TOKYO // An island in Japan where women are banned and male visitors must bathe naked in the sea before going ashore has been declared a UNESCO World Heritage site.
The tiny landmass of Okinoshima, once a ritual site for prayers for maritime safety and a window for foreign trade between Japan, Korea and China, is permanently manned by a Shinto priest who prays to the island's goddess; a tradition that has been kept up for centuries.
Limited numbers are permitted to visit the island in the Sea of Japan - this year it was 200 - for a yearly festival that lasts just two hours, but they must adhere to strict rules.
Most importantly, they must be men, but they must also strip off and take a purifying dip in the ocean before they are allowed to set foot on the sacred ground of the shrine.
UNESCO's heritage committee considered 33 sites for the prestigious status at its annual gathering in Poland.
Despite its inscription on UNESCO's World Heritage list -- often the prelude to a leap in tourist numbers -- shrine officials say they are now considering banning future travel for anyone apart from priests, partly out of fears the island could be "destroyed" by too many visitors.
"The island has sometimes been said to ban women, but in principle anyone but the priests who pray there for 365 days a year is barred from entering," said a spokesman.
The ban on female visitors specifically "has nothing to do with discrimination against women," the official told AFP by phone.
It is considered dangerous for women to travel by sea to get to the island and the shrine will not change the centuries-old rule, he said.
"It is meant to protect women, the birth-giving gender," he added.
On Sunday, UNESCO also accepted Taputapuatea, a portion of the "Polynesian Triangle" in the South Pacific thought to be the last part of the globe settled by humans, to the list.
It also added Britain's Lake District -- muse for artists from William Wordsworth to Beatrix Potter -- and the Valongo wharf in Rio de Janeiro where slaves from Africa first arrived in Brazil.
UNESCO's World Heritage list includes over 1,000 sites, monuments and natural phenomena that are of "outstanding universal value" to humankind.
It includes treasures such as Australia's Great Barrier Reef, the Taj Mahal in India, and the rock-carved city of Petra in modern-day Jordan.