Okinawa Final Day: The Island of the Gods

I went to Kudaka on September 21, 2009


Like most beautiful things in life, a woman created the Island of the Gods.

Kudaka Island, known in Ryukyan folklore as the “Birthplace of the Gods,” or the “Island of the Gods,” is a sacred island temple in modern-day Okinawa. Not everyone is invited to pray here, though: Kudaka is the sacred temple grounds of Okinawa’s Holy Women.

Amamikiyo, goddess of the Ryukyus – or modern-day Okinawa – descended from the heavens with the divine purpose of founding heaven on earth. For her first creation, she dreamed an island replete with the riches of nature and the delicacies of majesty. Through the essence of her being, Kudaka was born.

Long after Amamikiyo placed her finishing touches and before her islands became the Japanese territory of Okinawa, Kudaka and the others stood as independent, autonomous lands. These lands unified under a Ryukyu King in 1429 and thrived as the Ryukyan Kingdom until 1829.

Among the most sacred of Ryukyan religious customs is the “Noro,” or high priestesses. Begun by the King’s sisters, this tradition celebrates the intellect, power and divinity of women. Noro counseled Kings during times of war and peace, acted as government liaisons and reigned supreme over religious matters. Today, they oversee religious ceremonies and act as counselors on community matters.

Because of its divine creation by a “Noro” of another time, Kudaka became the royal, sacred pilgrimage of Ryukyan Kings and high priestesses. Still today, only the highest of trained holy women are allowed to enter certain areas of the island.

I would like to say that I arrived on Kudaka aware of its historical importance. In reality, I found myself on Kudaka by accident, or karmic insistence.  After four days of hiking the hills and diving the depths of Okinawa, my travel partner and I were ready to experience Okinawa’s famed tropical paradises.

We set out indiscriminately for one of the Kerama islands, but our dreams were dashed as we heard, “Sold out” at every ferry counter line. Fortunately, a fellow backpacker turned comrade left us instructions before she left to a “back-up” island in case this happened.

50 minutes later, we stood at Azama Port, a pier on the edge of the Chinen Peninsula. It’s located at the southernmost part of Okinawa, the principal island of the Ryukyus. Kudaka lies 5 kilometers away.

After a 30-minute ferry ride, we arrived on the island expecting to see travel brochures coming to life. Instead, everything looked a little… gray, and the overcast day was only partially complicit. We followed the rest of the excited tourists on the ferry, which led us to a bicycle rental shop. It wasn’t exactly what we had in mind but, “Maybe the beach is far away,” we thought. The bikes were all rented.

We followed people again. We meandered down a small side street – half-dirt, half-paved, lined with quaint, and often dilapidated, houses. There were overflowing trashcans and laundry on lines. Wherever we were, we weren’t traveling down the well-beaten tourist path. When the road dead-ended, we turned around, pretending to be as surprised as the couple we followed.

Back at our starting point for the third time, we finally decided to go it alone. We walked to our left, down a well-worn but unmarked trail through a sun-speckled forest, our path a mixture of sand and dirt.

After a short, 10 minute walk we came out into sunshine, sand, salt-water breezes and… a large breaker. The beach could be pretty, but the breaker cuts through the middle, leaving it small and unsightly.

Determined to find our paradise, a few sunbathers gave us directions to the best beach on the island; “Walk straight down that path over there.” Without wondering why they weren’t on this better beach, we set down ‘that path.’

We walked… and walked… and walked more. For the first 15 minutes, we walked without speaking, hoping if we didn’t talk it would quiet our growing fear that there was no great beach, that we came all the way to Okinawa for a completely average, hardly secluded, regular-colored-sand island. We kept walking.

The paved road turns into a dirt trail that cuts straight through the center of the island. After passing the primary residential area, located on the western tip and housing the island’s 500 residents – the island turns from old, weary and worn into seemingly untouched land. We began walking through silence.

It’s not the uncomfortable silence that makes you run towards civilization, but the kind into which you continue to walk. It is completely filled by the island air – a sweet mix of sea breezes and green growth. It’s the silence you don’t know you crave until you’re in it, until you have experienced it.

I felt increasingly more alive and alert as we walked through the rich nature surrounding us. Something more then the hope of beautiful beaches compelled us forward now.

We walked through areas of forest, into vegetable fields and straight out to open-air, grassy plains. In one of these open areas, we heard a faint sound, what I can only describe as a, “Moo.” We turned to our left and looked straight into the eyes of the inhabitants of a small cattle ranch.

Our laughter ricocheted off their moos, as we found ourselves stupefied. There was something very special about this scene. Set off from the trail 300 meters, the few cattle housed here seem not only healthy and happy but also wholly untouched by technology. But there is more.

In Rykuyan religion, it is believed that hanging Akufugeshi, a religious ornament made from conch shells, above cattle wards away evil influences and epidemics.

These cattle aren’t only economical on Kudaka, they’re part of the cultural. The people and the land give and take together, and I could feel the power of that balance through just a few cattle, “Hellos.”

We continued until we came to a fork. We chose right and came to another fork. Right again. 20 feet later, I spotted a narrow, shallow trail. I heard waves crashing and motioned for my friends to follow. We stepped gingerly, crunching sticks and ducking under tree branches that snagged our bags and clothes.

We came out of the trees into our paradise.

It wasn’t white-sand and sun-drenched; it was a rare, dry, dead coral beach. We stood speechless, mouths agape, unbelieving. Waves crashed onto huge rocks on one end of the beach; the rest is lined with coral. We were the only ones there.

The coral stretches 50 feet into the ocean, until it appears to drop off to deeper seabed. I stood as lightly on the sand as possible, tiptoeing to the nearest boulder. I climbed it, and right as I leaned my head back, fixing my gaze on the ever-darkening skies, rain began to fall.

It’s not often on a vacation that you hope for dark skies and rain, but when you are standing on a secluded, coral-lined beach on top of a boulder on a sacred island, rain takes the holy and makes it majestic.

I closed my eyes, my arms outstretched as wide as they could go. The rain fell and the skies thundered.

I was lost in Wuthering Heights, waiting on rocky shores for a Heathcliff I don’t need. I was on a ship weathering the strongest storm. I opened my eyes. I was here, on Kudaka, on my unexpected paradise.

We spent the remainder of the day meandering trails that offer stunning views and down paths lined with vegetation. We climbed down a makeshift rope ladder between massive boulders and sprinted our way into crashing waves.

We took pictures on the highest points, watched fisherman cast their rods below us and were awed by islands dotting the sea in front of us.

Rested and at peace, we boarded the last ferry back to Azuma and bid adieu to Kudaka. We didn’t know until we returned the history of the island, but we felt its divine serenity all day.

It’s said that Kudaka is the most sacred place on all of Okinawa. Today, visitors must request special permission for access into the holy sites found everywhere on the island.

But it’s history and the legends that surround it won’t be handed to you in a neat brochure or on a guided tour. They’re hidden in the seemingly ordinary, everyday life of a small village. They’re found in the rareness of untouched coral-beaches and a small cattle ranch. They’re in the forests and along the dirt trails.  They’re in the skies and they’re within you.

Lined with rocky cliffs, framed by coral-studded shores and filled with forest, Kudaka is not a beach lover’s paradise but a naturalist’s one. This bit island is a mere 7.5 kilometers in circumference, but don’t let its size underwhelm you.

Its stillness, humility and abundance of natural wonders make it a great escape from the tourist-havens to the north. The explorer will find an abundance of trails, a treasure trove of natural wonders a deficit of other tourists.

This small island has a modest, humble exterior, but as you step foot onto its rocky shores and traverse its forest-lined interior, listen closely, and you will hear whispers of an ancient kingdom’s history. Here on Kudaka, you’ve just been invited to dine with the gods.

On the ferry to Kudaka. This is a view of Azama Port/Chinen Peninsula. Beaaautiful water!! I had taken dramamine and was SO DRUGGED! It finally wore off about half an hour after we got to Kudaka.

The main trail through the island

The main trail through the island

The first view of the coral-lined beach.

View from one of the trails we hiked up

Climbing down the boulders to get to swim

the area where went swimming. we had to leave our bags up on the rocks, and even then some of our stuff was soaked. The waves were rough!

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~ by C on January 10, 2010.

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