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Okinawa shrine places to visit on New Year

By: By Jun Ikemura

Date Posted: 2011-12-30

Have you been to Hatsumoude? Have you even heard about “Hatsumoude”?

If your answer was positive, you’re already into Japanese lifestyle. For everyone else, going to “Hatsumoude” -- to a shrine or a temple on January 1st, even just past midnight -- means first visit to a shrine or temple of the year, “Hatsu” means “first” and “Moude” means “visiting a shrine or temple” or “Paying homage”. These days, most Japanese visit a shrine or temple only one time for “Hatsumoude”, so the word’s meaning has changed from ancient times when people were visiting frequently.

As we’ve answered one question, we look to the second: What is the difference between a Shrine and a Temple. To tell the truth, most of Japanese aren’t sure of the difference, either. Still, there are differences. A Shrine is the place for God, or Deity, and a Temple is the place for Buddha.

A Shrine is the place for praying to god and believing there is a god inhabiting the shrine. Each shrine enshrines a different local god; one god inhabits and protects a local mountain, some gods inhabit the trees, the rivers, the rocks and the like. Ancient Japanese called them by the generic name “Yorozu no kami.” “Yorozu” means “bunch” or “much”, in written Chinese Kanji characters, and it also can be read “8 million”, and “Kami” means “God”. Japanese call this religion “Shinto”, “Shin” meaning also “God.” “Shin” and “Kami” are written with the same kanji character, and “To” means “Way” so Shinto means the Way of God.

Each shrine enshrines each god, and you will find some structures for that, but there are many shrines without any buildings all over Japan, with only a small space for praying or just a Torii gate. Torii is a gate for the area into a holy space.

Of course a lot of shrines are located within their own structures too, “Haiden” is a structure that you can see when you visit a shrine with an offering box. The “Honden” is usually located behind the “Haiden” and each god enshrined there. Generally, a shrine concept was imported to Japan.

A temple, on the other hand, usually doesn’t have a Torii gate, That’s the one big difference, too. So, what about a temple? A Shrine with “Shinto” is the religion that was born in Japan before Christ, but a Temple with “Buddhism” is the religion imported from China to Japan around the 5th century. The origin of “temple” traces to Buddhist missionaries in ancient time in India who stopped their preaching during rainy season, then they built the structures for meditation.

There were some problems that arose when Buddhism was imported to Japan. Because religious problems always exist, the ancient Japanese had doubts to receiving foreign religion easily. They already had “Shinto”, so there was a kind of trick by missionaries. They preached to natives that God is a God, both origins are the same, so let’s pray to god. Thus, a unique religious style was born in Japan. After Buddhism spread across Japan, ancient people built Torii, Haiden, Honden and temple in many places. This style had been kept until Meiji era. That’s why we can see many places that Shrines and Temples are together in the same location even now.

Okinawa is the same way. Some places you can see both structures in the same or close areas. As in mainland Japan, there are many shrines and temples in Okinawa too, but we introduce eight shrines and one temple this time. Eight of these are called “Ryukyu Hassha,“ meaning “8 shrines of Ryukyu“. Those shrines were assigned a special status by the Ryukyu government before in the Meiji era. Why special? That is still a mystery, but some say thatユs because of the sectarian scheming under the Buddhism.

Where are Ryukyu Hassha located? Oki no Guu is located inside Onoyama Park in Naha. Note that Onoyama Park holds two different shrines considering it’s such a small area. The other shrine, “Gokoku shrine” is the most popular shrine in Okinawa for this generation. Almost 240,000 people visit every new year season.

Naminoue Guu is located next to the Naminoue Beach in Naha City. It is the top ranking within Ryukyu Hassha. You can find “Gokoku temple” next to Naminoue shrine. Some Okinawans confuse Gokoku that is located in Onoyama with Naminoue that is the second most popular shrine for visits for “Hatsumoude”, with almost 150,000 people visiting.

The most popular shrine for foreigners is the third ranked “Futenma Guu” located in Futenma. Also Futenma Guu has a cave under the shrine where the god of Futenma resides. One can’t enter the cave within the New Year busy season, but could after January.

Sueyoshi Guu located at inside of Sueyoshi park in Shuri. This shrine is located in really deep woods, and you could enter the place from both Shuri and Urasoe side, but I recommend to visit from Urasoe side at midnight. It’s really hard to climb up the hill night time. But it’s a mystic location. One notice, the shrine is closed on certain days and the security system will go off if you climb up the stairs to the Haiden.

Ameku Guu is located near Tomari Port in Naha city. It’s also located next to a temple.

Shikina Guu is located near “Shikina En” world heritage park. It is not a big shrine, and is located inside a residential area, so I recommend visiting Shikina Guu after visiting Shikina Park on foot. Also you can find some relics of old Okinawan life at that area.

Asato Hachiman Guu is located at the Asato district in Naha City. I think this shrine is the most difficult place to visit, because the road is narrow, and some roads are one way only, so you can not visit in a vehicle, as even regular size car would be hard to maneuver. To park the car at Naha Kokusai Street area, and visit by foot is recommended.

Kin Guu located near Camp Hansen in Kin. It’s probably well-known to foreigners too, because it is really near to Camp Hansen. But did you know the Kin Guu is actually located underground in a cave? Most Okinawans also don’t know. At first sight, you can see only a “Kannon temple”, so there is confusion where is the shrine? A temple and shrine tend to be built in the same area, but where is shrine here? The answer is underground, there is a big cave inside of the temple area, and a god enshrined in there. The cave is used as a natural refrigerator for Awamori. The environment there is considered to be ideal fir maturing of old Awamori, so huge number of bottles and pots of Awamori are sleeping there with the god.

Naritasan in Kitanakagusuku is the one of the most popular places to visit, but Naritasan is a temple. Its official name is “Naritasan Fukusenji.”

You should not take too seriously visiting Hatsumoude, if you stay away because your religion is different, you’re too serious. Just visit the venues to appreciate the atmosphere or feel Japanese customs. Even I didn’t know this is the formal style to pray. So feel free to visit and take photos..

Most of the processes are the same between Shrine and Temple. Only a Shrine has a Torii gate, so bow before entering the Torii gate. After entering the gate, wash your hands and mouth at Chozuya to clean before you pray to god. Take a dipper with your right hand and dip water, and wash your left hand. Then take the dipper in the left hand and wash the right hand. After that take dipper with right side again and pour water to the left hand. Then wash your mouth with your left hand water, but don’t touch the dipper to your mouth. Put back the dipper and finish.

After washing, just walk to the front of the “Haiden”. Sometimes you will find a shrine without a Haiden or offering box, and just praying is fine, or visiting a temple near. When you arrive in front of the Haiden, bow two times, and throw a coin to the offering box, then ring the bell that’s hanging from the ceiling (a temple doesn’t have this kind of a bell, so just throw your money in the box and pray), after that clap your hands twice, and keep your hands joined together and pray what ever is your way. Most Japanese pray for their health, family safety, and some wish for something special. Then bow one more time before leaving. Also bow to the Shrine under the Torii gate when you leave. Those are the formal manners for visiting and praying at a shrine or temple.

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