Exploring Okinawa: A trip to Itokazu’s cave and castle
Exploring Okinawa: A trip to Itokazu’s cave and castle
Southern Okinawa is a natural and cultural hotbed with something for everyone. There are sacred sites, battlefield memorials, castle ruins, the biggest limestone caves, a cultural village and plenty of museums. One of my favorite places is a lesser known cave and castle in Nanjo City’s Itokazu area, Abuchiragama and Itokazugusuku. These are places where the island’s beauty and history intersect.
“Gama” is Okinawan for “cave” and Itokazu Abuchiragama is 270 meters of naturally formed limestone cave. It has the beautiful, flowing natural shapes typical of limestone caves but also the manmade remnants of a tragic period in its history.
During the Battle of Okinawa, Abuchiragama was used as an underground hospital by Japanese army medical personnel and high school girls pressed into service as nurses. Wards were split between different chambers including a surgeon’s “office” and treatment area under one of the few air holes in the upper end of one of the larger chambers. There were also marked rest rooms, a cooking area, rest areas and a morgue. As we went through, my guide who spoke little English would try to explain some of stories such as how grenades were dropped through an air hole and pointed at debris still stuck to the ceiling from a bomb explosion.
Even without its tragic history this is a fascinating cave. Limestone caves are like natural works of art with the way the rocks formed creating interesting open spaces. There were points during our guided tour where I couldn’t help but stop and admire the composition of the mineral caves. The cave is not even but multilayered upper and lower levels with nooks and switchbacks. Rocks worn down by water and time have bulbous and smooth unusual shapes and the ceiling is covered with stalactite fangs. At times the cave is so low I have to mind my head and at others it expands into an underground valley that could hold a small house.
Marry this natural wonder to the manmade additions like rock pillars, bridge ends marking where a stone bridge once spanned the underground river, the well and a row of earthen ovens— this is unlike any other cavern I’ve seen before.
Today the cave is preserved and safety measures such as reinforcement, guard rails and bilingual signage have been installed.
Near the cave entrance is a small park with a Type 89 Japanese 15-cm howitzer in excellent shape and a dissected Type 93 torpedo on display. The only other Type 89 I’ve ever seen was at the Yushukan in Tokyo; there are not many of these left. There is no English guided tour but that’s no impediment to getting a lot out of Abuchiragama. Before coming down, the staff in the visitor center gave me an English language pamphlet and I watched a five-minute video that goes over the cave story. While in the visitor center, take the time to look at the collection of artifacts.
I also strongly recommend that you check out their website (http://abuchiragama.com/en/) and read the four survivor testimonies and history before visiting. This is a great resource to better understand how people lived down here and what they endured.
While not necessary, you should make a reservation before coming to the cave. When I first visited on a Tuesday I was unable to go down because they were booked for the entire day with tour groups. I made a reservation for Saturday morning and was the only reservation they had all day. I had the cave all to myself for the entirety of my visit.
Helmets are provided but you can bring your own flashlight, otherwise it’s an additional charge. I brought a small Maglite and my guide had his own light and it worked but if possible you should bring a bigger light.
Admission is 300 yen for adults and 150 for children.
Photography is not allowed inside the cave; photos for this article were taken with special permission.
Itokazugusuku (Itokazu Castle)
The castle ruins just up the hill from Abuchiragama are a good place to visit and reflect after the cave. Itokazu Castle was built in the 14th century and is typical of small Okinawan castles ruins because only the gently curving limestone walls remain. These walls feel like they organically grew out of the limestone hill under them giving them a pleasant aesthetic to enjoy as you walk around the park. As an artist and photographer, the gentle curves and waves of the walls have a visual appeal and I liked how in some parts there are tufts of limestone rock around the wall, reinforcing that ‘naturally grown’ look. It doesn’t take long to walk around but it’s a pleasant walk in a place most foreigners have never heard of.
Seeing the cave and castle took less than two hours, most of it in the cave and its war relic museum, which leaves time to travel on and see more of Nanjo City’s other historic and natural charm points just a short drive away.
Just south of Itokazu are Gyokusendo, Okinawa’s biggest limestone cave, and the Valley of Gangala, a limestone cave with an ancient atmosphere. Gyokusendo is part of Okinawa World, which has a cultural village, brewery and habu snake museum.
For those interested in World War II-related sites, Haebaru is just north of Itokazu and has a museum and preserved hospital tunnel.
667-1 Tamagusuku, Nanjo, Okinawa 901-1400
Plus Code in Google Maps: 5Q27+P2 Nanjo, Okinawa
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