Whether it is as a member of a tour group or just a weekend getaway with the family, most visitors to Okinawa will make the pilgrimage to Mabuni Hill and the Peace Prayer Memorial Park in southern Itoman City. For most, if not all, this park is a “must see” attraction.
Visitors are often struck with awe when they look upon the roughly 235,000 names inscribed in granite on the Heiwa No Ishiji, “cornerstones of peace.” Here visitors can stroll along the manicured avenues to see the many remembrance monuments donated by the different prefectures of Japan as well as from the nation of South Korea. There is also a first rate museum and the famous Peace Statue is located here too.
When you’ve finished your visit, instead of taking the fast track back through Itoman City to Naha, why not drive north along the winding coast to enjoy the breathtaking scenery. Just a few kilometers further up the road in the town of Chinen is an equally important historical site. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2002, Sefa Utaki is still considered the holy of holies in the local religion and gives visitors a glimpse into the past to the Golden Age of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Religion in Okinawa is significantly different than what most people familiar with Japan are used to. Although they have Buddhist temples located throughout the islands, the people of Okinawa practice a unique faith called “So-Sen-Su Hai” in the local dialect. It can be likened to a blending of Shinto, Buddhism, Taoism; Shamanism with a few other isms’ thrown in for good measure.
It was at Sefa Utaki during olden times where the high priestess was given her commission and where the King of the Ryukyus came to pray at least twice a year for the blessings of heaven. Although it is not used in that manner today, it is still a site for pilgrimages by local citizens and Yuta’s (shamans) who come to pray and give counsel to those that seek it.
In addition to providing visitors a glimpse of what life on Okinawa was like during the Ryukyu Kingdom’s glory days, it also provides a peek into its more recent “battle” history. It was here at this site that hundreds, perhaps thousands, of civilians gathered to hide from and escape the constant artillery bombardments and pray for deliverance from what locals still call the Typhoon of Steel.
It’s quite easy for visitors to walk the site and imagine people huddled under the many rock overhangs and deep into the rock clefts to hide for safety. There is even one bomb crater along the main path that is still clearly visible although the lone sign marking it is written only in Japanese.
The site has been improved over the last few years to make it more appealing to tourists. This includes paved parking, restroom facilities, stone walkways, stairs, strategically placed handrails, information plaques as well as the new air conditioned visitor’s center, a must during the sweltering summer heat.
Even so, be cautious as the walkway can be quite slippery when wet and there are a few places where the placement of additional handrails would be beneficial. It’s not an ideal place for a baby in a stroller or for ladies in high heeled shoes.
To find it, as you drive north from Itoman City along the highway through Chinen Town, look for a Post Office on the left side of the road and the sign marked “Sefa Utaki.” There’s a Family Mart on the opposite side of the road so you can’t miss it. As you follow the road back, you’ll notice several coffee houses, and small restaurants as well as a school that teaches Ryukyu dance and music near the end of the road.
At the end of the road you’ll find the spacious parking area. The fee for entrance is just 200 Yen for adults. Brochures are available in several languages upon request and there are also several small monuments erected with information placards in both English and Japanese along the main paths and at the three altars that make it an ideal spot to stretch your legs and take a self guided tour after a long drive seeing the sights of Okinawa’s historic south coast.© Japan Today