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Tracing myth, history on the ‘Island of the Gods’

The Yomiuri Shimbun

Cape Kaberu where goddess Amamikiyo is believed to have descended. Coral rocks stand on the white sand beach.

By Hiromi Hayashi / Yomiuri Shimbun Staff WriterKUDAKA ISLAND, Okinawa — I biked along a road lined with fountain palms, with an emerald green sea spread out before me. I had heard Okinawans believe “Niraikanai,” the utopia where the gods live, is just over the edge of the horizon. I was overwhelmed by the immense and breathtaking scenery in front of me.

Kudaka Island in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture, is about five kilometers east of the southern part of the Okinawa main island. With a population of slightly less than 200 people, the long, narrow island of about eight kilometers in circumference, surrounded by coral reefs, has been called the “Island of the Gods” since ancient times. I visited because I wanted to know the reason for this appellation.

Various myths exist to explain the creation of the Ryukyu islands; the most famous is that the goddess Amamikiyo came to Cape Kaberu, located on the northern tip of Kudaka Island, and began nation-building. Regarding that myth, there are two theories — one is that the goddess descended from the sky; the other is that she came from Niraikanai, said Masahide Nishime, 73, a Nanjo City Tourism Association-approved guide and a member of the “Amamikiyo Roman Guide Group.”

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  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    A forest of large trees typical of a southern island. There is still a lot of wild nature in many places on the island.

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

    The set meal with irabu soup and marinated nigana plants served at Tokujin restaurant

  • The Yomiuri Shimbun

Fubo Utaki, a small forest located in the central part of the island, is the most sacred prayer place. It is believed that Amamikiyo lived in the forest, so only female residents on the island are allowed to enter there for rituals. It is said that if one offers a prayer by rubbing one’s hands together up and down at the forest’s entrance, a god silently approaches the person from behind.

After goddess Amamikiyo descended to the island, she subsequently went to the Okinawa main island and headed for Shuri (now Naha). “The Ryukyu Kingdom kings never failed to visit Kudaka Island with their queens every two years to pray for the kingdom’s peace and tranquility,” Nishime said. White sand from Kudaka Island was used for rituals on the main island of Okinawa to show ties with the sacred place.

In a village in the southern part of the island, roads thread between stone walls built by piling up corals, and lion-shaped statuettes sit on the roofs of houses to ward off evil spirits. At the corner of the village is a small square called Udunmya where a ritual called Izaiho was conducted until about 40 years ago. The ritual was held every 12 years, in the year of the Horse, and women on the island served as Shinnyo priests.

In order to accede to the female priesthood, established during the Ryukyu Dynasty, women aged 30 to 41 who were born and raised on the island wore white costumes, spent four days holed up in the mountains and sang songs to summon a god. However, since there are no more successors, the ritual has not taken place since 1978.

Yoko Fukuchi, 79, who served as a female priest in the last Izaiho ritual, talked about her experience. She was the eldest daughter among seven siblings and got married at age 20. As her husband was a fisherman, he was often away on long sea voyages, so she kept house during his absences. “It is a ritual of rebirth for becoming a full-fledged women. We offered a prayer to the god for the safety and health of our family,” she gently said when asked about the Izaiho ritual.

About 30 rituals and festivals, such as a ritual for praying for a good catch and a wheat harvest festival, are still conducted every year on the island. Since the Izaiho ritual has been discontinued, women in their 70s and 30s from families of higher-ranking female priests play an intercessory role, Fukuchi said.

People on the island attach great importance to belief in the gods and live quietly. Although the number of tourists has been increasing, development has not followed, so in many places wild nature remains, such as forests of Indian laurel trees and Pandanus odoratissimus trees. I remember the words of Nishime, who said, “We will never let people violate the sacred places where the gods live.”

Making traditional sweets

Near Azama Port, there is a tourist facility offering various hands-on activities called Ganju Eki Nanjo (Tel: 098-948-4611). In the Okinawa dialect, ganju means “vitality.” Visitors can enjoy activities such as wearing traditional costumes like eisa (for ¥500) and rowing a boat used in the traditional Hari boat races (for ¥2,500).

I tried making chinsuko, Okinawa’s traditional sweets (for ¥1,000). I mixed wheat flour, sugar and lard, and shaped the dough. I then baked them at 170 C for about 15 minutes. Since they are easy to prepare, they make good gifts.

Nutritious sea snake soup

In Okinawa Prefecture, sea snakes are called irabu. In the days of the Ryukyu Dynasty, irabu soup was offered at court as a medicinal dish. It is made with smoked irabu sea snake, a Kudaka Island specialty, simmered with soki pork ribs and dried kombu.

I hesitated to have the dish because there is snake in it. However, I heard that it was nutritious and good for the health, so I ordered the dish at the restaurant Tokujin (Tel: 098-948-2889) near Tokujin Port. I ate the irabu meat floating in the golden brown soup. The soft skin on the surface had a gelatinous texture and the flesh was firm. Made with rich stock, the soup was very flavorful and fully satisfied me. The set meal with soup and marinated nigana plants that grow wild on the island costs ¥1,500. The irabu soup set meal with rice and a small dish costs ¥2,000.

Access

It takes about 50 minutes by car from Naha Airport to Azama Port in Nanjo, Okinawa Prefecture. It takes about 25 minutes by ferry and 15 minutes by high-speed boat from the port to Tokujin Port on Kudaka Island. Each boat usually makes three round trips a day.

For more information, call nonprofit organization Kudakajima Shinkokai at (098) 835-8919.Speech

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