Weekend Fun on Okinawa: Visions of the Past
Okinawa is home to nine designated UNESCO World Heritage sites, all of which can be found on the main island. The vast Shurijo Castle was the political center of the kingdom until 1879. Destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa, it was rebuilt in 1992, and makes for a spectacular day out: you’ve got to love those views from the castle walls. It’s also home to the Tamaudun Royal Mauso-leum, where members of the Ryukyu monarchy were laid to rest. From there, a short taxi or bus ride takes you to the Shikinaen Royal Garden, a villa complex that was once the summer residence of the Ryukyu royal family, and used to receive envoys from China.
The ruins of Zakimi, Nakagusuku and Katsuren castles date from the pre-unification days, when feudal warlords vied for power. You can delve even further back in time at Sefa-Utaki, the most sacred site in the whole of the archipelago. Legend tells that when the deity Amamikiyo descended from heaven to create the islands, he made seven residences for the gods—including this one. It was the first port of call for new Ryukyu kings after ascending to the throne, and remains a popular pilgrimage destination.
Only marginally less ancient is the Valley of Gangala, where the 18,000-year-old remains of a prehistoric man were discovered in 1970. Visitors can now take guided tours of the caves and primeval forest; when you’re done, enjoy a cup of tea or coffee in the spectacular surroundings of the aptly named Cave Cafe.
For a lesson in Okinawa’s more troubled recent history, delve into the tunnels of the Japanese Navy Underground Headquarters, to the south of Naha.
This is where Admiral Ota and his remaining men made their last stand in the Battle of Okinawa, committing suicide in order to escape capture—an act grimly commemorated by the bullet holes and grenade shrapnel marks in the walls.
The Okinawa Prefectural Peace Memorial Museum (www.peace-museum.pref.okinawa.jp) remembers this brutal conflict, in which 200,000 people—half of them civilians—perished. At the Peace Park in Mabuni, the stone plates of the “Cornerstone of Peace” carry the names of all those who died—not only Japanese, but also Americans, Koreans, Taiwanese and Britons.
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