2019.03.05

World Heritage Site: Munakata and Okinoshima, and Associated Sites

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Munakata and Okinoshima, and Associated Sites

Female shrine attendants dance and sing old poems under the moonlight with fires dancing in the background. This fantastical spiritual ritual is the finale of the fall festival of the Munakata Shrine, Takamiya Kannabi-sai.

In July 2017, the Sacred Island of Okinoshima and the Associated Sites in the Munakata Region was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Registered in this process were the following eight locations related to the Munakata Taisha Shrine Nakatsumiya in the City of Munakata in Fukuoka Prefecture: Okinoshima, Koyajima, Mikadobashira, Tengu-iwa, Munakata Taisha Okitsu-Miya Remote Worship Alter, Munakata Taisha Okitsu-Miya, Munakata Taisha Hetsu-Miya, and Shinbaru-Nuyama Ruins.

Historical artifacts dating back to the 4th century proving an association with ancient East Asia, approximately 80,000 items have been found on these sites showing a rich and serious worship of the three goddesses of Munakata. The abodes of the local families of priests who resided here, honoring the Munakata Taisha faith of nature worship have also been discovered, showcasing items used for rituals, ceremonies, and festivals.

The Munakata Taisha Fall Festival is held over three days once a year.

The only time this ancient festival, The Munakata Taisha Fall Festival honoring the Munakata Taisha faith can be seen is over the three days from October 1st through the 3rd.

The shrines known as Munakata Taisha are located in holy three sites in the Genkai Sea over approximately 60km: Okitsu-Miya in Okinoshima, Nakatsu-Miya in Ohshima, and Hetsu-Miya on Kyushu’s mainland. In each shrine resides a goddess, one of the three goddesses of Munakata who gave birth to Amaterasu (the goddess who birthed Japan). They are the protectors of the routes to these shrines.

The fall festival begins with the Miare Festival whereby the youngest of the three goddesses, Ichikishima-no-kami welcomes to Hetsu-Miya her two elder sisters: the oldest, Tagorihime-no-kami who resides in the Okinoshima Okitsu-Miya, and the middle sister, Tagitsuhime-no-kami who resides in the Ohshima Nakatsu-Miya.

Several hundred elegantly decorated boats carrying parts of the souls of the gods leave from Ohshima heading towards the shrine. This spectacular view, the colors of the flags and the sincerity and intensity, the love of the silent fishermen is a sight to behold. They make a stop at each of the three goddess’ islands and return back.

The souls of the gods are taken into Hetsu-Miya and what follows is the most elegant, traditional style of dances and an equestrian archery ceremony.

In early evening of the 3rd of October, the conclusion of the festival is none other than the Takamiya Kannabi-sai. This is the event whereby the souls of the gods are returned. The site is in the back, way back, of the forest of the Taisha. It is up a steep 200-meter hill comprised of 119 steps. It is the most sacred spot where the three goddesses are to have come to earth. This festival was suspended briefly, but had taken place as an ancient rite until 630 years ago. The priests recite prayers, offer songs, and the female shrine attendants dance. This will take you back into a time of classic novels, unlike the reality that surrounds us today, this place and experience in the woods is truly magical.

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The Sacred Island of Okinoshima: Where relics and artifacts of over 1000 years ago reside

The island where god resides, Okinoshima, is located approximately 60km from the City of Munakata. In this isolated island, from the 4th through the 9th century, the Yamato Empire held holy rituals asking for safe passages across the oceans. Throughout the island are various ancient holy ruins and here approximately 80,000 items from Korea, China and Persia have been found. Gold rings that would make modern artisans weep with envy are a few of the items that can be viewed at the Shinpokan on the premises of the Munakata Taisha.

Why are so many untouched ancient holy ruins left for us to view? The entire 4km of Okinoshima is the site of the Nakatsu-Miya. The three stone reefs: Koyajima, Mikadobashira, and Tengu-iwa make up, essentially, a Torii (a holy entrance), and even the ocean beyond the reefs is considered sacred territory. All of this has been off limits from ancient times. The site is still off limits to everyone except shrine priests and attendants. The spiritual secrets of this island will be honored going forward.

Even after ancient rituals were no longer conducted on Okinoshima, since the 16th century, the family of the Munakata Shrine chief priest, in conjunction with priests and area residents held the spirituality and faith associated with the shrine in strictest confidence. This means no one could speak of anything they saw or heard on Okinoshima. No one could take a tree, twig, grass, or even one stone from the island. Everyone arriving onto the island must first immerse themselves into the ocean for cleansing. Even today, there are priests who reside on the island in ten-day rotations. Every morning, they remove all of their clothing and enter the ocean. This strict ritual of secrecy continues today.

Munakata Shrine Okitsu-Miya, located on Okinoshima

Unfortunately it is not possible to visit Okinoshima. From days past through today, directly visiting Okitsumiya for worship has been impossible. For this reason, in Munakata, tradition has been to worship from afar. The alter on Ohshima, 48km from Okinoshima, was built for this reason. Legend has it, this altar was built specifically for this purpose in the mid-18th century.

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Munakata Taisha Shinpokan: Where the treasures of Okinoshima reside

The Shinpokan on the premises of Munakata Taisha Hetsu-Miya holds approximately 80,000 artifacts. These items show the exchange between this community and that of ancient East Asia. Items include copper mirrors, personal ornaments, weapons, harnesses for horses, and earthenware. Written documentation showing the lineage of local ruling families and Munakata families, as well as ancient materials of the Munakata Taisha chief priests can also be viewed.

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Shimbaru Nuyama Ruins: The graves of local ruling families and the Munakata clan

The Shimbaru Nuyama Ruins in the City of Funatsu are the graves of the ruling families and the Munakata Clan who held the holy rites of the Okinoshima faith and traditions. Said to be from the 5th to 6th centuries, 41 graves exist along with round barrows. From the observatory on the east side of the ruins you can view the ocean spanning to Ohshima and Okinoshima.

Orihata Shrine: The protector of the fishermen of Munakata

Approximately twenty minutes by foot from Munakata Taisha Hetsu-Miya is Orihata Shrine, the shrine serving as a protector of Munakata’s fishermen. Said also to be the birthing place of Ama (women who dive for pearls) there is a statue in their honor.

The steps to the main site are around 200 and steep; even healthy people will be out of breath.

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Recommended hotels and restaurants in Munakata

●Restaurants

Suehiro (seafood)

Totoji Ramen

Mikazuki Udon

Hananoki

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