The Sacred Island that was a center for cultural exchange in ancient East Asia
The sacred island of Okinoshima and its associated sites, which were recently listed as world heritage sites, are situated in the Munakata-Okinoshima region of Fukuoka Prefecture; part of Kyushu, in the northern part of West Japan. The starting points for visiting Hetsu-miya Munakata Taisha and Nakatsu-miya Munakata Taisha (which are registered as world heritage sites) are the JR Hakata and JR Kokura train stations.
Sacred Island of Okinoshima
The inhabitants of the region believed that Okinoshima itself was a deity. To this day, shrine priests take turns to visit the island every 10 days and offer prayers for peace.
The history of the “Sacred Island of Okinoshima” dates back to the latter half of the 4th century. Between the 4th and 9th centuries, vigorous exchanges began to take place between mainland Kyushu and the Korean peninsula. The inhabitants of (the Munakata region of) Kyushu overcame the dangers of ocean travel and fulfilled a major role in these exchanges. For a 500-year period between the latter half of the 4th century and the end of the 9th century, religious rituals took place in the region. Even today, no one except for the shrine priests themselves is permitted to set foot on the island.
Experience the ancient beliefs of Okinoshima at Munakata Taisha
During the latter half of the 7th century, the ancient religious rituals that had taken place on Okinoshima itself came to be carried out on the nearby island of Oshima and on the mainland, and shrines dedicated to the Three Goddesses of Munakata were opened, at three separate locations linked by the sea. These three shrines, respectively named Okitsu-miya (Okinoshima), Nakatsu-miya (Oshima) and Hetsu-miya (Tashima, Munakata City, Kyushu), are referred to collectively as Munakata Taisha. Of the three shrines, only Hetsu-miya is located on mainland Kyushu. The Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region are the 21st heritage site in Japan to be added to the world heritage list. Of the registered sites, tourists are able to visit Nakatsu-miya, which is located out at sea overlooking Okinoshima from Oshima island, and Hetsu-miya, on the mainland.
Beliefs in the Sacred Island are still alive in the local area today
Hestu-miya has come to be the central focus of Munakata Taisha’s religious rituals. The current shrine buildings (main shrine building and hall of worship) at Hetsu-miya were rebuilt at the end of the 16th century. The elegantly flowing shape of the “kokerabuki” wood-shingle roof, which was a distinctive feature of the architecture of the time, is particularly beautiful. Both buildings have been designated as Important Cultural Properties by the Japanese government. Many valuable treasures were discovered on Okinoshima itself (which lies between Kyushu and the Korean Peninsula), including a pure gold ring dated as being from around the 5th century, and a mirror made during the 3rd century. These valuable treasures can be seen at the Shimpokan Museum, also located within the grounds of Hetsu-miya.
Getting There: The nearest station (JR Togo Station on the JR Kagoshima Mainline) can be reached by rapid train in around 30 minutes from JR Hakata Station, or around 40 minutes from JR Kokura Station. The shrine itself is around 12 minutes by bus from Togo Station.
The Shimpokan Museum is situated within the grounds of Hetsu-miya shrine.
Entrance fees to visit the museum: Standard (adult): 800 yen, High school and university students: 500 yen, Elementary and Junior High School students: 400 yen
Opening times: 9:00am-4:30pm (last entry is at 4:00pm)”
The Okitsu-miya Yohaisho on Oshima Island, built for worshipping Okinoshima
Oshima is Fukuoka Prefecture’s largest island, located 7km (4.3 miles) away from Konominato Harbor in Munakata City. It has a population of around 700 people. The torii gates that mark the entrance to Nakatsu-miya shrine stand near Oshima Harbor, facing out to sea. As you pass under the torii and climb the steep stone steps, Nakatsu-miya’s main shrine building appears before you. From the rear side of the shrine there is a path leads towards the top of Mt. Mitakesan, allowing you to climb to the summit at a height of 224m (0.13 miles). Okitsu-miya Yohaisho,
Munakata Taisha—which was built as a place for viewing and worshipping Okinoshima itself—is one of the island’s major sightseeing highlights.
Getting There: Nakatsu-miya can be reached in around 25 minutes by ferry from Konominato Harbor; a 20-minute bus ride from JR Togo Station on the JR Kagoshima Mainline. The Yohaisho is around a 30-minute walk from Nakatsu-miya itself. Alternatively, it can be reached in around 10 minutes by bus from Oshima Harbor.
Ferry fares are for a one-way trip. Adults (age 12 and over, excluding elementary school students): 560 yen, Children (from age 1 and over to elementary school students aged 12): 280 yen
NB: Children who have not yet entered elementary school and are accompanied by an adult can ride for free (one child per adult).
The history of these world heritage sites—the sacred island of Okinoshima and the Munakata Taisha shrines that protect its ancient beliefs—is still very much alive in the Munakata region of Fukuoka today. These spiritual spots, continuing the traditions of ancient Japan, are precious places that enable visitors to forget the hustle and bustle of the city and get in touch with the ancient history and culture of days long past. Why not try including them in your itinerary for your next trip to Japan?