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on the island of okinawa there are nine UNESCO world heritage sites listed as the gusuku sites and related properties of the kingdom of ryukyu. though it uses the same kanji as the japanese word for castle (城), gusuku is an okinawan word meaning castle or fortress. the ryukyu kingdom (琉球王国) was in power from the 15th century until 1879, when the japanese formally declared the islands part of their territory. throughout its existence, the kingdom served as the main trading hub between southeast asia and east asia.
shuri castle was the center of the kingdom after the unification of okinawa in 1429. the kingdom later expanded its control over other islands near okinawa and used the port in naha (那覇) as its hub for trade and maritime activities. being officially recognized by china, the kingdom benefited from exclusive trading rights and other perks. as such, ryukyuan culture and language was heavily influenced by chinese culture. however due to its proximity to japan, the ryukyan culture and architecture embodied distinctly japanese traits.
if you are staying in naha, getting to shuri castle is as simple as taking a taxi or for a much cheaper alternative with great views ride the monorail. the closest stop is the last one, which is shuri station (首里駅). there is a map at the station, you can ask the station attendant, or you can follow the signs. you will be approaching the castle from the east, so i strongly recommend to walk all the way west to the visitors’ center.
there’s a cafeteria located here as well as an information desk. once you got your handy english pamphlet, walk up to shureimon (守礼門), which you passed on the way. this gate was built outside the castle walls. if you want, you can have your photo taken in traditional attire as well. :)
past this gate as you head towards the castle you might easily miss sonohiyan-utaki (園比屋武御嶽) a UNESCO world heritage site itself. utaki is an okinawan word for a sacred place. though restored, the stone gate was only opened to the king. at this sacred grove, the king would pray for a safe journey before departing from the castle.
continuing to shuri castle you will see the first gate to the castle complex, which is on the outermost wall. this gate is called kankaimon (歓会門) and served as the front gate to the castle. its name means to greet with joy in chinese, meant as warm welcome to visiting chinese dignitaries.
on either side of the gate are two shisa lions. their purpose is to ward off evil spirits.
to the left of the gate there is a good view of the castle walls snaking eastwardly.
looking at the northern side of the castle complex after entering the outermost wall. the steps lead up to zuisen-mon (瑞泉門) gate. to the right of the gate is ryuhi ( 龍樋) spring.
ryuhi spring was a gift from china and dates back to 1523. this spring provided drinking water for the castle. when the chinese envoys were staying in okinawa, water from this spring was delivered to them daily.
if you look at zuisen-mon gate you will notice that unlike kankai-mon it does not have a stone arch. this gate has a turret on-top, which takes after the japanese style of castle gates.
the next gate is called roukoku-mon (漏刻門). in the turret there was a water clock, hence its name which in chinese it means “water clock”. if you were important enough to ride in a palaquin, then at this gate you must get off and walk in on your on two legs out of respect for the king. i know, who does the king think he is? :)
enter through the gate and you reach a plaza. on the grounds are a sundial that was in use until 1879, the tomoya (供屋) housing the bankoku shinryo-no kane (万国津梁の鐘) – the bridge of nations bell, and kofuku-mon gate (広福門).
to the left (east) of kofuku-mon gate is where the official registry of records was kept. to the right (west) was an office for managing the temples. today they are the ticket counter and bathroom, respectively. what a downer. to go beyond this point you must pay an admission ticket of 800 yen.
while on the plaza, take a look out over the western part of the castle and on to the city and the ocean.
the bankoku shinryo-no kane bell housed inside the tomoya. the bell was in use since 1458; this is a replica (the original is being preserved in the okinawa prefectural museum). inscribed on the bell is text highlighting the spirit of the ryukyuan kingdom: “located between korea, china, and japan, the kingdom of the ryukyus is a beautiful nation in the southern seas. with its ships, the kingdom serves as a bridge between the nations, and thus abounds with exotic products and treasures.”
inside the kofuku-mon gate is the first courtyard. straight ahead is suimui utaki (首里森御嶽). this was a place of prayer and said to have been created by the gods.
the day i went there was a festival. aside from a parade and the other usual activities, they also had dancers perform in the way it was done during the ryukyuan kingdom’s existence. check out the video at the bottom to get a better idea of what it was like.
this is the last gate leading to the main courtyard, with the castle located on the other side. hoshin-mon (奉神門) gate contains three entranceways, but only the king and nobles were allowed to use the one in the center. today tourists get to walk through this entrance, lucky you!
shuri-jo (首里城) castle is on the east side of the courtyard. the building is referred to as seiden (正殿). this building served as the center of the ryukyu kingdom for about 500 years.
a closer look at the awning over the main entrance to the castle. the abundance of dragons throughout the castle was a symbol of the king.
one of the two dragons at either end of the roof. these are in traditional chinese style.
to the right of the plaza is a museum as well as the king’s study and room of business, and the price’s anteroom. surrounding these buildings is the private garden.
taken from inside the king’s study.
after the museum and the king’s study you will walk to the castle. on the way there, i took a shot of the courtyard again, but this time looking back towards hoshin-mon gate.
the king’s throne.
once you walk through the castle, you will have an opportunity to visit the gift shop or go on your marry way. through the gift shop there’s a nice area for taking photos of the city and the north edge of the castle.
on the day i went i was lucky enough to catch a festival. here’s the parade heading towards the castle to start the show. as well as other photos.
video from the day, including some traditional dancing.
other photos from the day.