- Japanese/Okinawan: 斎場御嶽、しぇーふぁうたき (Seefa utaki, Sheefa utaki)
Sêfa utaki is a sacred forest space, or utaki, located near the southeastern tip of Okinawa Island. One of the most sacred sites in the Ryukyuan religion, the space was historically entered only by female noro priestesses directly associated with the royal court; the only man who ever entered the space was the king of the Ryûkyû Kingdom, and only on particular ritual occasions, accompanied by priestesses who provided spiritual protection for him. A sacred space associated with the creation goddess Amamikyo, the utaki was the site of some of the kingdom's most important annual rituals, many of which were associated with ensuring the health of the king and prosperity of the kingdom. Kudaka Island, a sacred island just to the east of Okinawa, can be clearly seen from certain points within the utaki, and many prayers and rituals were performed towards Kudaka.
The site was named a World Heritage Site in 2000 alongside Shuri castle and a number of other gusuku and utaki sites. Today, the approach to Sêfa utaki features a large parking lot for tour buses and individual vehicles; shops and restaurants; a visitors' center; paid admission; and an introductory video for visitors. While the video instructs visitors as to the sacredness of the site and implores them not to eat or drink, not to leave anything behind (e.g. litter), not to pluck flowers or take other things from the site, not to enter certain areas that are marked off-limits, not to disturb ritual practitioners, and so forth, many ritual practitioners and indigenous activists have expressed considerable displeasure with the number of visitors (roughly 400,000 each year) and the disrespectful way many visitors violate these guidelines. Many also express that they feel most visitors do not understand or appreciate the significance of the utaki in the correct way, seeing it as a "powerspot," as having some similarity or connection to Shinto, or as being simply a superficial tourist spot to hang out and take photos; some ritualists and activists feel that significant portions of the utaki, or all of it, should be closed to visitors, arguing that it's not meant to be a tourist site of any sort to begin with, but rather should be kept preserved as a sacred site. However, unlike Shinto shrines, which are typically overseen by a priestly family and by the Association of Shinto Shrines (Jinja Honchô), Sêfa utaki (and, indeed all utaki) has no priest, no religious institution overseeing the site which has the authority to declare who is and is not a proper ritual practitioner; which areas should and shouldn't be off-limits; or even what exactly the site means, what rituals should or shouldn't be performed there, or how to perform those rituals correctly. Noro, yuta, indigenous activists, independent tour guides, powerspot enthusiasts, and others each bring their own understandings or interpretations to the site; while noro and others often try to defend the site, scolding visitors who are disrespectful, who litter or enter off-limits areas, it is difficult for them to enforce protection of the site as they hold no formal (let alone legal) ownership, control, or association with the site, nor any formal accreditation as to who is a proper noro (i.e. who has the right to speak) and who is not.
Sêfa utaki is believed to be the first site on Okinawa Island where the creation goddess Amamikyo set foot, after descending to earth and creating Kudaka Island.
One of the key rituals performed at Sêfa utaki during the time of the Ryûkyû Kingdom was the Oaraori (御新下り, O: uaara uri), in which a new kikoe-ôgimi (head priestess of the kingdom) was inducted. Some 200 attendants accompanied the high priestess to the utaki, entering the sacred space around midnight, and performing succession rituals through the night, including worship of Kudaka Island. The rituals ended with the singing of sacred songs.
The utaki was also a major stop along the agari umâi route, a royal pilgrimage to several sacred sites in southern Okinawa associated with the royal lineage.
Though historically controlled by the royal court, Sêfa Utaki became the property of the local municipality following the abolition and annexation of the kingdom. The agari umâi, traditionally performed by members of the court, now came to be performed by local people, often in groups of distant relatives (munchû "clans" or kin groups), who cultivated notions of their own family ties to these royal sacred sites in their own ancestral locality. Walking guides to the agari umâi were published as early as 1900.
In 1942, the Jingiin ("Institute of Kami Affairs," a division of the national government overseeing State Shinto) approved plans to convert Sêfa Utaki into a Shinto shrine, Sêfa Jinja. Due to developments in the war, however, this never was carried out. The site was dramatically affected by the war itself, however; gun emplacements were installed along the entrance road that had traditionally been used for royal ritual processions, and the utaki suffered from deforestation and other damage from American shelling during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa.
Sêfa utaki is larger than most utaki, incorporating a far larger total area of acreage. It contains within that space six ibi - six sacred centers. These six sites consist of: the urōkā sacred spring; the ujōguchi, ufugūi, yuinchi, and sangūi worship places, each of which is defined by certain stones or simply the space themselves, though some have small manmade altars upon which offerings can be placed; and sets of sacred jugs known as shikiyodayuru and amaduyuru.
The urôkâ is a sacred spring from which water was taken for purification rituals performed as part of both oaraori and agari umâi practices. Visitors are generally barred from approaching the spring today, not necessarily due to its sacredness but because of the dangerously poor condition of the stone steps.
The ujôguchi, or "gate entrance" into the utaki, was historically the farthest most visitors would come; while noro and on special occasions the king or certain others might proceed deeper into the sacred grove, most visitors would leave offerings here and move on. The ujôguchi is one of the primary spots from which Kudakajima is visible, and where prayers can therefore be said, and offerings left, in conjunction with the worship of Kudaka, Amamikyo, and nirai kanai.
The ufugui 大庫理, a space next to (under) high looming stone cliffs, shares its name with the second floor of the main hall of Shuri castle, containing both the upper throne room and other spaces for internal court ceremonies.
The next ibi is known as the yuinchi 寄満, similarly sharing its name with a space at Shuri castle - in this case, the kitchens. It consists of a small platform with small altars for offerings under a natural stone overhang.
At the fifth ibi, two natural stalactites drip water into sacred jugs known as shikiyodayuru and amaduyuru. This water was historically used in purification rituals as part of the oaraori induction of a new head priestess.
Finally, the sangui is the ibi most famous and most associated with Sêfa utaki today. A short tunnel-like triangular passage between two large stones leaning against one another, it is perhaps the chief site where visitors take photos and which appears in tourism guidebooks and other promotional materials. Past this tunnel is a small lookout point from which Kudaka Island is again visible; though some say this lookout point was not historically a site of ritual activity but only a location where ritual preparations were performed, the natural geography of the spot - on the opposite end of a tunnel, after coming down a lengthy path deep into the utaki, and with a good view of Kudaka - makes it an obvious point of interest. Archaeological excavations, furthermore, have uncovered magatama beads, coins, ceramics, and other items of note near this point. It is believed that Kudaka was not historically visible from here, however, and that it was only with the shelling of the island in 1945 that the rock face was altered and the view of the island became possible.
- Aike Rots, "This is Not a Powerspot: Heritage Tourism, Sacred Space, and Conflicts of Authority at Sêfa Utaki," Asian Ethnology 78:1 (2019), 155-180.
- Gallery labels, "Kikoe-ogimi and Oaraori," Okinawa Prefectural Museum.