9 Awesome Okinawa Castles, World Heritage Sites and More
16 June 2017
While most tourists come to Okinawa in search of golden sands, warm seas and the gentle ocean breeze, visitors are also often mesmerized by the palpable ambience of the archipelago’s intriguing history. So unique and significant are the collection of Okinawa castle ruins, tombs and holy sites that UNESCO has awarded World Heritage Site status to no less than nine of them, and other sites designated Natural and Scenic Beauty abound. Take some time to visit some of these incredible monuments and walk in the footsteps of kings.


 

9 Historic Okinawa Castles and Okinawa World Heritage Sites

 

Shurijo Castle

Located in Naha City, Shurijo Castle is considered preeminent among the Okinawa castles. The seat of power during the Golden Era of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shurijo fell largely into ruins after the end of the imperial system around the middle of the 19th century when Japan formally annexed the Ryukyu Islands. Now rebuilt, this Okinawa World Heritage Site currently hosts tourists who arrive in droves to watch the daily ceremonies and reenactments of historical rites carried out by actors in authentic historical costumes. Within the castle you can see the Sonohyan-utaki stone gates, while Shikinaen Garden, a premiere example of Okinawan landscaping techniques formerly attached to the castle, is now about one and a half kilometers away—both are also Okinawa World Heritage Sites. Shurijo Castle tours are inexpensive and written materials are available in multiple languages for those who like to read a more detailed history.

 

Zakimi Castle

Tucked away in central Yomitan Town, Zakimijo is one of the most famous of the Okinawa castle ruins and also a World Heritage Site. Built by the chieftain Gosamaru in the 1400s, the castle has been painstakingly rebuilt by the Japanese government. Walking the paths around the castle walls as the hot sun filters through the boughs of pine trees one can almost sense the ghosts of the ancient courtiers who occupied this incredible monument in times long past. The castle is located in a park which is open to the public and entry is free.

 

Katsuren Castle

Known as Kachin Gusuku to the locals, Katsurenjo was the realm of Amawari, another great chieftain who eventually crushed Gosamaru in battle, only to be killed by royal forces after his plot to overthrow the king was discovered. Overlooking the Chinen peninsula on the main island’s east coast, this Okinawa castle’s multi-level design necessitates climbing a number of stairs, few of which are regular or level, but the incredible panorama from the very top is worth the effort. Though many visit at sunset or sunrise to take in the glowing skies, the park is open throughout the day. There is a free parking lot at the base of the steep hill leading up to the castle and there is no cost to enter. A tourist shop beside the lot offers information in many languages and even sells small souvenirs.

 

Nakagusuku Castle

The oldest parts of Nakagusuku Castle were constructed in the 1300s by various Aji (chieftains)  and subsequent rulers made additions and extensions of the walls according to their needs. In the 1440s the same Gosamaru who built Nakajin and Zakimi castles was ordered to Nakagusuku to preside over a royal marriage involving a rival lord, a match designed to strengthen the king’s power. Unfortunately, matters did not unfold well for him and after a military defeat, Gosamaru is said to have committed ritual suicide in this castle during a ‘tsukimi’ (moon viewing) party. Of course, modern visitors to the castle are assured of happier outcomes. There is an entrance fee of 400 yen and the castle, also designated an Okinawa World Heritage Site, is only open during daytime hours.

 

Nakijin Castle

The most northerly of the great castles in Okinawa, Nakijin Castle was built sometime in the 1300s by chieftains seeking greater protection against invaders from the Chuzan kingdom to the south. What is most historically significant about this castle is that when it was sacked in 1422 (or possibly 1416, historians are not sure), the battle brought an end to the northern kingdom of Hokuzan, unifying the three separate kingdoms under one royal family and ushering in the first Sho Dynasty. Today the castle is famous for the numerous archeological treasures unearthed there over the years, each of which which can be viewed at a museum across the street from the ruins. There is a lot to see and read, but unfortunately very little in English. The castle ruins host an annual cherry blossom viewing festival every January, where visitors come to see the rows of Hikan cherry trees planted along both sides of the central path inside the gate. For many tourists, the best time to visit is at night, when the castle and the trees are illuminated for several weeks during blossom season.

 

Other Important Okinawa World Heritage Sites

 

Tamaudun  Royal Mausoleum

Photo by Kiwi He on flickr. 

Just to the west of Shurijo Castle, located in the same park as the famous castle,  is Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum, one of Okinawa’s greatest historical treasures and an Okinawa World Heritage Site.  Built during the reign of king Sho Shin in 1501, the mausoleum holds the remains of the kings of the 2nd Sho Dynasty. Modeled after Shurijo Castle, it is built in three chambers running east to west. Totally unique in Okinawa, the mausoleum is unlike the numerous ‘kamekoubaka’ graves seen all over the island which house the bones and ashes of commoners. If you visit, be sure to take note of the stone figures adorning the garden. These are artists’ renditions of mythical creatures said to represent the authority of kings and one of them features the oldest known engraving of Japanese characters anywhere on the island. 

 

Sefa-Utaki

Photo by Ippei Suzuki on flickr.

One of the most spiritually important sites in Okinawa, Sefa-Utaki appears in legends about the creation of the islands. It is considered the holiest place in the Ryukyu Kingdom and for a long time was closed to the general public. Consisting of six sanctuaries known as ‘ibi’, some of which are named after rooms in Shuri Castle, Seifa-Utaki was the site of important rites such as the Oaraori ritual in which a leader was chosen from the ranks of the Noro priestesses and given the title of ‘Kikoeokimi’. Tourists who visit Sefa-Utaki are asked to bow prior to entering each sanctuary, utter their names and say, “I’ve come to visit.” Sefa-Utaki is easily accessible from the highway in Nanjo City and can be enjoyed in a couple of hours or less. Visits to this Okinawa Heritage Site are often combined with tours of other holy places such as Kudakajima, known as the “Island of the Gods.”


 

Natural Heritage Sites and Other Treasures

 

Iriomotejima

Considered the last wilderness in Japan, almost the entire island of Iriomotejima has been declared a Natural Heritage Site by the Japanese government and is being included for consideration as a Unesco World Natural Heritage Site. Teeming with wildlife and home to unique species such as the Iriomote Wildcat, the island is a nature-lover’s paradise. Of particular note are the pristine rivers, unspoiled jungle and the abundance of dense mangrove forests containing trees said to be the world’s oldest specimens of the ‘looking glass’ variety. In contrast to the wildness of the landscape is the civilized hospitality you will find at Nirakanai Resort at the northern tip of the island. This resort makes a perfect home base from which to venture out into the immaculate wilderness.

 

Nakasone Toyumya Tomb on Miyakojima

While Miyakojima is not famed for its historical monuments, it features the tomb of a figure who was central to the expansion of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the early 16th century. Credited with saving the lives of countless Miyakojima and Yaeyama Islands inhabitants,  Nakasone Tuyumya, a feared chieftain who ruled Miyakojima and conquered Ishigakijima in a preemptive invasion, negotiated peace with the commanders of a military force sent by King Sho Shin to bring the outlying islands under his control. Although technically not a world heritage site, this tomb on Miyakojima, located near the coast in Miyakojima City just a short walk north from City Hall is considered unique, with features unlike those of other tombs in Okinawa.


 

Beyond Okinawa Castles and Holy Relics, a Place of Scenic Beauty

While Okinawa is a treasure-trove of great historical places like castles, tombs and holy sites, the archipelago offers far more than just ancient relics. Beyond the world heritage sites, the islands feature many locations designated as Places of Scenic Beauty by the Japanese government. Miyakojima itself is home to one of these, the cape of Higashi Henna Zaki. Only 20 minutes by car from the luxurious Shigira Resort, the breathtaking ocean views of this natural gem should be one of your first destinations.



 

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