Usually, most places in Japan are open to everyone, irrespective of one’s nationality, religion, race, or gender. However, there are a few spots in Japan which you might think as strange if you are not that familiar with its history and culture. As a matter of fact, there is an island in Japan which is said to be hidden from the rest of the world. With just one man living on it, you most likely can’t be there. This secluded sanctuary is Okinoshima (沖ノ島), a 240-acre island in Fukuoka Prefecture (福岡県), southwest of Japan.
The whole island of Okinoshima is considered to be sacred and is the abode of three Munakata (宗像) goddesses who are said to be the earliest ancestresses of the Imperial Family.
Munakata Taisha is a group of three Shinto (神道) shrines located on different islands of Munakata, Fukuoka. Hetsu-gu (辺津宮), the main shrine, is in Kyushu, Nakatsu-gu (中津宮) is on Oshima Island, while Okitsu-gu is on Okinoshima Island.
Okitsu-gu is the only place to visit on Okinoshima Island. It is one of the oldest and probably least visited of all the major shrines in Japan. It is also considered as one of the top-ranked shrines in the country.
Sailors used to pray at this shrine before going on long voyages as it is believed that the god of the sea would be pleased. The priest of this shrine lives on the island with nobody else. Since the whole island is considered to be pure, a ritual purification is necessary before entering it.
Once a year on May 27th, men swim naked to Okinoshima as part of a ritual purification. It is said that the visitors cannot bring anything impure with them to the island. But wait, there is more! Not all are welcome here. The priest of the shrine only selects 200 ardent Shinto believers to enter the island and visit the shrine. Nobody really knows what is going on every day at the shrine on Okinoshima.
Women are also not allowed onto the island and the shrine, which led to some controversies. But the priest wishes to keep the island exclusive to few extremely religious men. The visitors pray for the people who died in the Battle of Tsushima (日本海海戦) on the annual event on May 27th.
Okitsu-gu Shrine is probably the most unique shrine in Japan (or even the world). It is believed to have been around since 9th century A.D., and its prominence was even mentioned in some of Japan’s oldest books. It is an exclusive place for men – mostly priests and sailors.
Sailors used to give offerings, such as gold and artifacts, to the kami (神). UNESCO has found thousands of artifacts, relics, and treasures at this place. These things go for millions of dollars when auctioned off. The shrine is considered as a cultural property and some of the things unearthed are given national treasure status.
Recently, Okitsu-gu was nominated as a World Heritage Site, but the outcome is not going to make a difference in the visitors’ list due to the shrine’s restrictive tendency. The shrine is so secretive that even the details of the annual naked visit on May 27th are kept secret.
Japan never ceases to amaze people with its unusual and interesting places. Controversial or not, Okinoshima is a place that should definitely be put on the map. Although kept secret, you can try to get some minor details about the annual event from the Fukuoka City Tourist Information or from anyone of your Japanese friends who is familiar with religion.
Munakata Taisha Okitsu-gu Website *Japanese only