One afternoon, we were out exploring, and made a wrong turn that led us right to one of the eight major shrines of the Ryukyus. We ended up on the grounds of a small shinto shrine. Futenma shrine is also known as Futenma Gongen. It was beautiful. We decided to get out and see if they would allow us to walk around. It turned out to be quite the educational experience for us.
The buildings were quite impressive. There are two ornate gold-laced buildings that combine classic Japanese and Okinawan architecture. This place of tranquility and worship, guarded by an ancient torii (traditional entrance gate), is used for worship by many Okinawans. The torii is believed to keep bad luck and spirits away. Often Japanese women who married American soldiers from the nearby mititary base come to the shrine with their husband before they are deployed to war zones. The worship purifies the men so that they will have power to ward off evils.
The temples were built about 500 years ago during the first Sho dynasty by King Sho Kinpuku. In ancient times, a straight road existed, from the king’s residence through the torii to the shrine. So the king could travel directly to the shrine for worship. Prior to World War II, there still was a beautiful avenue of pine trees. This road does not exist any more, it was where the Marine Corps Station Futenma now lies.
During the Battle of Okinawa, which lasted from late March through June 1945, the cave was used as an air raid shelter. This battle is called Typhoon of Steel in English, or tetsu no ame in Japanese. It was pretty fierce fighting, and many lives were lost during the battle.
Behind the shrine is a small cave. We asked a priestess dressed up in white robes with colorful sashes if it were possible for us to see the caves. She permitted us to, and led us into a waiting area. Several minutes later, she returned with the key to the caves. We entered the cave through a vaulted door located behind the shrines. Moss covered limestone stairs led us down to the cave entrance where the oldest altars of the shrine are located. We were asked to pay respect to the spirits and bow before entering the caves. There are two stalagmites, which are said to symbolize fertility. Many couples who wish to have children come here to pray for fertility. The path passes over a small rivulet on a footbridge. According to legend a wish made while crossing the bridge will come true. The cave has three chambers, the largest is the last one, which is 15m wide and 6m high and called the inner shrine. At the end of the cave is a metal-grated door, which is opened only once every year on 30 June at 1800 to celebrate the end of the rainy season. I believe I read that the caves were about 280 meters long.
The cave contains many artifacts and the bones of deer and wild boars, about 20,000 years old. It’s not known how long the cave has been used by man, but people were worshiping at the cave before recorded history and long before the shrine was built. According to legend, the cave was home to a young woman of matchless beauty who later became a goddess.Walking through the cave is a symbol for going back to ones mother’s womb and being reborn. The walkers are believed to be purified.
After leaving the caves, we informed the priestess that we finished, and she returned to lock the vaulted door. As we were walking around the grounds, we discovered the hand washing station. It is considered proper to cleanse your hands before entering the shrine grounds (opps, we didn’t see it until the end). You grab up a ladle and pour the water over the other hand, switching to wash both. You aren’t supposed to let your “dirty” water fall back into the main well of water…it should fall on the rocks to the side. There is an order to the process, but being clueless foreigners, they let us slide! Like all shrines, there are some kind of guardian on each side of the main building. At this particular shrine, there were Shisa dogs.
On the left side of the main building, there were these racks of wooden plaques (ema). You could buy one and write a wish or prayer on it, and hang it on the rack for it to come true. We didn’t do this, but it was interesting to look at the plaques. There was also a desk you could buy a fortune (omikuji). It is a little paper slip that tells you that either great, good, or not so good luck coming. All the fortunes were in Japanese, and after the person reads the fortune, they then fold it longwise 2 times and tie it to various ropes hanging on the shrine grounds. This helps the good things come true and helps keep the bad ones from happening.
There was also a window where you can buy omamori for the year. The priestess’ working the stalls will bless the charms. These charms are available at other places throughout the year, but omamori from the shrines are blessed and therefore stronger than those you could get elsewhere. The Japanese seem to have a lot of luck and fortune weaved into their traditions. They are very concerned with keeping the bad spirits away. It was a fun place to see, and we were very glad that we had made a wrong turn. I guess you just never know what adventure is around the corner!