Exploring Okinawa: 9 historical sites you must visit

Exploring Okinawa: 9 historical sites you must visit

by Okinawa Convention & Visitors Bureau
Stripes Okinawa

Okinawa was formerly called the “Ryukyu Kingdom” from the 14th to 16th century. Nine structures and ruins symbolizing the era of the Ryukyu Kingdom are registered as “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu” World Heritage sites. “Gusuku” are regarded as fortresses of regional chieftains in the Ryukyu era. Immerse yourself in the unique Ryukyu history and culture by visiting these structures and ruins developed over time through contact with various neighboring countries.

Nakijin-jo site
(Nakijin Castle Ruins)
“Castle of God” surrounded by forests and ocean

Nakijin-jo is the site of castle ruins formerly belonging to a regional chieftain built prior to the unification of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Behind the castle ruins exists a utaki, which is a type of religious facility and as such Nakijin Castle is known as the “Domain of God”. The ramparts are approximately 3 to 8m high and 1.5 km long and comparable in size to those of Shurijo Castle where kings of the Ryukyu Kingdom resided. If you stand on the beautifully curved ramparts that flow along with the geography, Okinawa’s unique landscape of vivid color in contrast with the forests and ocean will surely catch your eyes.

Katsuren-jo site
(Katsuren Castle Ruins)
Castle of a Mysterious Ryukyu Hero

Katsuren Castle is located on a hill at the foot of Yokatsu Peninsula. Here, you can enjoy magnificent views surrounded by the emerald green ocean. It is said that a hero who was intent on unifying Ryukyu used to live in Katsuren Castle from the beginning to the middle of the 15th century. It seems he rose to become a regional chieftain and gained power through trade with overseas countries, however, his life is still shrouded in mystery. If you think about the exploits of this legendary Ryukyu hero during your tour, you will find your visit here much more interesting.

Greatest sacred site of the Ryukyu Kingdom

Sefa-utaki is a symbolic sacred site in Okinawa that is said to be a creation of the mythological Ryukyu god Amamikiyo. Men were prohibited from entering this site during the Kingdom era and inauguration ceremonies for Ryukyu’s highest-ranking priestess were held here. Venturing through the triangle-shaped tunnel miraculously created by two rocks, one will find Okinawa’s most sacred altar known as Sangui. If you are lucky enough to experience the sunlight shining through the rock gate and the solemn air, you will be thoroughly immersed within its sacred atmosphere.

Zakimi-jo site
(Zakimi Castle Site)
Elegant curved ramparts is a must-see

It is said that Zakimi-jo Castle was built by a famous fortifier (person responsible for designing/constructing castles) on a 125m hill in the 15th century. From the hill, one can see as far as the western coast of Okinawa. The elegant curves of the ramparts are strategically structured and are difficult to destroy so as to prevent intrusion by enemies. The arch gate where wedge-shaped stones were set is a unique design not found in other Gusuku (castles). This place is indispensable for viewing the history of construction of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Nakagusuku-jo site
(Nakagusuku Castle Ruins)
Best Okinawa Stone Building

In the Nakagusuku Castle ruins, the remains of the castle overlooking Nakagusuku Bay of the Okinawa Main Island lie almost perfectly straight on a hill. It is said that a Ryukyu Kingdom general fortified the castle in middle in the 15th century. The castle is famous as almost the entire original castle remains in the existing Gusuku. The ramparts creatively take advantage of the geography using the latest techniques of the time and the beautiful curvature of the stone walls are evidence of the advanced fortification technology possessed by the Ryukyu Kingdom.

Shuri-jo site
(Shurijo Castle)
Symbol of the Ryukyu Kingdom

Shurijo Castle was once the residence of kings and prospered as the center of politics/diplomacy/culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The original artwork created by the integration of Japanese and Chinese architectural styles can be found throughout the castle. The Seiden or Main Hall located in the center of the castle is the largest wooden structure in Okinawa and the magnificent richly-colored decorations were created by gathering the best Ryukyu architects. A stroll inside the exotic castle is a reminder of the prosperity of the kingdom and reminds one of that bygone era.

(Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum)
Stone tombs of the Ryukyu Kingdom’s Royal Family

Tamaudun is the mausoleum of the Ryukyu Royal Family which ruled the Ryukyu Kingdom for approximately 400 years. Three inner chambers surrounded by rock walls were created by carving out holes directly in the natural rock. The atmosphere is solemn, and the ceiling is covered with boards engraved with the Royal crest and peonies, etc. The appearance of the palace motif is very interesting. Moreover, there are stone lion-dog statues which protect the mausoleum on the top of the towers to the right and left. A visit here is like a journey to a different time.

Sonohyan-utaki Ishimon
(Stone Gate)
See the detailed architectural patterns

Sonohyan-utaki Ishimon is a stone gate located on the premises of Shurijo Castle. The gate was created by a popular local stonemason in 1519, and except for the wooden door, the entire gate is made of stone. The decorations on the gate including those on both edges of the roof and the blazing flame pattern on the decorative balls are so detailed that they are comparable to wooden architecture. There used to be an Utaki, which is a type of religious facility behind the gate, and it is said that the kings of the Ryukyu Kingdom prayed for safe journeys here whenever they left the castle.

(Shikina-en Gardens)
Gardens integrating Chinese and Japanese styles

Located in the south of Shurijo Castle, Shikina-en Gardens was the second home of the Ryukyu Royal Family and was also called the “Southern Residence”. It is possible to view the changing of the four seasons while strolling around the pond in the circuit-style gardens. The magnificent landscape, completed around 1800, reminds one of prosperity when the gardens were used for recreation by the Royal Family and entertaining envoys from overseas. A hexagonal Chinese-style Buddhist temple floats on the pond and there is unique atmosphere in the coexisting Chinese, Japanese, and Ryukyu styles.

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