The World Heritage Sites at times impart energy on visitors in a magical manner, merely from entering the area. There are a number of locations in Okinawa that have been registered as World Heritage Sites. The World Heritage Sites in Okinawa consist of five Gusuku sites (castles) and four related legacy properties, which are officially referred to as the "Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu." They were registered in 2000 as the 11th set of World Heritage Sites in Japan.br>World Heritage Sites in Okinawa feature unique environments that differ from those of castle ruins or structures on mainland Japan. All five Gusuku sites are located on high ground, and the exquisite views from those sites are also part of the attraction of the World Heritage Sites in Okinawa. These five Gusuku sites and four related properties are introduced here.
Shurijo Castle stands high above the City of Shuri in Okinawa and features vibrant vermilion colors and a unique architectural style. This is one of the most popular and well-known tourist destinations that represents Okinawa! Shurijo Castle was the residence for kings for approximately 450 years between 1429 to 1879 when Okinawa was still the Kingdom of Ryukyu. It was the center of government, foreign diplomacy and culture, which made it an essential site for the prosperity of the kingdom.
Shurijo Castle was requisitioned as a garrison and a school of the Imperial Japanese Army in the spring of 1879, and burned to the ground under attack by US forces in 1945. The site was restored thereafter as a park managed by the national government in 1992.
Buildings feature the characteristic vermilion color that invokes profound feelings, as well as decorations that are installed at various locations. This is called the “Shurijo Seiden” (Shurijo Castle Main Hall)which spreads out in front of the palace square “Una” located at the center of Shurijo Castle. Surrounding this Una is the “Nanden Hall” (Southern Hall) to the southern side and “Hokuden Hall” (Northern Hall) to the left side of Seiden Hall.
There are many sites of interest en route to Seiden Hall, such as the “Shureimon Gate” that is considered one of the best examples among the castle gates at Shurijo Castle, as well as the first gate encountered when entering the castle precincts. Other sites include “Kankaimon Gate” and “Ryuhi Fountain” which provided spring water and was used as the main source of drinking water. Proceeding along this route proves to be a pleasant walk with new discoveries, including views of masonry work, decorations, as well as carvings.
The site of Katsurengusuku Castle was used as a residence by Wari Ama, a powerful “Aji” (chieftain) from around the 15th century. This is the site of the oldest Gusuku in Okinawa, which is thought to have been built around the 12th century. The contours of the precinct allowed for effective use of the natural cliffs, so Katsurengusuku is referred to as an “impregnable castle”.
The characteristics of Katsurengusuku Castle include the beautifully curved castle walls that feature a somewhat feminine gracefulness, and the steps that surround and revolve widely around the castle. The Katsurengusuku Castle ruins are comprised of sectors referred to as “Kuruwa” (quarters), with a long set of stairs connecting one kuruwa with another. Kuruwas were areas constructed for defensive positions and other structures which were separate from the center of the castle. Depending on the castle, such kuruwas were also used to house the spouses and children of castle workers or as storage warehouses.
The difference in the elevation between the bottom and top stairs leading up to the three kuruwas of the Katsurengusuku Castle ruins amounts to an astonishing 20 meters! This structure was installed with the intention of confronting attacking enemies, so one really needs to be focused in order to proceed up the steps. Once arriving at the “Ichino Kuruwa” (First Quarter), located at the highest position in the precinct, visitors can enjoy a panoramic view which encompasses the Okinawa cityscape and sky blue ocean, along with Chinenhanto Peninsula and Kudakashima Island.
Incidentally, there is a popular site with a spectacular view just ten minutes’ drive away: the “Kaichudoro Road” (Sea Road). The ocean surrounds the road to the left and right, giving a sensation that one is driving in the ocean.
The history of Nakijingusuku Castle is quite a long one, dating as far back as the 13th century. Nakijingusuku Castle is about 100 meters in elevation and surrounded by sturdy castle walls. It was used as the key castle for protecting the land of Yanbaru (the northern region on the main island of Okinawa). The castle was designated as a residence for the King of Hokuzan Kingdom during the 14th century. After the downfall of the Hokuzan Kingdom in 1416, a custodian was appointed to manage the northern region. The site was attacked by the Satsuma Clan in 1609 and set ablaze. Later it was transformed into a sacred site where many pilgrims have since visited. Finally, the castle was registered as a World Heritage Site.
The must-see spot at Nakijingusuku Castle ruins is the castle wall that spans over 1.5 kilometers. The wall twists along like a long snake and was supposedly designed to better defend against enemy attacks. The pièce de resistance for this defensive castle protecting the land of Yanbaru is the highly-stacked castle wall which makes people wonder: “how in the world did they manage to stack it this high?” Visitors can walk through the site while enjoying a variety of such historical mysteries. The spectacular view from the castle ruins at the top of a slightly elevated hill is also a must-see spot. Visitors can enjoy the Yanbaru scenery, rich with green abundance, to their heart’s content.
Other attractions of the Nakijingusuku Castle ruins include the cherry blossom festival and other events that are held throughout the year. Enjoy beautiful cherry blossoms distinctive to the northern region, which is also a notable site for Taiwan cherry trees. Scenes created with cherry trees seemingly floating in front of the castle wall are lit up in a variety of colors, and can only be appreciated at the Nakijingusuku Castle ruins. Visitors are invited to go during the festival if possible (usually held between the end of January to the beginning of February each year).
Zakimigusuku Castle was built by Gosamaru, a Yomitanzan Aji (Chieftain of Yomitanzan) in around 1420. The achievements of Gosamaru were recognized through this effort, and he dedicated himself to supporting the unified governance of the Kingdom of Ryukyu as the Aji of Yomitanzan. Zakimigusuku Castle was then used as the residence for Gosamaru.
An artillery battery was set up at Zakimigusuku Castle in 1945 by the Imperial Japanese Army and used during the Battle of Okinawa. A radar base was later installed by the US forces, then Zakimigusuku Castle was returned to Okinawa in 1972 when the site was designated a historic landmark.
Progressive and beautiful curves are a characteristic of the Zakimigusuku Castle ruins. The arched gate that serves as the castle entrance is considered to bear the most ancient shape among those that presently exists in Okinawa. Once visitors walk through the gate, a properly arranged passage and lawn cut to a short height spreads out in front. Here a mysterious sensation can be felt, as if one has slipped back in time to an unknown location. A view of the Zakimigusuku Castle ruins from above the castle walls shows the shape resembles a dam! This unique structure was apparently intended for monitoring enemies that approached the precincts from the outside.
Nakagusuku Castle was built over a number of years by Sakinakagusuku Aji around the 14th century. It was then extended and completed by royal decree in 1440 by Gosamaru, the Aji of Yomitanson. Details about the castle are still unclear, and while it has been purported that it was used as a residence for Sakinakagusuku Aji, the prevailing theory indicates Gosamaru was the lord of the castle.
Gosamaru, the Yomitanson Aji, was appointed to become the Nakagusuku Aji by royal decree. However, he committed suicide with his wife and children in 1458 due to a scheme by Wari Ama who sought to take over the region. The royal administration governed Nakagusuku Castle after the passing of Gosamaru, and the castle became the residence for Nakagusukuoji (Crown Prince of the Kingdom of Ryukyu) by 1470.
An elementary school was later established there, and the site was also used for a municipal office, but this was lost to fire during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Damage sustained in the war, however, was less than other castles in that the original shape of the precinct was not extensively lost. The location became the very first public park in Okinawa after the war and was used as a place of relaxation for Okinawa Prefecture residents.
A characteristic of the Nakagusuku Castle ruins is the masonry architecture featuring overwhelming beauty by using Ryukyu limestone which is quite often used in Okinawa. It was therefore not surprising when the site was registered as a World Heritage Site. Structures built with masonry include arches shaped by stacking masonry. The beauty of the site was even praised Commodore Perry of the United States. The view from within the castle precincts is of course one of the best, and visitors can take commemorative photographs against the backdrop of the Pacific Ocean or the East China Sea.
Sefa Utaki is a sanctuary with a genuine pedigree located in the city of Nanjo. The site is the most sacred sanctuary in the Kingdom of Ryukyu, which is believed to have been created by Amamikiyo, the god of creation in the Kingdom of Ryukyu. Kudakashima Island, known as where the gods dwell, can be viewed from this site. White sands taken from Kudakashima Island are said to have been used to cover the grounds of Sefa Utaki whenever national religious rites and festivities were held during the Ryukyu Kingdom era. The fact that men were also barred from entering Sefa Utaki is a relatively well-known fact.
There are six “Ibi” (holy precincts) at Sefa Utaki, which include the “Sangui” with its characteristic triangular space made of multiple gigantic rocks. There is a unique atmosphere within each ibi, and it is evident for anyone who actually visits the site that Sefa Utaki is not an artificial creation. Minimally required rules must be observed and its sanctity maintained when visiting the site as it is a solemn place that is considered the most holy in Okinawa.
Sonohyan Utaki, located along the path to Shurijo Seiden, is an uganju worshipped by kings before they embarked on journeys outside the castle. The location is believed to have been where Chifiujin or Kikoeoogimi, the highest goddess of the Kingdom of Ryukyu, first attended when participating in the enthronement ceremony at Sefa Utaki. The site was built in 1519 by Nishito, a government official from Taketomijima Island.
The stone gate of Sonohyan Utaki is renowned for its highly-effective power that responds to prayers for safety. Visitors are welcome to access the site freely, so people can visit to become charged with active energy, to meditate, or to offer prayers for safe journeys and the like! Blessings will surely be granted.
Tamaudun is a royal mausoleum built by King Shoshin who ruled the Kingdom of Ryukyu as king for 50 years. It was constructed to rebury the remains of his father, King Shoen. There are three grave chambers, and the remains of the king and the queen were placed in the eastern chamber after their bones were washed for burial, while other people are said to have been buried in the western chamber.
The center chamber was believed to have been where the bodies prior to the bone washing were placed, but this chamber is also said to contain a mysterious “Zushigame”. Zushigame is a decorated pottery container for storing the bones of the deceased. The zushigame found in the center chamber at Tamaudun belongs to Ufutouchi Mukuta, a faithful minister that served King Shoen and is said to have been placed here by special order of the king.
There are three shisas that ward off evil on top of the roof at Tamaudun. Shisas stare with considerable vigor at visitors with their glaring eyes, as if to protect those that sleep within the grave. Visitors who come to Tamaudun are reminded to pay attention to the expressions of each individual shisa as well.
Shikinaen Garden was established in 1799 as the largest villa of the Ryukyu Royal Family. The site was used for recreation among royal family members, as well as to receive foreign envoys. The site is sometimes also referred to as “Nanen” (Southern Garden) because it is located on the southern side of Shurijo Castle.
A characteristic of Shikinaen Garden is its mixture of a variety of styles that have been incorporated at every turn, including the inherently Japanese “Kaiyushiki Teien” (Kaiyu-style garden), as well as rock bridges and hexagonal pavilions that incorporate Chinese styles.
It is evident that many Okinawan castles or gusukus are surrounded by castle walls of masonry. Searching for aspects of these castle ruins and structures that differ from those on mainland Japan might also be an interesting way to tour around these World Heritage Sites.
Tomigusuku City・Itoman City
Nanjo City・Yaese Town・Haebaru Town・Yonabaru Town