NANJO, OKINAWA PREF. – The glow from the ritual fires greet the entourage of noro (priestesses) entering the grounds of Sefa Utaki. As they proceed, the robe-clad women chant the ceremonial song of kuena to commemorate the inauguration of the kikoe-ōgimi — the highest ranking priestess and central religious figure of the Ryukyu Kingdom (1429-1879).
White sand delivered from Kudaka Island, the first of the Ryukyu Islands said to be created by the goddess Amamikiyo when she descended from heaven, is spread over the premises. The group moves on to make offerings at Sefa Utaki’s six ibi (sanctuaries) before the event reaches its climax past midnight and the kikoe-ōgimi is elevated to the rank of deity.
So went oaraori, the ceremony that once took place in Okinawa’s most revered utaki (sacred site).
This religious rite, which took months to prepare and culminated in a two-day journey from Shuri Castle to Sefa Utaki and back, hasn’t been practiced for over a century. But the fading majesty of the Ryukyu Kingdom remains etched on the weathered altars, connected by cobblestone trails winding through the subtropical jungle that shrouds Sefa Utaki’s magnificent limestone rock formations.
For Okinawans, this utaki situated on Cape Chinen, the easternmost point of Nanjo, holds a special place in their identity — perhaps even more so now that Shuri Castle, the center of politics, diplomacy and culture in the Ryukyu Kingdom, was destroyed by fire in October last year.
“We’ve seen a surprising jump in visitors from the prefecture since the fire. It seems people are coming to study their own history, especially since Sefa Utaki is closely related to Shuri Castle,” says Junko Oshiro, a native of Nanjo and veteran guide of 20 years.
For more than 400 years, royal women appointed as kikoe-ōgimi would visit the sacred site to claim divine status and govern over the priestesses charged with conducting rituals and ceremonies in the kingdom’s many villages.
This hierarchical network of priestesses headed by the king’s female kin was established in the 15th century. Noro were powerful figures tasked to protect their local utaki and manage religious functions based on the island chain’s indigenous belief system that blends animism and ancestor worship. Oshiro says they also acted as conduits relaying information on regional provinces to ever-watchful kings.
The custom of oaraori eventually disappeared after the Ryukyu Kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1879, an event tracing its roots to the 1609 invasion of the island chain by feudal lords of the Satsuma domain, marking the beginning of the kingdom’s status as a vassal state under the Tokugawa Shogunate (1600-1868). The last kikoe-ōgimi was appointed during the war in 1944.
Although many utaki and gusuku (stone-walled structures, often castles and fortresses) were lost during the Battle of Okinawa (April 1-June 22, 1945) and the ensuing U.S. occupation until 1972, hundreds still dot the islands, preserving pockets of old beliefs held by its people for millennia. In 2000, nine of these sites, including Sefa Utaki, were listed as UNESCO World Heritage sites.
Oshiro explains that three of the six ibi in Sefa Utaki share the same names as rooms in Shuri Castle. Ufugui, the stone garden where noro worshipped the gods, is also the name of the second floor of Shuri Castle; then there is Yuinchi, the name of the cooking quarters of Shuri Castle that also means “the place where an abundance of harvests gather,” a reference to the Ryukyu Kindgom’s history as a thriving trading post between China and other Asian nations.
The third and most iconic ibi is Sangui: A triangular tunnel formed naturally between two vast chunks of rock, leading to a cliff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. In the distance, just 30 minutes by ferry from the main island of Okinawa, sits Kudaka — the island of the gods where holy rituals of the Ryukyu dynasty were performed. Successive kings made pilgrimages to the island with kikoe-ōgimi, and later began offering prayers from the clifftop sanctuary. Past excavations of Sangui unearthed magatama beads, some made in gold, as well as Chinese coins and porcelain, reflecting the site’s religious importance and the kingdom’s long-held position as China’s tributary.
China’s influence runs deep in Okinawa, from symbolism depicted in architecture and the shape of tombs to numerous festivals and rituals. While many of the events that take place in Japan are based on the solar calendar, those in Okinawa also follow the Chinese lunar calendar; this year’s jūrukunichi (Jan. 16) festival to celebrate the new year with ancestors, for example, fell on February 9, a Sunday.
That day, Yoshinori Ishimine, a high school teacher in Naha, the capital city of Okinawa, visited his family’s tomb with extended family members to offer gifts and prayers. Hailing from Miyako Island, the fourth largest island in the prefecture, Ishimine says his sister observes the hinukan custom whereby the woman of the household burns incense and makes offerings to the god of fire and the hearth (typically enshrined in the kitchen) on the first and 15th of every lunar month.
“These rituals and observances offer opportunities for families to get together and honor their ancestors,” he says, surmising that Okinawa’s tight-knit island communities may have helped preserve these traditions into the 21st century.
Not all have survived. In December 1978, photojournalist Hiroaki Yamashiro, then working as a photographer for the Yomiuri Shimbun newspaper, was assigned to cover the mysterious ritual of Izaiho held once every 12 years at Kudaka Island.
“I had no idea back then that I was photographing the last Izaiho,” he says.
Held over four days from November 15 of the Year of the Horse, the 600-year-old ceremony is an initiation rite to become kaminchu (celestial beings) for women between the ages of 30 and 41, born and raised on Kudaka and married to men from the island.
The event is overseen by the highest ranking noro from the island’s Kudaka and Hokama families, and supported by priestesses divided into three different age groups: 61 to 70 years old, 54 to 60 years old and 42 to 53 years old.
Long off-limits to outsiders, Yamashiro says the event caught the public’s attention when the artist Taro Okamoto (1911-96) visited Okinawa in 1966 and witnessed Izaiho, later chronicling his experience in words and photographs. The Izaiho in 1978 that Yamashiro attended was open to the media, although he recalls the press had access to only certain portions of the ceremony.
Across four days, the women engaged in various rituals, song and dance to welcome deities from Nirai Kanai, the faraway utopia in Ryukyuan religion where the gods live and all life comes from. The festival would end with a celebration welcoming the women into priestesshood.
A lack of successors, however, led to the ceremony being canceled in 1990 and 2002. When it was canceled for the third time in 2014, the island’s ward chief, Fumiyoshi Uchima, said it meant the opportunity to directly inherit knowledge from women who have experienced Izaiho would be lost, according to the Ryukyu Shimpo newspaper, potentially spelling the end to the tradition.
“I hear it was because many young women from the island decided to move to the main island and elsewhere,” Yamashiro says. Despite the cancelation of its most important tradition, numerous rituals and ceremonies still take place on the island with a population little under 200, and its spiritual relevance to Okinawans remains strong.
Yamashiro says religious customs and rituals practiced in the many islands and districts of Okinawa can vary significantly. “But Kudaka Island is special, it’s where the kings went to pray.”
The pilgrimage route those kings traced to visit sacred sites in the east, the direction of Nirai Kanai, is known as Agariumai and includes a total of 14 utaki, gusuku and other sanctuaries in present-day Nanjo.
The sound of wind blowing through the lush vegetation and the singing of birds greets visitors to Hamagawa Utaki, one such site, late one recent afternoon. A stone path from the small, modest shrine leads down to a quiet beach and to Yaharazukasa, a jagged rock shaft erected offshore marking the spot where the creation goddess Amamikiyo is said to have taken her first steps on the main island of Okinawa. Amamikiyo then recovered from the rigors of her journey at Hamagawa Utaki, according to lore.
Though fully submerged at full-tide that afternoon, the stone pillar is said to reveal itself during low-tide, standing as a monument to the rich myths and legends handed down over the generations by the people of Okinawa.
Sefa Utaki is 15 kilometers east of Naha. From Naha Bus Terminal, take bus 38 or 338 and alight at Sefa Utaki Iriguchi (¥850, one hour), where the site can be reached on foot in five to 10 minutes. Admission to Sefa Utaki is ¥300.