Not many people consider visiting Okinoshima, a small island off the coast of mainland Japan.
That may soon change since the International Council on Monuments and Sites, an advisory body, recommended it to be a UNESCO World Heritage site. The Japan Times reported that recommendation is likely to be supported during a July meeting of the UNESCO World Heritage Committee in Krakow, Poland.
While the status would gain the island international name recognition and likely attract interest from travelers, many tourists would face obstacles: Women are not allowed to step foot on the island. And the priests who live on the island only allow men to visit one day a year.
The 197-acre island is steeped in Shinto religious tradition. It’s home to the Okitsu shrine, one of three small shines (on separate neighboring islands) that together constitute the Munakata Grand Shrine. These shrines honor three deities which, as legend has it, were the children of Susanoo-no-Mikoto, the god of sea and storms, according to the Japan Times. The Okitsu shrine, for example, honors the goddess Tagorihime.
Between the 4th and 9th centuries, the waters around these islands were home to important trade routes from Japan to China and the Korean Peninsula. The shrines were a means of petitioning the gods to protect these ships. During that time, Smithsonian reported, the faithful left at the shrines some 80,000 offerings, such as swords, beads and mirrors.
These traditions, and the 80,000 artifacts they produced, are why the island might be denoted a UNESCO World Heritage site. But they also dictate many of the island’s strict rules that some people find outdated and offensive, such as the ban on women.
“There are varying explanations for the ban, but some say it is because menstruation would defile the site,” Ryo Hashimoto wrote in the Japan Times. “Shinto treats blood as an impurity.”
Men must strip naked and perform a cleansing ritual before stepping foot on the island, the BBC reported. What this ritual consists of remains unclear, as they are not allowed to tell anyone the details of their trip, nor are they allowed to carry anything — not so much as a blade of grass — off the island.
Visitors are only allowed to visit the island on May 27, during its annual festival held to “comfort the spirits of Japanese and Russian servicemen who died during the Naval Battle of the Sea of Japan near Okinoshima in 1905,” the Mainichi reported. Even then, only 200 are selected to attend.
The rest of the time, Munakata Shrine priests are the only people found on the island.
This isolation has proven damaging to the island, as Andrew S. Wright reported in National Geographic. Predatory rats have taken over the land, their spread unabated by human interference. This, in turn, has led to the decline of the island’s bird population, because the rats eat their sustenance.
Disney World, this is not.
Some have publicly opposed the potential inclusion of Okinoshima as a World Heritage site, such as the U.S.-based Universal Society of Hinduism, which has urged UNESCO not to endorse the site, the Eurasia Review reported.
“Where women are revered, there the gods are pleased; where they are not, no rite will yield any fruit,” the group’s president, Rajan Zed, said, quoting Hindu scripture.
The United Nations Educational, Scientific, and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) has 1,052 World Heritage sites, which are deemed places of “outstanding universal value” that meet one of several criteria, such as representing “a masterpiece of human creative genius” or bearing “a unique or at least exceptional testimony to a cultural tradition or to a civilization which is living or which has disappeared.”
If the island is chosen, many claim its rules won’t change.
“Our stance will remain unchanged even if it’s registered in the World Heritage list,” an unnamed Munakata Grand Shrine official told the Mainichi.
Takayuki Ashizu, the chief priest of the Munakata Grand Shrine, agreed, telling the Japan Times, “We wouldn’t open Okinoshima to the public even if it is inscribed on the UNESCO cultural heritage list because people shouldn’t visit out of curiosity.”
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