Top 10 attractions of Ishigaki: Cultural & Historic Sites

Continuing from my last post Top 10 attractions of Ishigaki: natural wonders,  I will introduce four more spots here:

7. Fusaki Kannon-do Temple

8. Misaki-Utaki

9. Gongen-do Hall and Tourin-ji Temple

10. Shiraho Village

※ Please click the top-left icon on the Google map to see the location of the spots

Shintoism and Buddhism are two biggest religions in Japan and they are often practiced in synthesis. But in the Okinawa, things are even more complicated—Okinawan culture is based on their polytheistic belief system that has its root in shamanism and ancestor worship. The “shrines” or what the local people called “on” or “utaki” are the sacred sites where rituals are performed and festivals held, but you will see no picture nor statues of deities, nor can you offer money so that they will answer your prayer.

In appearance, they may share some similarities with the Shinto shrines in mainland Japan— the lush sacred forest guarding the precincts and the Torii archways (actually installed after Ryukyu kingdom was integrated into Meiji Japan), but in content, they are quite different. In rituals and festivals, people communicate with deities through noro (female priests) who are also a member of the society—she could be a shopkeeper or your neighbor— there is no priest residing inside the shrine or a sect monopolizing the religion. The pureness of Okinawan indigenous religion is reflected in the architectural style of utaki, which by standards of other religions, is quite a simple structure consists of the sanctuary (often built like a warehouse or open-kiosk) and the sacred forest of fukugi trees. While there are countless religious sites in Ishigaki, I will introduce three sites that are especially worth visiting.

7. Fusaki Kannon-do Temple (The Hall of Bodhisattva of compassion)

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The earliest history of Kannon-do Temple could be traced back to 1701 when it was still a small Okinawan-style shrine. It gained its name after three statues of Kannon or the Bodhisattva of compassion were introduced, presumably influenced by the Chinese belief that Kannon is the guardian of seafarers. Facing the Fusaki Beach, Kannon-do Temple has been the spiritual haven for many fishermen, and for some mysterious reason, also a power spot for students taking entrance exams.

The reconstruction in 1928 infused more Shintoism into this Buddhist hall by building the Shinto archway at the entrance and a pathway adorned with stone lanterns. It also has cord and bell installed in the oratory like in the Shinto shrine where you can make your wish heard by the deity.

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8. Misaki-Utaki

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A designated cultural asset of Okinawa prefecture, the history of Misaki Utaki (“shrine”) could be traced back to 15th century, even before Yaeyama archipelago became part of Ryukyu kingdom. When Akahachi—now viewed as a hero who fought against heavy taxation of Shuri court— rebelled in 1500, the Shuri court dispatched warships to conquer his control. Fear the growing power of Akahachi, some leaders in Ishigaki formed a coalition with Shuri and a priestess locked herself inside the sanctuary of Misaki utaki to pray for the success of Shuri navy.

As it turned out, the Shuri-coalition won the battle and thereafter the status of Misaki utaki was elevated. Even though it’s only a small utaki on the outskirt of Ryukyu Kingdom, it has well-built stone-arch similar to those seen in the Sonohian-utaki of Shuri castle. Although it had been through some reconstruction, the stone-arch remain intact, so is the beautiful sacred forest.

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DSC09722Please do not enter the sanctuary, nor cross the stone-arch as they are sacred places to the locals.

9. Gongen-do Hall and Tourin-ji Temple

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Since rulers of Satsuma (today’s Kagoshima) brought Ryukyu kingdom under its political control in 1709, they have also brought the new culture to their newly acquired land. After visiting Ishigaki island (to measure how much tax it’s worth), the Satsuma envoy suggested to the king of Ryukyu that a Buddhist temple is built on the island. And Tourin-ji temple and Gongen-do hall were built adjacent to each other in 1614.

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Although both buildings underwent multiple reconstructions to become what we see today, they are still some of the oldest architecture left as many temples in Naha were destroyed during WWII. Gongen-do Hall, with its beautiful Yakuimon-styled red gate and elaborate roof ornaments, is a government-designated national important cultural asset. When you peek inside from the gate, it’s three-leveled structure will make you feel as if you are looking through treasure boxes of a Qing Emperor. Although visually less striking than Gonden-do, Tourin-ji Temple next door has the oldest wooden Ninonzou sculpture in Okinawa.

10. Shiraho Village

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Shiraho is one of the most well-preserved villages with traditional Okinawan houses and home to a vast area of blue coral reef, but what impressed me the most is their community spirit, which perhaps has something to do with their history of “forced relocation” from Hateruma island. This strong community spirit still played an important role today—while many villages in Ishigaki gave way to tourism, Shiraho has maintained a strong stance against development that would undermine the environment. Their resistance forced the government to change the plan of building the new airport right in Shiraho, and the coral reefs on the shore of Shiraho was spared from destruction.

In 2000, WWF Shiraho Sango-mura—an NGO that aims at the monitoring and protecting the coral reef ecosystem–– is established here. And the Shiraho Sunday Market, which takes place in the facility sango-mura every Sunday from 10:00 – 13:00 is a nice way to sample traditional food directly from their producers!

(Check out my post on the Shiraho Sunday Market here)

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This list is by no means complete. All I hope is that it may serve as the starting point for your exploration. Bon voyage!

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