated by tree roots, thus linking the spirit powers of the forest and the earth. Outside the Sangūi are two stalactites, and pots are placed beneath them to collect “holy water” used by noro and yuta for new year rituals and divination.

In order to protect the environment of the sacred grove, access is not permitted from Dec. 29 until Jan. 4. However, on Jan. 5 I found it uncrowded, with just a few fellow pilgrims wandering the stone trails through the forest — this one considerably smaller than Sueyoshi Forest, and easily covered in half an hour. In contrast, it’s easy to spend two or three hours in Sueyoshi Forest and still not cover all the trails.

Sueyoshi Park is a 3-min. walk from Shiritsu Byouin Mae Station on the Naha Monorail. Naminoue Shrine is a 20-min. walk from Kencho Mae Station. Seifa Utaki (admission ¥200) is an hour by No. 38 bus from Naha Bus Terminal, and a 10-min. walk from Seifa Utaki Iriguchi bus stop.