Thursday, June 11, 2009

Women of the Sacred Cove

A golden opportunity happened to my wife and I as we traveled around Okinawa Island. Being a little fatigued from driving, a.k.a. “Having a sore butt” we decided to stretch our legs and take a closer look at an interesting rock formation that jutted out into the bay. As we approached, we noticed two ladies in a small clearing, out of view from the road. They were dressed all in white and were burning incense. One of the two looked to be in prayer while the other was preparing incense and what appeared to be a food offering. We both had our cameras with us so my wife asked if it was alright if we took a few pictures. Much to our surprise and delight, one of the two said yes.
Having lived here on the island for a number of years, we knew immediately that these two ladies were practitioners of the local indigenous religion of Okinawa. While many in Japan are practitioners of Buddhism, here on Okinawa the predominant religion is a form of ancestors worship known in the local dialect as “So-Sen-Su-Hai.” This faith is shamanistic in nature and is based on Taoism, Confucianism, and Buddhism and too may other “isms” to count. It is unique to the Okinawa chain of islands but similar practices do take place in Taiwan and parts of mainland China and Southeast Asia. So-Sen-Su-Hai is an obvious hold over from the glory days of the Ryukyu Kingdom (what Okinawa was once known as) and their strong cultural ties to China.
Not wanting to disturb them but wanting very badly to capture as much of this event as we could on camera, we carefully and quietly scaled the rock ledge behind them near an old tomb and snapped a few pictures. At first they both faced a large rock formation and quietly prayed. One lady, “the tinier of the two” appeared to be the leader in this little shindig while the other did her bidding and prayed dutifully. The first little session seemed simple and brief. When it appeared to be over after just a few moments, we thanked them kindly for the opportunity and departed back to the shoreline along a small causeway.

It was after we left however that the real show (for lack of a better turn of phrase) really began. As we turned to look back, we noticed the two were back in prayer. We paused for a moment to watch when the one who appeared to be the leader of the two rose to her feet and began to dance around the small clearing as the other continued her dutiful praying as if she were performing a prayer vigil to protect her mentor. The whole dance lasted for around twenty minutes.
It was almost like stepping back in time and watching a Greek play in an ancient amphitheatre. As we watched intently, the motions of the dance were very much like the Okinawan folk dances seen at the many festivals that are held throughout the year. Anyone who has had the opportunity to observe these knows that the motions of the hands and feet in these dances are reminiscent of the motions made in the martial art of karate.

Okinawa is the birthplace of karate and since the people were forbidden to possess weapons, they developed karate as a form of self defense against brigands and thieves. To mask the training and avoid the wrath of the political leaders, they incorporated the hand and foot movements into their many of their traditional folk dances. For all of you, who watched the “Karate Kid” movies and thought that “wax on, wax off” was a load of B.S., guess again!

I knew at that moment that we had been witnesses to something special. What I didn’t know at the time was just how special. It was afterward when we showed our photographs to some friends and discussed the episode that we discovered that these two women were most likely very high ranking shaman priestesses. The little episode we had the privilege of capturing is something that just doesn’t happen everyday and we were extremely fortunate and blessed with the opportunity to capture and share it.