The Gusuku sites on Okinawa – Strangely-shaped stone walls

Seiden hall of Shuri-jo in Naha - originally also a gusuku site on Okinawa
Shuri Castle burned down in October 2019

updated in October 2021

Long and steep hills, like dragons, on an island in the far south of Japan. Many of these hills are fortified with even steeper walls made from huge blocks of coral stone. The Gusuku sites on Okinawa are not square like the mediaeval castles you know from Europe. Instead they have wavy walls along the sides of the hill. Nevertheless, these walls are just as old as the castles in Europe, and remain enigmatic as most of the palaces and living quarters have not survived the centuries. 

Last year over 24 million tourists came to Japan, mostly from China, Taiwan and Korea. And while the country is fairly established on the travel wish-list of many Westerners too, most will only visit Tokyo, Kyoto and a few other cities on the island of Honshu. Only a few of them make it to Japan’s southernmost prefecture, to Okinawa, which itself consists of more than 160 islands.

The independent kingdom of Ryukyu

Okinawa used to be a fairly independent kingdom called Ryûkyû before it became officially a Japanese province in 1879. The kings of Ryûkû had trade relations with many Asian countries and paid tribute to China, as well as, from the 18th century, to Japan. These relations are also obvious in other islands of Okinawa, such as Ishigaki, which were also part of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

With the beginning of the 16th century King Shô Shin could gain control over most of the islands (pretty much the territory of today’s Okinawa Prefecture). The Ryûkyû Islands experienced another golden age under the rule of King Shô Kei during the 18th century. As Okinawa was really badly affected by WWII fighting, not much of the old Ryûkyû Kingdom is preserved today. There are altogether nine sites that became UNESCO world heritage in 2000, and we have visited all of them! As most visitors won’t have enough time and stamina, the following pictures and introduction might hopefully help a bit which one to choose.

Shuri Castle, a gusuku site in Naha

Okinawa: Shureimon of Shuri-jo gusuku
Shureimon Gate at the Shuri Castle

Shuri Castle was the residence of King Shô Kei – the Chinese influences are clearly visible in photos of the reconstructions. [Update 2021] Unfortunately, the reconstructed main complex burned down in 2019 and is now not accessible. There are plans for rebuilding the palace as quickly as possible. Surrounding areas however, with huge stone gusuku walls and gates, are open.

The main complex consisted of a big courtyard and several buildings such as the impressive audience hall and a reception area for foreign diplomats. An excellent exhibition provided an overview over the history of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. The Shuri Castle is still the most impressive one of the UNESCO sites and the perfect starting point for further explorations. 

Bus 46 to Shuri-Kôen-Iriguchi or Monorail Gibo.

Sonohyan Utaki Shrine

Kyukei gate of Shurijo (Naha, Okinawa)

On the way to the main complex of the Shuri Castle, visitors pass this unimposing shrine. Actually it rather looks like some kind of gate that does not lead anywhere. The King of Ryûkyû used to pray here before he went travelling, asking the gods for a safe journey: Therefore a must-stop for travellers and tourists (especially since it involves no additional effort!). The entrance is free until a little bit further where you have to pay for the Shuri Castle itself.

Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum

Tamaudun is close to the Shurijo gusuku in Naha / Okinawa
Guardian Lion at the Tamaudun Mausoleum

Close to the Shuri Castle within walking distance is the Tamaudun Mausoleum, built by King Shô Shin for his father; subsequently more family members were buried there. The bones for the king and queen are enshrined in the eastern chamber, those of other royal relatives were placed in the western chamber. Burial rituals were conducted in the middle chamber. While the Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum in not as impressive as the Shuri Castle it is within walking distance from there.

Bus 46 to Shuri-Kôen-Iriguchi

Fortresses (Gusuku)

Four castles (gusuku) of local rulers on Okinawa mainland are also part of the UNESCO world heritage. They have such a highly unusual architecture that you should try to visit at least one of them. All of them are accessible by a (sometimes time-consuming) combination of public transport and walking. If you want to see more than one or two at most, it might be best to rent a car. In addition, there are numerous remains of less-known gusuku all over the island, most of them now used as local parks. Some gusuku also remain on other islands, such as Hateruma.

Nakagusuku Castle

Curved stone walls of Nakagusukujo on Okinawa
Nakagusukujo

Closest to the city of Naha is Nakagusuku Castle, whose rulers were the most important vassals of the Ryûkyû kings. They built a castle first in the 15th century, and the following generations continued to add new enclosures and tracts. With six courtyards it is the biggest of the regional castles, and today most of the curved enclosure walls are still in place and several meters high: Prime examples for the stone masonry of the 15th century. 

Bus 30 to Nakagusuku Shogakko-mae.

Zakimi Castle

Curved stone walls of Zakimijo Gusuku on Okinawa

Zakimi Castle in the city of Yomitan was built during the 15th century. During WWII the Japanese military used it as a missile base. The castle is famous for the oldest arched gate on the island – actually a commonplace technique as early as 1500 years earlier in the Roman world. A small history museum on site provides some more information. The castle has a rather convenient location as there are some popular cliffs, beaches, and sightseeing spots nearby.

Free access. Bus 28 to Takashiho Iriguchi, or less frequently Bus 29 to Zakimi-jō.

Katsuren Castle

Steep walls of Katsurenjou, one of the Gusuku sites on Okinawa
Gusuku walls of Katsurenjou

East of Okinawa City, Katsuren Castle, the oldest of the four Gusuku castles, dates back to the 13th century. During the 15th century it belonged to one of the most powerful smaller rulers, who even dared to combat the Ryûkyû King but suffered an utter defeat. It stands on a hill from where you have a fantastic view over the Pacific Ocean.

Free access . Bus 52 to Nishihara

Nakijin Castle

Nakijin-jou is one of the classical Gusuku sites on Okinawa

Even further north on the Motobu peninsula, Nakijin Castle is probably the best-preserved one of the Gusuku sites of Okinawa, nearly in original condition. At Nakijin Gusuku Castle, archaeologists found ceramics from Vietnam and Thailand, proof of the wide-spread trade relations of the Rykukyu Islands. The ceramics are on display in the small on-site museum.

Bus 66 from Nago to Nakijin Gusuku Iriguchi-mae.

Seifa Utaki – a holy site, not a gusuku

Seifa Utaki, a holy cave on Okinawa

The place that inspired us most among the nine UNESCO sites was not one of the castles, but a religious place in the south of Okinawa mainland: the Seifa Utaki. According to legend, the goddess Amamikyu herself, who gave birth to the Ryûkyû Islands, also built the Seifa Utaki place. Therefore, officially no men had permission to enter the Seifa Utaki – they had to change into women’s dress before entering. The Seifa Utaki is not a building, but a natural stone formation.

Bus 38 to Seifa Utaki-mae

Shikinaen Garden

Shikinaen is a garden from the same era as the gusuku sites on Okinawa

Although the Shikinaen Garden is a park within Naha city and easy to reach, we placed it last on this list because we find it the least worthwhile to visit. Shikinaen Garden was built by the Ryûkyû King as a second residence at the end of the 18th century. It is a simple wooden palace set in a Japanese-style landscape garden. It was completely destroyed in the battle of Okinawa in 1945, but has been rebuilt in the post-war years. While strolling through the premises is nice enough, in our opinion the Shikinaen Garden lacks the uniqueness of the other Ryûkyû UNESCO sites.

Bus 2 or 5 to Maaji.

For more information on the Gusuku sites of Okinawa provided by the Official Okinawa tourism portal, see: https://www.visitokinawa.jp/about-okinawa/world-heritage. They offer practical information on opening hours, transport, and fees, too.

For more about all the islands of Okinawa, see our other posts that we have written on Okinawa! In 2021 the Yanbaru region in Northern Okinawa also became a UNESCO World Heritage site.

NB: We had no sponsoring for this blog article and paid all expenses ourselves. Some of the research was related to our travel guide books about Japan. This post does NOT contain Affiliate Links.

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16 Comments

  1. I have heard a lot about gorgeous Okinawa’s beaches but not anything about the shrines. Shuri Castle will be an amazing place to visit once it is rebuilt.

  2. How interesting to see the Gusaku sites and see how different they are from European castles. Each is so different too. The Shikinaen Garden looks like a quiet spot to finish the visit. But I can understand why you put it last on your list.

  3. Wow so fascinating! Yup, I did not visit Okinawa too and hence did not know about the Gusuku sites. I wish I had planned better when I visited Japan. After seeing your posts, I feel I have left out so many of the places and I will definitely have to go back again to see these amazing sites.

  4. The region is so invitingly green. And stark slate rocky structures make for such a breathtaking contrast. I would love to see Seifa Utaki where the men change into women’s clothing! Definitely this goes on my bucket list.

  5. The Gusaku sites are so fascinating to see really. Love the very different look of the castles as compared to the ones we see in Europe. Nagagusuku Castle though appears the best of them all. Would love spending some relaxed moments in Shikinaen Garden. Japan for me at this moment is the must visit country as soon as we can make it.

    1. Dear Subhashish Roy, if you go to Japan for the first time Kyoto and Tokyo as well as Hiroshima are very good places to experience the Japanese culture. Okinawa is quite different than the rest of Japan, because it did not belong to Japan until the 19th century.

  6. Wow, this is such an invaluable glimpse into the Okinawan culture! I’m interested in learning more about these historical structures. I feel like the Gusuku sites in Okinawa are such incredibly impressive feats that should not be missed by anyone traveling through that region.

  7. I haven’t been to Japan yet, but I would love to as it offers incredible culture, architecture, nature, and food. The Gusuku sites on Okinawa seem pretty exciting and have such rich history! Shuri Castle, Nakagusuku Castle, Zakimi Castle, and Tamaudun Mausoleum are impressive. And I would love to explore those places. The view from Nakijin Castle is spectacular. Great that you provide so many valuable tips!

    1. Dear Agnes, Okinawa really is an amazing place. However it is also quite different from mainland Japan. I was an independent kingdom until the 19th century and the culture is quite different. But you would enjoy the castles and the food of Okinawa for sure!

  8. I have visited Japan but as you said at the beginning I stayed on the main island and never got chance to visit Okinawa. Japan is a beautiful country I loved my time there and I would certainly love to go back and visit this area. I love castles so I would have to go and see these for myself, but I think top of my list would be Shuri Castle, it’s just a pity that the main structure burnt down, though they do tend to rebuild them as it seems to happen a lot in Japan!! Can’t wait to get back there and explore.

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