Okinawa's sacred Sefa-Utaki and Chinen's charming overlook

Photos by David Krigbaum
Photos by David Krigbaum

Okinawa's sacred Sefa-Utaki and Chinen's charming overlook

by David Krigbaum
www.wayfarerdaves.com

According to legend, the goddess Amamikyo first came to the island of Okinawa in what’s now Nanjo City on Okinawa’s southeastern Chinen peninsula. With her came the beginning of Ryukyu’s culture and native religion. Her children where the first kings and high priestess (kikoeokimi) and it was also in this area where wheat and rice were first cultivated. The legends and the native religion seeded Utaki, sacred places, throughout the island and none are more sacred than Sefa-Utaki.

High on a promontory overlooking Kudaka, the island of the gods, high priestesses presided over sacred rituals for 15 generations between 1470 and 1875. Spiritually connected to Shuri-jo Castle and therefore the legitimacy of Ryukyu’s rulers, kings came as part of their agariumai pilgrimage to sacred places and the oaroari was conducted to anoint a new high priestess, a princess imbued with divine power. Though during the 19th and early 20th centuries Japan attempted to stamp out all native beliefs, that did not support their own divine origin story, Okinawa’s beliefs survived. Today, Sefa-Utaki is protected and is part of the UNESCO Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu World Heritage Site, a collection of nine Ryukyu Kingdom-related sites important to Okinawa’s unique culture and history.

When I visited, I parked at the nearby Nanjo Sightseeing Information Center, which has free parking, a Sefa-Utaki artifact display and an English-speaking staff. When I told the staff I was visiting the site they let me watch an English-subtitled video about what makes Sefa-Utaki special and shows the religious ceremonies held there. I recommend doing this as its helps visitors appreciate what they are about to see as more than just a mysterious ruin in the jungle. Tickets for Sefa-Utaki can also be purchased at the vending machine next door in front of the Nanjo City Local Products Center (souvenir shop).

For fans of the new Okinawa-based anime The Aquatope on White Sand, this area is also a “sacred site” itself as this is the information center where Karin works and the “Kamee Diner” location is across the street, though there is no diner in real life. Stand ups of the characters are inside both the information center and souvenir shop, which has an entire Aquatope corner.

     

It’s a short uphill walk for from the information center to the Sefa-Utaki visitor center. The visitor center also has small movie viewing room, but I imagine during busier times it can be crowded.

Sefa-Utaki is made up of six ibi, sanctuaries, nestled in hillsides all in close proximity to each other. Well-manicured jungle paths lead to the publicly available ibi, which feel like they were created by nature and attended by man but not bent to his whims. Each ibi serves a special purpose and shares a name with a room in Shuri-jo, reinforcing the connection between them. An information display at each explains clearly in Japanese and English what it was used for.

The most famous and photographed is the triangular crevice where there are sangui altars and two stalactites drip their holy water into jugs. The opening cannot be entered but visitors can get a close look and that was good enough for me. Cultural value aside, Sefa-Utaki as a whole is a beautiful place and could stand on that merit alone. The jungle scenery and rock formations are serene and there’s a calming quiet that whistles through the leaves. It adds to the feeling of being somewhere special.

              

A visit to Sefa-Utaki, even for slow moving photographers, isn’t going to take over an hour and being on the Chinen coast means you’re surrounded by ocean views, castle ruins and more sacred places, sometimes all three at once. The information center has English-language maps and pamphlets that can help fill out a day as well as ideas on where to eat. There are many cafes, diners and restaurants within a 15-minute drive of Sefa-Utaki. During my visit I was short on time so had Okinawa soba made with local ingredients at the restaurant on the local products center’s second floor.

The last time I was in the area, I stopped at La 21 for lunch, which is close but higher up in the hills and past the magnificent Nirai Kanai Bridge Overlook. I recommend stopping at the overlook before or after eating for one of the best views in Chinen. It’s on top of a tunnel and has a road on both sides that lead to it. Exit the tunnel (if coming from the tourism center) and get ready to loop around almost immediately to the side road, barriers won’t let you get too far though. People just park right there, next to the other vehicles already lined up on the narrow road, and walk to the overlook. Everyone I’ve talked to says this is normal and not to be afraid of the barbed wire fence from the JGSDF facility you are now parked beside.

La 21 has indoor and outdoor dining, which is perfect when restrictions make dining in difficult. The staff speaks English and La 21’s lunch meal was delicious— salad, Japanese pickled vegetables, and baked donut sandwiches. They have four sandwich options, I chose a raw salmon, avocado and cream cheese sandwich as well as a grilled chicken breast sandwich. The lightly sweet donut worked well with the toppings.

 

ADDRESSES AND WEBSITES

La 21
Chinen-1241-8 Chinen, Nanjo, Okinawa 901-1513
81989435299
Website

Midori no Yakata Sefa (Sefa-Utaki’s visitor center)
Kudeken-270-1 Chinen, Nanjo, Okinawa 901-1511
Website

Nanjo Sightseeing Information Center
Kudeken-541 Chinen, Nanjo, Okinawa 901-1511
81989484611

Website

Nirai Kanai Bridge Overlook
5R97+2X Nanjo, Okinawa

UNESCO World Heritage Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu
Website

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