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Okinoshima, the inaccessible kami island

One of the purest expressions of the sacredness of nature, where Japan is preserved in its essence out of time.

by Nanban

Wrapped by the waves of the Genkai Sea lies one of the most inaccessible places in Japan: a sacred island, an island that is a divinity in itself, a kami therefore, a solitary island, the island of Okinoshima.

On its soil there is the Okitsu-miya shrine, one of the three Shinto shrines of Munakata, which go by the collective name of Munakata Taisha (宗像大社).

As a whole, the Munakata Taisha Shrine is composed of three shrines, dedicated to the three Munakata goddesses: Hetsu-miya, Nakatsu-miya and Okitsu-miya, the first of which is located on the mainland, in Kyushu, the second on the island of Oshima, while the third, perhaps the most important and full of history, is located in Okinoshima, about 60 kilometers from the coast, on the route to Korea.

It is a unique sanctuary, a place where, in the words of contemporary artist Hiroshi Sugimoto, "what belongs to before history is frozen, exists and is preserved in a state of isolation".

Although very few have set foot there, it is so popular that it has been nicknamed the "Shōsō-in of the sea", referring to the famous temple of Nara. The Sea of Genkai, from which the island of Okinoshima emerges, was a key point for transport between Japan and the Korean peninsula, and it is therefore believed that the enormous number of artefacts, over one hundred thousand, found on the island were brought to the island as offerings to the gods in the hope of safe trade.

From the sea, the island has every appearance of being abandoned, but as we get closer to the small landing place marked by an austere portal, the so-called tori, traces of human presence emerge. Every morning, in fact, a Shinto priest from Munakata Taisha offers prayers in the main shrine of Okitsu-miya, whose building is located between several gigantic rocks, which create the illusion that the architecture is an emanation of the sacred nature that surrounds it.

The landing place - @Yuji Ono/Casa Brutus

Until 2017, the year in which the small island with a circumference of approximately 4 km was designated a World Heritage Site, and for several previous decades, access was only permitted to a small group of two hundred men, albeit through an elaborate selection process. one day a year, to celebrate the victory in the 1905 Battle of Tsushima, fought in the Korea Strait.

@Yuji Ono/Casa Brutus

Since then the inaccessibility of the island has become even more strict and only one priest is allowed on the island and he is changed every ten days, so as to never interrupt the essential rites.
But not only. Okinoshima is one of the last places in Japan where the Nyonin kinsei is in force, i.e. the centuries-old ban whereby women are not allowed to disembark, since the Shinto tradition requires those who enter the temple - or in this case one could tell the deity itself, the island being a kami - a rigid purification process, which the woman's monthly losses would make impracticable. A rule that places the island even further out of time.

Okinoshima is therefore a mysterious island, perhaps the most segregated of the archipelago, to be observed from afar, from one of the other Munakata Taisha sanctuaries and which, like a fossil, preserves the last traces of an ancient Japan, increasingly unobtainable.