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
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
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
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
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.
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 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.
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
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
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
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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