Every year, the United Nations chooses sites which are important to national and worldwide cultural heritage all over the globe. The UN body which does this – UNESCO – receives a list of sites suggested by each country which is then voted upon during their yearly meetings. UNESCO heritage sites receive more funding and protection and help boost tourism to those sites in those countries.
On the list of sites to be considered world heritage sites is a tiny little Japanese island situated almost directly between the Japanese island of Honshu and the Korean peninsula. The island is called Okinoshima island and has been important in Japanese culture for over 1,000 years.
However, this island has some secrets and traditions that you won’t believe.
Leave only footprints, take… nothing
The island has been used for over 1,000 years by fishermen following the Shinto religion hailing from both Japan as well as south Korea. Offerings have been regularly made at the shrine, and the shrine has amassed a significant amount of wealth.
Archaeologists who have been allowed to dig on the island have found gold from the Korean peninsula and China, items from the far north of Japan, and even a glass vase which was found to have its origins in Persia.
However, despite being termed Japanese National Treasures, these items still remain on Okinoshima island, as it is against tradition to take anything from the island. The Shinto priests who live there will even make sure that you don’t take a single tree or rock from the sacred site.
Historically, this island has been used by Japanese fishermen since at least the 600s to pray to the Shinto goddess Amaterasu – the goddess responsible for the safety of mariners (and surprisingly, traffic safety as well). There is a small physical building on the island where several priests live, but the entire island itself is considered to be a shrine to the goddess.
Despite this being a shrine to a female goddess, no women are allowed to actually step foot on the island. For while women are allowed to visit shrines on the mainland of Japan, they are not allowed near this specific one.
Theories abound as to why, but the prevailing theories are that the open water is too dangerous for women – especially those who are able to become pregnant. And it makes sense too, as the Genkai Sea where the island is found is notoriously wavy and turbulent.
In addition to protecting the women’s safety, another theory as to why women won’t be allowed onto the island is because of the fact that they become ritually impure whenever they menstruate. Men themselves must completely strip down and perform a cleansing ritual before they are allowed to go to the island to give their offerings in order to ensure a safe time out on the open ocean.
There is sometimes contention when it comes to UNESCO naming religious sites as world heritage sites, most recently when it ignored Jewish history in the Old City of Jerusalem.
While there is no worry as to whether or not the island will be recognized as Shinto, there is worry that the entire fabric and tradition of the island will be irreparably changed should the island become a world heritage site.
As of now, non-religious Shinto visitors are only allowed onto the island during certain days in the month of May. Additionally, tradition holds that no one is to talk about what they did or saw on the island, something the monks fear will not happen should hordes of tourists begin arriving.