Where Japan isn’t all that Japanese
We take it for granted so naturally that the islands of Okinawa are and integral part of Japan, that we are mostly not aware of the fact that it’s been less than 150 years since they became part of the Japanese Empire.
Until then the archipelago of the Ryūkyū islands had been a – more or less – independend kingdom for about 450 years, maintaining at least just as strong links to China and even paid tribute to the country for quite some while (without ever being occupied by China). From the early 17th century, however, Japanese influences became stronger.
With the integration of Okinawa into the Japanese state (which happened in several steps from 1871 to 1879), also the typical culture of the islands gradually perished. Latest by the time of the heavy battles for the islands at the end of World War II. and the subsequent occupation by US-troops, the face of the islands changed tremendously. The main island, Okinawa (which lent its name to the whole of the archipelago), was hit hardest. Naha, the capital of the prefecture Okinawa, is located here – and some large US-military bases, even today. Not all of the locals are that much of favour of the occupying forces and make Japan struggle between the comfort of protecting foreign forces and the burdens of occupation.
Even with a fair amount of goodwill, one has to admit that Naha is, even by Japanese standards, a rather unaesthetic example of a Japanese city. That’s not just because the city is (like most other Japanese cities) lacking a recognisable amount of city planning and because US-American living habits and Japanese urban development are obviously not going too well together. Part of the optical impression one gets is also impaired by the tropical climate that doesn’t agree with modern construction materials (i.e. steel and and concrete).
With its 320,000 inhabitants Naha is the biggest city of Okinawa – more than a fifth of the prefecture’s population lives in Naha.
All these details just up front, to make sure nobody is wondering why some things are a bit different in Okinawa and should not be compared with the rest of Japan. The castle of Naha (or, the castle of Shuri, to be precise), which you are about to see here, is no exception.
What’s a district of today’s Naha, used to be an independent city – what’s more: it was the capital of the island kingdom: Shuri. The palace and castle here is an UNESCO World Heriate Site and it dates back to the late 14th century. During its eventful history Shuri castle (首里城 / しゅりじょう) burned down repeatedly (e.g. 1453, 1660, 1709 and again during the battles for Okinawa in 1945), was, however, rebuilt each time and even expanded. It is the largest of all the fortifications on the islands.
While the University of Okinawa moved to the grounds of Shuri castle after war, the Shureimon (守礼門 / しゅれいもん) was reconstructed in 1958 as the first of the historic buildings on the castle’s walls (it was undergoing restoration during my visit – hence there wasn’t much to be seen of it). In 1992 also the main building of the palace was reconstructed, which also was reason enough to open the castle complex to the public.
Also in our days the castle is, step by step, being rebuilt and extended to its origin dimensions. But even without the mostly wooden buildings that have been reconstructed in recent years, the castle is a quite breathtaking complex. It’s only here in Okinawa that Japan can adorn itself with fortification walls of such an aesthetic and harmonic shape. When newly constructed, these walls are almost snow-white, but due to the steady battle with nature’s forces they turn almost black in just a few years.
Usually one gains access to the castle’s grounds via the above-mentioned Shureimon (守礼門 / しゅれいもん) and passes the stone gate, Sonohyan-utaki (園比屋武御嶽 / そのひゃんうたき) (which is an UNESCO World Heritage Site itself) on the left hand side, before entering the actual fortification walls at the Kankai-mon (歓会門 / かんかいもん). A wide stair-case leads up to the Zuisen-mon (瑞泉門 / ずいせんもん), which,via a small square, leads to the “waterclock gate” (Rōkoku-mon / 漏刻門 / ろうこくもん) and to the core of the castle, the actual palace buildings.
That may sound just like a boring list of gates and their names. But in fact this way already lets you dive into another, very special world that cannot be found elsewhere. It’s worth taking your steps slowly and enjoying this quaint atmosphere.
Only if you want to see the very inner parts of the castle, you’ll have to buy admission tickets, which can be purchased at the Kōfuku-mon (広福門 / こうふくもん). All other parts of the castle can be visited free of charge. But since you are here anyway, it would really be a shame, if you wouldn’t endulge in a visit to the gorgeous main buildings of Shuri castle around the splendorous palace square (Una / 御庭 / うなー). You’ll enter the Una via the Hōshin-mon (奉神門 / ほうしんもん) and have the most impressive and certainly also most gorgeous building of the whole castle in front of you, the main hall (Seiden / 正殿 / せいでん). If it was just for the facade of this three storied building with its bright red and rich golden details, it would already make a visit to Shuri castle worthwhile.
The two dragon columns on the left and right of the main gate of the building may look like nothing much on pictures, but each of them has a stately height of more than four meters.
In order to enter the Seiden, one enters the buildings on the right hand side of the Una at the one-storied Bandokoro (番所 / ばんどころ), which houses, just like the connected, two-storied Nanden (南殿 / なんでん), a museum documenting the eventful history of the castle and royal dynasties of Okinawa. Even though these buildings and the exhibition halls are just a few years old, the exhibitions are kept in a rather “traditional” style (to put it nicely).
Passing the studies and working rooms of the kings and princes, eventually one reaches the inner sanctuaries of the Seiden with the spaces for formal and official functions on the first floor. If you think you are in the center of splendor of the compound, prepare yourself for some surprise once you’ve climbed up to the second floor of the Usasuka (御差床 / うさすか), which one could also call the throne hall of the palace. That, obviously, wasn’t the place to display modesty. But after all, we are in the king’s home… By the way: The glorious throne we can see today is a reconstruction of the throne used by the king Sho Shin, who ruled the island from 1477 to 1526.
Also on the second floor you’ll find the queen’s chambers. The third floor, in turn, serves the ventilation of the main building.
Once you leave the Seiden, it’s up to you whether you enjoy the expanse of the center square (Una) of the palace first or continue with the exhibitions in the next building, the northern hall (Hokuden / 北殿 / ほくでん). Don’t miss: The Hokuden also houses two miniatures of the palace’s buildings set for special ceremonies. And if you feel that these scenes remind you on something you’ve seen in conjunction with the Forbidden City in Beijing, don’t be too surprised. The common cultural roots cannot be denied.
Please reserve a little time for the visit of the Shuri castle – 1 ½ hours at least. But if you want to satisfy your interest in more details, you’ll certainly need much more than that, maybe even more than one visit, to get at least a general idea of the castle and its history.
How to get there:
Take the monorail to the “Shuri“ station, and from there the bus no. 8 to “Shurijo-mae”, directly at the castle’s grounds.
The monorail will set you back for just 320 Yen (adults – children pay 160 Yen) for a trip from Naha airport to Shuri station.
All those approaching the castle by car find ample parking space at the gigantic Suimuikan garage (parking charge: 310 to 940 Yen – depending on the size of the vehicle).
April to June: 8.30 am to 7 pm (last entry: 6.30 pm)
July to September: 8.30 am to 8 pm ( last entry: 7.30 pm)
October to November: 8.30 am to 7 pm (last entry: 6.30 pm)
December to March: 8.30 am to 6 pm (last entry: 5.30 pm)
Adults: 800 Yen
Highschool Students: 600 Yen
Elementary and Junior Highschool Students: 300 Yen
Children of 6 years of age and less: free
There are reduced admission fees for groups of 20 and more visitors.
And should you plan to visit Shuri castle more than twice during the course of a year, get yourself an annual season ticket (that costs just as much as two tickets in each of the entry fee categories and you’ll have to wait just five minutes for it).
Wheelchairs are available free of charge at the information counter at the Suimuikan, the information center and resting area beneath the castle’s grounds.
And please keep in mind that dogs (other than guide dogs and the like), cats and other pets are not to be brought into the areas where admission fees apply.