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Tuesday, September 17, 2013

Nirai Kanai

A view from Nanza Iwa

Nirai Kanai

In Okinawan mythology, Nirai Kanai can be best described as a mystical world, a paradise if you will, separated by the ocean. This is what Okinawans tell me. Some, even go a little further by saying Nirai Kanai lies to the east (not surprising, since the sun also rises in the east, and you may find that praying to the east is a common practice among some Okinawans). Where and what direction Nirai Kanai lies really depends on the person, or the belief of that particular village...or perhaps what island you are on. Oddly enough, Nirai Kanai may not even be thought of as a heaven either...just another world.

The concept of Nirai Kanai when put together is easy to understand, but the actual meaning of the two words is a little harder to figure out. An Okinawan fella helped me do some research. He went straight to the internet, and to my chagrin, yes he found it on Wikipedia (Japanese edition). However, he did acknowledge that there may be some truth to the explanation. He did say that the word 'Ni' in Nirai...does mean 'root' in Hogen, the Okinawan language. I had asked him, “like a plant root?”. He said "yes"...but it also could mean "origin" as well. This seems to make sense – a place where you originally came from, or could simply mean, where the source of life comes from i.e. the ground, plants, food etc.

Kanai was a little harder to dissect and still not clear to me what it may possibly mean (and I may have to accept we may never know). He did say that 'Ka', in the Okinawan language, does refer to something that is metallic in nature  such as money. Metaphorically this could mean something that is strong or not easily perishable. It could also be viewed as something that is long lasting or eternal, depending on your point of view.

But I think there is one word to describe Nirai Kanai at best. It is hope. An Okinawan told me that when there is suffering in this world, they look to the ocean. It gives them hope. This is the feeling of Nirai Kanai. This is easy to understand as we sometimes look to the ocean as an escape from the day to day troubles. It gives us hope that there is another tomorrow and tomorrow will be a better day. 

The picture above was taken on top of Nanza Iwa, a large coral rock cropping near the coast of Henza Island. This is a very special place to the villagers of Henza. Once a year they climb up this rock and pray to the east (which is the view you see above). "Is it Nirai Kanai?", I asked one Okinawan man. He got kind of excited, and in a typical, polite Okinawan fashion blurted out, "Soo! soo! soo! soo! soo!....". That answer was good enough for me.

Related Articles. Map It! Okinawa; Hamahiga, Gateway to the Otherside?.