9 World Heritage Sites To Explore in Okinawa

By Okinawa Prefecture

The “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu” was recognised as a combined UNESCO World Heritage Sites in 2000 for its independent development as an island nation influenced by Asian countries and Japan that developed its own culture and set of beliefs. Learn about the historical background of the Ryukyu Kingdom and the wisdom of the Ryukyuan people through these nine sites.

Shurijo CastleOriginal Source: Shurijo Castle Park

Shurijo CastleーThe Most Prominent Gusuku and the Center of the Ryukyu Kingdom

After a period of conflict between the Sanzan principalities, control of the Ryukyu Kingdom was concentrated at Shurijo Castle in 1429. At the time, the castle was smaller than it is today as it was limited to the so-called naikaku (the inner compound). When the outer compound was added in the first half of the sixteenth century, the scale of the castle was extended to cover an area of approximately four hectares measuring 400 meters east to west and 200 meters north to south. The appearance of the castle gates tell the story of these transitions. The Zuisenmon, the Shukujunmon, the Bifukumon, and other gates in the inner compound are topped with wooden structures, so-called yagura, which act as links between the castle walls. The Kankaimon, Kyūkeimon, Keiseimon, and other gates in the outer compound are in the shape of a yagura mounted over arched castle gates. These variations speak of the differences between the periods. 

current street view

Sonohyan-Utaki IshimonOriginal Source: Shurijo Castle Park

Sonohyan Utaki IshimonーThe Sacred Place Where Prayers Were Offered for the King’s Safe Journeys 

The handsome Sonohyan Utaki Ishimon stone gate, built with Ryukyu limestone, stands on the left as you pass through the Shureimon Gate and walk toward the Shurijo Castle. The plaque installed over the gate informs us that it was erected in the time of King Shō Shin of the Second Shō dynasty in 1519. The grove of trees that extends behind the stone gate was a sacred site known as the Sonohyan Utaki.

current street view

TamaudunOriginal Source: Naha City

TamaudunーThe Netherworld at Shurijo Castle: The Mausoleum of the Ryukyu Kings

The Tamaudun is the royal mausoleum built in 1501 by King Shō Shin who governed the Ryukyu Kingdom in its prime. Passing through two courtyards covered with coral pebbles, you arrive at a mausoleum built in stone. There are three chambers in the mausoleum. The middle one at the front is where the body was kept after the funeral rites were completed. After a number of years had passed, the bones were cleansed and the king and queen were entombed in the eastern chamber on the left. Other members of the royal family were interred in the western chamber on the right once the bones were cleansed. The Tamaudun was a collective grave used by the Ryukyuan kings (the royal line of the second Shō dynasty) so there are no individual graves. In a corner of one of the courtyards, there is a stele with a famous inscription carved in the hiragana script. 

ShikinaenOriginal Source: Naha City

ShikinaenーA Ryukyuan Garden with Elements from China and Japan

Two detached residences were built for the use of the Ryukyuan kings and the royal family. The Uchaya-udun (also known as the Touen) to the east of Shurijo Castle, and the Shikinaen (also, the Nanen) to the south. Both residences were destroyed in the Battle for Okinawa, but the Shikinaen has been restored to the way it looked in ancient times. Built in 1799, the Shikinaen is an expression of an original Ryukyuan garden that has adopted elements from the Chinese and Japanese styles of gardens. The building was also used to welcome guests of honor, including banquets organized to receive accredited Chinese envoys.    

Sefa-UtakiOriginal Source: World Cultural Heritage Sefa-utaki

Sefa-UtakiーSacred Place Where National Festivals and Rituals Were Held in the Ryukyu Kingdom  

The most sacred place in the Ryukyu Kingdom, Sefa-Utaki, consists of multiple sacred areas (ibi) surrounded by rugged mountains and forests. Among the priestesses who presided over the rituals in the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom, the Kikoe Okimi was the most prominent. A new Kikoe Okimi was appointed after the Oaraori ceremony. Priestesses left Shuri to visit Sefa-Utaki, and prayed at ibi. The new Kikoe Okimi became official at the end of the ritual in which the gods gave the spiritual power called seji to the new Kikoe Okimi.

Site of Nakagusuku CastleOriginal Source: Nakagusukujo Site World Heritage of Okinawa

Site of Nakagusuku Castle-Even Commodore Perry Admired the Advanced Masonry  

Gosamaru, a heroic figure in the fifteenth century, built Nakagusuku Castle by adding to an old gusuku (castle) on the site. Every aspect of the fine castle is recognized as representative of a gusuku, including the construction of the enclosures, the shape of the castle gates, and the masonry technique. Gosamaru was a close ally of the king at Shurijo Castle, even marrying his daughter to the king, but committed suicide after coming under suspicion of treason. Subsequently, his descendants, the noted Mouji, served the king at Shurijo Castle. A Ryukyuan kumi-odori (dance play) created in the early eighteenth century was themed on Gosamaru and promoted the image of a loyal retainer. 

Site of Katsuren CastleOriginal Source: World Heritage Katsuren-Jô Site

Site of Katsuren CastleーAmawari Dreamt of Being the Ruler of the Ryukyus

In the early fifteenth century, Katsuren Castle was a flourishing and powerful gusuku in the central part of the island of Okinawa. Excavations have found many historic remains from China and Japan and have also confirmed that there were buildings with tiled roofs, which suggests that this was a place where trade was lively. Another name for the castle is Kimutaka, meaning a place that is filled with outstanding spiritual power. This gusuku was controlled by Amawari, a wellknown figure, who moved to gain control over Shurijo Castle and to acquire hegemony over the Ryukyus. However, in 1458, he surrendered after coming under attack from the army of the royal government at Shuri. After his surrender, the gusuku fell to ruin, but the castle walls have been restored and returned to their former appearance.  

Site of Zakimi CastleOriginal Source: Yuntanza Museum

Site of Zakimi Castle—Built by Gosamaru—the Gusuku with the Oldest Arched Gate in Okinawa

Zakimi Castle is a gusuku built by Gosamaru, a heroic figure in the fifteenth century. Gosamaru moved here from his feudal seat at Yamada gusuku and, according to legend, he had the castle walls of the Yamada gusuku dismantled and transported to Zakimi to build the castle here. As a result of excavations, we know that the method of construction is one where the foundation stones are dug into the ground and the castle walls assembled on top of the foundations. Gosamaru used this castle for a short time before moving his base to Nakagusuku. The view from the Zakimi Castle ruins is across the magnificent and beautiful scenery of the East China Sea.

Site of Nakijin CastleOriginal Source: Nakijinjoseki

Site of Nakijin CastleーThe Prosperous Hokuzan Kings 

Nakijin gusuku was the center of the Hokuzan principality, which governed the northern part of the main island of Okinawa. The kings of Hokuzan not only traded with Ming dynasty China, excavations have also revealed that Hokuzan was a link on the Southeast Asia route. At the height of its prosperity, Ming dynasty records mention the names of three kings. However, in 1416, when Hananchi reigned over Hokuzan, the principality was attacked by the military forces of the Chuzan principality and the castle surrendered. According to legend, Hananchi slashed the utaki stone that was the guardian deity of the castle with his sword before using the blade to commit suicide. The Chuzan stationed an administrator (kanshu) for the Hokuzan principality at the castle to strengthen its control of the northern part of Okinawa.

Site of Katsuren CastleOriginal Source: World Heritage Katsuren-Jô Site

Follow the charms of the Ryukyu hero and Gusuku

We will travel from north to south to explore the designated World Heritage sites of Nakijin, Zakimi, Katsuren, and Nakagusuku. Enclosed by ingeniously built castle walls, each gusuku makes the most of its particular hilltop topography. The skillful assembly of the castle walls tells us that masonry techniques were already at a high level in fifteenth-century Okinawa. To build these gusuku, it was essential to have teams of engineers and to have the necessary authority to mobilize large numbers of people. The Hokuzan kings and their powerful chieftains, including Gosamaru and Amawari, had enough influence to accomplish this. We also know that they built up routes for regular contact with other countries based on artefacts produced in China, Japan, and Southeast Asia that have been dug out of the ground at Nakijin, Zakimi, Katsuren, and Nakagusuku. However, it was not long before Shurijo Castle claimed this splendor for itself. 

Follow the charms of the Ryukyu hero and GusukuOriginal Source: https://youtu.be/29b9L04PcFk

Follow the charms of the Ryukyu hero and Gusuku

Nakijin Jo Site
Zakimi Jo Site
Katsuren Jo Site
Nakagusuku Jo Site

ShikinaenOriginal Source: Naha City

The Radiance of the Ryukyu Kingdom

The most prominent gusuku and the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shurijo Castle (Shuri gusuku) is situated on a plateau of Ryukyu limestone. You might think it would have been difficult to secure a supply of water since the castle sits on high ground, but natural spring water is plentiful inside and outside the castle grounds. This water is still used to distil the famous awamori liquor in the castle town of Shuri. A Buddhist (Rinzai School) temple brought from Japan and the man-made Ryutan pond were installed in the environs of the castle. The Tamaudun royal mausoleum is located along the Ayajo Ufumichi, which is the main thoroughfare for accessing Shurijo Castle. There were also two detached residences on the outskirts of the castle grounds, the Shikinaen and the Uchaya-udun, where the king and the royal family could relax. 

Follow the brilliance of the Ryukyu KingdomOriginal Source: https://youtu.be/e0rjyOnxPrQ

The Radiance of the Ryukyu Kingdom

Video of bases of Ryukyu Kingdom
Shuri Jo Site
Tamaudun
Shikinaen

Sefa-UtakiOriginal Source: World Cultural Heritage Sefa-utaki

The World of Prayers in the Ryukyu Kingdom

Shurijo Castle was also a place of worship with many utaki in the castle grounds.  The Sonohyan Utaki Ishimon stone gate outside the castle is where prayers were offered to the gods who descended to the grove of trees behind the gate (today, an elementary school). Sefa-Utaki is on the east side of Shurijo Castle. It is related to the creation myth of Ryukyu. Oaraori was held there as a ritual for the appointment of Kikoe Okimi, the highest in the kingdom. The site continues to attract many visitors from Okinawa and other places who come to pray.

Follow the world of prayer in the Ryukyu KingdomOriginal Source: https://youtu.be/r6etMJyf6mc

The World of Prayers in the Ryukyu Kingdom

A place of prayer from the Ryukyu Kingdom era
Shuri Jo Site
Sonohyan-utaki Ishimon
Sefa-utaki

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