Seifa Utaki – Okinawa’s Holiest Place
Early this year, before all the trouble with the tsunami, I spent a few days in Okinawa and one of the places I made a point of visiting was the Seifa Utaki (written 斎場御嶽 in Japanese but pronunced Seifa Utaki or Seefa Utaki in Okinawan and Saihan Utaki in Japanese), which literally means “the purified place of Utaki”. The Seifa Utaki is the most sacred place in Okinawa forming a physical link between the Royal court (and in extension the people of Okinawa) and the land itself. The series of ritual places that make up the whole complex was run by a special group of holy priestesses, or shaman, called Noro, governed by a head priestess called Kikoe-Okimi. The system was formalized in the late 15th century and lasted until the about the 1870′s when the old feudal system was abolished in order to give the emperor on mainland Japan more power over the regions (which is the prefectural system we have today). Naturally nothing remains of the shrines that must have been built here, as the unforgiving climate of the south pacific destroys almost anything organic in just a few years, but back in the old days it must have a been a rich and powerful spot, reserved only for the holy women and the members of the royal court. These days it’s been turned into a world heritage site by UNESCO and there is a small fee to enter the holy grounds.
Even on this hot and humid January day it was hard to concentrate on the spiritual aspects of the place as there were the usual tourist crowds and numerous friendly examples of the little remaining Okinawan wildlife in the form of salamanders and fowl to keep me entertained. But most people only went so far as to see the great leaning rock wall at the end of the site which I can imagine would be more spectacular in a more spiritual mind frame. It’s also a good opportunity to get out in the under brush of a tropical forest. As with many other things in Okinawa, the stark contrast between the rich spiritual history of the islands and the mediocre civilization after the great Pacific War was quite depressing. I really hope the people of Okinawa can recover their own culture, language and religion soon.