Nirai-Kanai – the Other Realm

“In Okinawan folklore, there are tales of traditional gods and a land of the gods called Nirai-Kanai, an unknown faraway land from where happiness is brought.

Professor Masaaki Kimura has [been quoted by the Morien Institute] said the Yonaguni Monument may have been built to serve a similar deity.” — the Morien Institute’s “Yonaguni” website

Nirai-kanai refers to:

The Other Realm across the sea (or, on the seabed) where the deities dwell, and from where they bring both good fortune and catastrophe to the human world. A belief held in the area stretching from Amami to Okinawa. In many cases it is considered to exist in the east, but there are regional differences based on location as well as variations in nomenclature (such as niruya-kanaya).The ni of nirai means “root”, meaning the source of all things in this world. Tradition says that fire and rice originated there, as well as rats and insects that can harm the crops. Thus there exist festivals to return what is harmful to nirai. On the basis of this view of the Other Realm (takaikan), during festivals the deities are invited to visit from the Other Realm. Examples include the Izaihō and other rituals on Kudaka Island, the Unjami festival of northern Okinawa, and the Akamata-Kuromata and Mayunganasu festivals of the Yaeyama islands. Nirai-kanai is also the place where the spirits of the dead go. For instance, the spirits of female lay ritualists (Jp. kamionna, Okinawan nanchu) on Kudaka Island are said to go there after death.


—Hatakeyama Atsushi, The Encyclopedia of Shinto


The Izaiho
A festival held on Kudaka Island every twelve years (during the year of the horse) from the fifteenth to the eighteenth of the eleventh month. So that the festival can take place without hindrance or impediment, prayers (ugandate) are held from the previous month, and at the end, a ritual feast is held. All women between the ages of 30 and 41 born and raised on the island and married to a man from the island undergo the rite in order to receive the spiritual power (shiji) to communicate with ancestors and deities; in other words it is a ritual to recognize those with shamanic powers. During the festival, the women remain apart from their families, isolated in a hut where they observe taboos. On the first and second days they undergo a ceremony where they ritually receive the spiritual powers of their ancestors (in the form of the ash of incense), cross a bridge seven times (symbolizing communication with the other world) to test their chastity, and perform the kashirarareashibi in which they pretend to wash their hair as part of a dance. On the third day they receive their certification as miko. On the fourth day they ritually send away the kami that have gathered for the observance and share a meal and drink sacred sake with the male siblings whom they spiritually protect as onarigami (sisters). Thus the four-day festival develops both dramatically and systematically. When all these rites are over, a lively shared meal called ubukui is held. The festival is very solemn and imposing, but because of depopulation on the island and changes in people’s values, there are currently no appointed noro (priestesses) to preside over the ceremonies, as required under the noro system which has now broken down. As a result continuation of the festival has become very difficult and the izaihō due to have been held in 1989 was cancelled.

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