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Discreetly tucked away on a side street off Highway 330, just down the road from Camp Foster’s Legion Gate, amidst the hustle and bustle of constant traffic, there nestles a quiet corner of worship and tranquility guarded by a seemingly ancient torii.

This small pocket of serenity, the Futenma Gongen, is easily overlooked except for the few days of the year when Okinawans flock to the shrine for certain festivals, including Reitaisai on Sept. 15.

Futenma Gongen is a Shinto shrine with two ornate gold-laced buildings that combine classic Japanese and Okinawan architecture and a majestic stalactite- and stalagmite-laced cavern that contains a solemn majesty.

According to legend, the cave was home to a young woman of matchless beauty who later became a goddess.

No one knows exactly how long the Futenma Shrine has existed, but people were worshiping at the underground cave behind the shrine before recorded history, said Yoshimasa Arakaki, assistant priest at the shrine.

The shrine and cave — which Ginowan City designated cultural assets in 1991 — have played an important role in Okinawan history.

Fossils of animals, including deer and wild boars believed to date back about 20,000 years, have been found in the cave, Arakaki said.

At one point, a road stretched straight from the shrine through the torii to the king’s residence so that he could travel directly to the shrine for worship, he said. This path traveled through what is now Marine Corps Air Station Futenma.

The shrine is even mentioned in a document that dates back to 1590, according to the shrine’s brochure.

During the Battle of Okinawa, the 920-foot cave system was a natural bomb shelter for Okinawans.

Today, the shrine and cave are still places of worship where many Okinawans place their wishes and prayers.

The shrine is “often visited by Japanese women who bring their (American) husbands with them before their husbands are deployed to war zones,” Arikaki said.

“The wives want (their) husbands to be purified so that they will have power to ward off evils,” he said.

Couples praying to have children also visit the cave, which is thought to contain areas of great fertility.

And every year on June 30, about 800 people walk the cave’s 165-foot path. This is the only day that the path can be walked. Walking through the cave and coming out the other end is symbolic of going back to your mother’s womb and being reborn, Arakaki said.

This makes the path-walkers purified once again, he said.

Though you cannot walk through the path, visitors can ask to see the well-lit cavern where the original shrine is located.

Visits are free, but donations of yen are welcome. Visitors can purchase charms and souvenirs at the shrine’s gift shop.

Stripes reporter Chiyomi Sumida contributed to this report.


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