Everyone’s favorite travel phrase is “off the beaten path.” It seems everyone wants to get there, wherever that elusive place is. I’m here to help you find it! I’m starting a new series on why you should visit lesser known and talked about destinations. Check back every Tuesday for “Travel Tuesday.”
Like most beautiful things in life, a woman created the Island of the Gods.
Kudaka Island, known in Ryukyan folklore as the “Birthplace of the Gods,” or the “Island of the Gods,” is a sacred island temple in modern-day Okinawa. Not everyone is invited to pray here, though: Kudaka is the sacred temple grounds of Okinawa’s Holy Women.
Amamikiyo, goddess of the Ryukyus – or modern-day Okinawa – descended from the heavens with the divine purpose of founding heaven on earth. For her first creation, she dreamed an island replete with the riches of nature and the delicacies of majesty. Through the essence of her being, Kudaka was born.
Long after Amamikiyo placed her finishing touches and before her islands became the Japanese territory of Okinawa, Kudaka and the others stood as independent, autonomous lands. These lands unified under a Ryukyu King in 1429 and thrived as the Ryukyan Kingdom until 1829.
Among the most sacred of Ryukyan religious customs is the “Noro,” or high priestesses. Begun by the King’s sisters, this tradition celebrates the intellect, power and divinity of women. Noro counseled Kings during times of war and peace, acted as government liaisons and reined supreme over religious matters. Today, they oversee religious ceremonies and act as counselors on community matters.
Because of its divine creation by a “Noro” of another time, Kudaka became the royal, sacred pilgrimage of Ryukyan Kings and high priestesses. Still today, only the highest of trained holy women are allowed to enter certain areas of the island.
I would like to say that I arrived on Kudaka aware of its historical importance. In reality, I found myself on Kudaka by accident, or karmic insistence. After four days of hiking the hills and diving the depths of Okinawa, my friend Callie and I were ready to experience Okinawa’s famed tropical paradises.
We set out indiscriminately for one of the famed Kerama islands, but our dreams were dashed as we heard, “Sold out” at every ferry counter line. Fortunately, a fellow backpacker turned comrade left us instructions before she left to a “Plan B” island in case this happened.
A haggled taxi fare and 50 minutes later, we stood at Azama Port, a pier on the edge of the Chinen Peninsula. It’s located at the southernmost part of Okinawa, the principal island of the Ryukyus. Kudaka lies 5 kilometers away, a dot on the horizon.
After a 30-minute ferry ride, we arrived on the island expecting to see travel brochures personified. Instead, everything looked a little… gray, and the overcast day was only partially to blame. We followed the rest of the excited tourists on the ferry, leading us to a bicycle rental shop. The bikes were all rented.
We meandered down a small side street – half-dirt, half-paved, lined with quaint, and often dilapidated, houses. There were overflowing trashcans and laundry on lines. Wherever we were, we weren’t traveling down the well-beaten tourist path. The road dead-ended. Puzzled, we headed back to our starting point, again.
This time, we regrouped changed our perspective: we’d find the adventure in this place and let go of our dreams of a perfect beach day. We walked to our left, down a well-worn but unmarked trail through a sun-speckled forest, our path a mixture of sand and dirt. After a short, 10 minute walk we came out into sunshine, sand, salt-water breezes and… a large breaker. The beach could be pretty, but the breaker cuts through the middle, leaving it small and unsightly.
A few sunbathers gave us directions to the best beach on the island; “Walk straight down that path over there.” Without wondering why they weren’t on this better beach, we set down ‘that path.’
We walked… and walked… and walked more. The paved road turns into a dirt trail that cuts straight through the center of the island. After passing the primary residential area, located on the western tip and housing the island’s mere 500 residents – the island turns from old, weary and worn into seemingly untouched land. We walked through silence. It’s not the kind of uncomfortable silence that makes you run towards civilization, scared, but the kind into which you want to walk. It’s completely filled by the island air – a sweet mix of sea breezes and green growth. It’s a silence you don’t know you crave until you’re in it.
I felt increasingly more alive and alert as we walked through the rich nature surrounding us. Something more then the hope of beautiful beaches compelled us forward now.
We walked through areas of forest, into vegetable fields and straight out to open-air, grassy plains. In one of these open areas, out of nowhere, we heard a faint “moo.”. We turned to our left and looked straight into the eyes of the inhabitants of a small cattle ranch.
Our laughter ricocheted off their moos. There was something very special about this scene. Set off from the trail by 300 meters, the few cattle housed here seem not only healthy and happy but also wholly untouched by technology. Stringed ornaments of some sort hung above them.
After our trip, I researched what we’d seen. In Rykuyan religion, it’s believed that hanging Akufugeshi, religious ornaments made from conch shells, above cattle wards away evil influences and epidemics. The cattle on Kudaka aren’t only economical, they’re part of the cultural and religious heritage.
We continued until we came to a fork in the road. We chose right and came to another fork. Right again. 20 feet later, I spotted a narrow, shallow trail. We heard waves crashing. We stepped gingerly, crunching sticks and ducking under tree branches that snagged our bags and clothes.
We came out of the trees into our paradise.
It wasn’t white-sand and sun-drenched; it was a rare, dry, dead coral beach. We stood speechless, mouths agape, unbelieving. Waves crash onto boulders on one end of the beach; the rest is lined with coral. We were the only ones there.
The coral stretches 50 feet into the ocean, until it appears to drop off to deeper seabed. I stood as lightly on the sand as possible, tiptoeing to the nearest boulder. I climbed it, and right as I leaned my head back, fixing my gaze on the ever-darkening skies, rain began to fall.
It’s not often on a vacation that you hope for dark skies and rain, but when you are standing on a secluded, coral-lined beach on top of a boulder on a sacred island, rain takes the holy and makes it majestic.
I closed my eyes, my arms outstretched as wide as they could go. The rain fell and the skies thundered. I swear I was lost in Wuthering Heights, waiting on rocky shores for Heathcliff to gallantly take me in his arms. Or something.
We spent the remainder of the day meandering trails that offer stunning views and down paths lined with vegetation. We climbed down a makeshift rope ladder between massive boulders and sprinted our way into crashing waves. We took pictures on the highest points, watched fisherman cast their rods below us and were awed by islands dotting the sea in front of us.
This small island has a modest, humble exterior, but as you step foot onto its rocky shores and traverse its forest-lined interior, you’ll spot remnants of an ancient kingdom’s history and a present-day peoples’ incorporation of it. It’ll stay with you. It did me.
Here’s why you should visit Kudaka Island:
- A naturalist’s paradise
- Off the beaten path
- History & religious folklore
- Coral beaches
- Photographer’s playground