Journal
Shurijo Castle

The radiant Shuri Castle

31 October 2019 Update. It is a sad sad day as I see helicopters capturing the video footage of the Shuri Castle in flames. A massive fire broke out and burned down the Seiden, the main hall, and also the Hokuden and Nanden. The fire alarm went off around 2:30 am and by afternoon, the fire had completely gutted six of the castle’s heritage buildings. I feel a heavy burden in my heart as one of my memorable moments vanished up in smoke.

This is my story of when I visited the castle in 2016.


Shuri Castle is a Ryukyuan gusuku castle in Shuri district of Okinawa Prefecture in Japan. It served as the center of politics, foreign affairs, and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom from the 14th century until Okinawa became a Japanese prefecture in 1879. The World Heritage Site with its brilliant colors and stylish Ryukyu architecture is strikingly different from any castle I have witnessed in all of Japan.

My day began in Nara among sunny blue skies. It was quite warm but the strong breeze made it better. I and my wife, Ranita, took the limousine bus to Osaka Airport to catch the flight to the Ryuku kingdom on the southernmost island of Japan.

Peach Airlines is one of the cheapest ways to reach Okinawa from Osaka. I wouldn’t recommend it if you are a large figure. The spacing on the aircraft was quite constrained. Thankfully the discomfort only lasted for a wee bit under 2 hours.

We landed in Okinawa to wonderful but hot weather. The airport building is directly connected to the Okinawa Urban Monorail, also known as Yui Rail, which takes you into the city. The monorail line serves as a useful commute in the cities of Naha and Urasoe in Okinawa.

Fact: Since Okinawa is the southernmost island of Japan, Akamine Station and Naha Airport Station, are the southernmost and westernmost active rail stations in Japan.

It was only later while writing the journal that I realized, that at that moment I had inadvertently traveled to the southernmost train station in Japan. For the record, I have already been to the northernmost station in Japan.

We waited for some time before the train arrived to takes us to Asahibashi Station, where, just a few blocks away, we had booked our stay at the Naha Beachside Hotel. As we walked to the station, I have to admit that Naha is unlike any Japanese city. Not only are the homes designed differently, but the trees and shrubs are also more like the ones found in my home city of Kolkata.

We still had some time before we could check-in at the Hotel. So, we dropped our bags at the hotel reception and walked back to Asahibashi Station. The Sun was extremely strong, reminding us of the weather we generally have back in Bangalore.

The trains are at 8-minute intervals and it takes about 17 minutes to get to Shuri Station from Asahibashi. The trains were made up of two cars, with a total capacity of around 150 people. After getting down at Shuri Station, we turned on our phone navigation and walked towards the castle grounds.

Within the Shuri-jo Castle Park, there are numerous historical buildings and sites that have been passed down from the bygone era, some as far back as the dynasty period. Before we went to the castle grounds, we decided to explore a few other structures surrounding the park. Usually, one gains access to the castle’s grounds via the above-mentioned Shureimon and passes the stone gate, Sonohyan-utaki, before entering the actual fortification walls at the Kankai-mon.

Benzaitendo

The first building we landed at was the Benzaitendo, sitting idly in the middle of a manmade pond called the Enkanchi. A masonry bridge, called Tennyo bashi, connects the edge of the pond to the Benzaitendo. The stone railings of the bridge are engraved with designs of lotuses.

The pond was initially constructed in 1502, to hold the spring water and rainwater that flowed from the top of Shuri Castle. Water that overflows from the pond collects at Ryutan, a pond located adjacent to it.

The tiny building in the middle, with faded, red roof tiles, enshrines the goddess Benzaiten, a deity that watches over people on voyages at sea. In the mid-15th century, during the reign of King Sho Toku, precious Buddhist scriptures were presented from the 7th king Riju of the Korean Dynasty. This structure was built to house the Hosatuzokyo Buddhist scriptures.

The building was destroyed in 1609 during an invasion by Satsuma. When it was later restored in 1629 an image of Benzaiten was enshrined here. Even though that statue was ruined a couple of times in it was always restored. The last time it was destroyed was during the Battle of Okinawa but again restored in 1968.

After exploring and capturing some the shots of the pond, we moved on towards the back of the castle.

Shuri Castle Grounds

Built inside a sprawling complex, Shuri Castle – or Shurijo Castle Park — includes layers of inner and outer walls constructed in different eras. The outer wall dates back to the 15th century and the inside wall dates back to the mid-16th century. Surrounded by these winding stone walls, Shuri-jo is neither an imposing citadel like the Matsumoto Castle nor a fortress-like the Matsue Castle. It was a castle designed to welcome people.

As I mentioned before, Shuri-jo is a Ryukyuan gusuku castle. The “Gusuku” were walled compounds, which over the 12th to 16th centuries evolved into forts and castles of local chieftains. They were both political and religious centers.

Some are still used for traditional religious rituals such as nature worship.. However, the origin and essence of gusuku remains under debate. In the archaeology of Okinawa Prefecture, the Gusuku period refers to an archaeological epoch of the Okinawa Islands that follows the shell-mound period and precedes the Sanzan period.

Most parts of the castle can be visited free of charge. 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.

Kyukei-mon Gate

We entered the castle grounds from the Kyukeimon Gate at the back. Its foundation was laid sometime in 1477 and it was completed in 1526. Kyukei-mon is also known as Hokori Ujo. While the Kankai-mon was the main gate, Kyukei-mon functioned as a service gate where mainly women passed through. The gate was also used on certain occasions by the King when he visited the temple to offer his prayers or during times he visited Urasoe district in the north

From the Kyukei-mon Gate a cobbled path leads to the Kankai-mon gate. From there a curving path leads to the Zuisen-mon gate.

Zuisen-mon

Two Shishi lions in stone sit on either side of the Zuisen Mon gate. Shishi lions traditionally stand guard outside the gates of Japanese Shinto shrines and Buddhist temples. They are always depicted in pairs, one with mouth open and one with mouth shut. “Zuisen” means “great, auspicious fountain,” and the gate was named after the fountain called “Ryuhi (dragon head water conduit)” in front of the gate.

A few paces up the path leads you to the Houshin-mon Gate.

Houshin-mon Gate

Hoshin-mon Gate means “a gate to respect the gods” This is the last gate on the path that leads to the Una forecourt at Shuri-jo. Beyond the Houshin-mon Gate you will find yourself in front of the Una Forecourt with the beautiful Seiden Hall at the end.

The date of construction of the castle is uncertain, but it was clearly in use as a castle during the Sanzan period (1322–1429). It is believed that it was probably built during the Gusuku period, like most other castles of Okinawa. When King Shō Hashi unified the three principalities of Okinawa and established the Ryukyu Kingdom, he used Shuri as a residence. At the same time, Shuri flourished as the capital and continued to do so during the Second Shō Dynasty.

The characteristics of Ryukyuan architecture at Shuri-jo lies in the unique features of Ryukyuan designs arranged with the influences of both the architectural styles of Japan and China. The Seiden is the Honden or the main hall of Shurijo Castle and, unlike Japanese castles with Tenshukaku or castle towers, it shows architectural styles of Chinese imperial structures and strong influences of Japanese architectural features of shrines and temples.

A three-story structure with wide stone steps at the front, and the dragon pillars of Dairyuchu and Shoryuchu which are carved out as columns. At the center of the Seiden’s roof is a design known as Karahafu.

The karahafu is perhaps the most instantly recognizable Japanese architectural feature, yet it’s origins are not well established in Western literature. Folk etymology suggests that the style was imported from China sometime during the Nara or Heian period.

Seiden Hall of Shuri Castle

For 450 years from 1429, it was the royal court and administrative center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It was the focal point of foreign trade, as well as the political, economic, and cultural heart of the Ryukyu Islands. According to records, the castle burned down several times, and rebuilt each time.

The 15th century was the kingdom’s golden age but after that, it experienced one hardship after another. During the reign of Shō Nei, samurai forces from the Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma seized Shuri in May 1609. The Japanese withdrew soon afterwards, returning Shō Nei to his throne two years later, and the castle and city to the Ryukyuans, though the kingdom was now a vassal state under Satsuma’s suzerainty and would remain so for roughly 250 years.

After taking a breather we walked in to explore the interiors of the castle. In order to enter the Seiden, one enters the buildings on the right hand side of the Una at the one-storied Bandokoro, which houses, just like the connected, two-storied Nanden, a museum documenting the eventful history of the castle and royal dynasties of Okinawa.

It’s unclear when exactly Shuri Castle’s construction took place. Historians place it sometime in the Sanzan Period (1322–1429), which overlapped with the Gusuku Period (1187–1429) when fortresses (gusuku) became commonly found across the region.

The castle has three separate areas: the living quarters, the central administration area, and ceremonial areas. The living quarters were occupied by the Ryukyu Kingdom’s ruling family from 1429 to 1879.

In 1879, the kingdom was annexed by the Empire of Japan and the last king, Shō Tai, was compelled to move to Tokyo, and in 1884, he was “elevated” to the rank of marquess in the Japanese aristocracy. The kingdom was turned into Okinawa Prefecture, and its 500 years of history came to an end. Subsequently, the castle was used as a barracks by the Imperial Japanese Army. The Japanese garrison withdrew in 1896, but not before having created a series of tunnels and caverns below it.

In 1908, Shuri City bought the castle from the Japanese government, however, it did not have funding to renovate it. In 1923, thanks to Japanese architect Ito Chuta, Seiden survived demolition after being re-designated a prefectural Shinto shrine known as Okinawa Shrine. In 1925, it was designated as a national treasure.

The Hokuden also houses two miniatures of the palace’s buildings set for special ceremonies. The seating arrangement will surely remind you of scenes from mythological movies depicting the Forbidden City in Beijing.

The throne in the Karahafu area of Shuri Castle. The first floor of the Seiden was referred to as Shichagui, and this was where the King himself mainly led the ceremonies. The lavish area at the center was called the Usasuka, the royal throne where the King presided for various ceremonies. Through the sliding Shoji screens behind the Usasuka is the Ochokui, a set of stairs used exclusively by the King, and it was from these stairs that the King arrived to the Usasuka from the second floor.

The dragon is a vast imaginary beast that originally symbolized the Chinese emperor. The Ryukyuan king made extensive use of dragon images in imitation of the emperor.

The second floor of the Seiden is called the Ufugui and at the center is where the King’s throne was placed, on a platform similar to that of Shumidan Buddhist altars. Above the throne were a number of framed writings sent by Chinese emperors that read, Chuzan Seido – Ryukyu is to be ruled by the King of Chuzan; Shuzui Kyuyo – Ryukyu is where auspicious markings gather, and Eiso Eizen – rule the Kingdom of Ryukyu found across the seas with eternal happiness. These writings were framed after coated with lacquer in Ryukyu, and displayed in the palace.

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.

There are a total of 33 dragon ornaments inside and outside of the Seiden, including the pair of large dragon pillars standing at both sides of the main entrance.

Remnants of Shuri Castle State Hall

Here we have the The Royal Crown is also called HIBENKAN or TAMANCHAABUI. Along with a formal costume gifted by the Chinese emperor, it was a formal wear for the king at such nationally significant events as Sappo (enthronement of the king) and the New Year’s celebration.

Black silk crepe was attached to the crown’s surface, and 12 of tape shaped golden threads were sewn on it. 7 kinds of 24 beads – a total of 288 beads – including gold, silver, coral, and crystal were tacked on each golden thread. A dragon, the symbol of the king, was engraved in the golden ornamental hairpin.

Ranita enjoying the Sanpin Cha

Ryukyuan elements also dominate. Like other gusuku, the castle was built using Ryukyuan limestone, being surrounded by an outer shell which was built during the Second Shō Dynasty from the second half of the 15th century to the first half of the 16th century. Similarly, Okushoin-en is the only surviving garden in a gusuku in the Ryukyu Islands, which made use of the limestone bedrock and arranged using local cycads.

The large dragon pillars erected on both sides of the stone steps at the center of the Seiden are called Dairyuchu, and these were first created in 1508. Later, they were remade several times as the Seiden saw reconstruction works after fires. The present Dairyuchu were made after 1712, and their shape and size were referenced from damaged remains of the present pillars that managed to survive the ravages of war, and also from records that documented repairs of the Seiden in 1758.

Unlike Japanese castles, Shuri Castle was greatly influenced by Chinese architecture, with functional and decorative elements similar to that seen primarily in the Forbidden City. The gates and various buildings were painted in red with lacquer, walls and eaves colorfully decorated, and roof tiles made of Goryeo and later red Ryukyuan tiles, and the decoration of each part heavily using the king’s dragon.

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.

Shuri Castle Outer Walls

Tennyo Bashi at night

Asahibashi Station area

Naha Beachside Hotel

Shuri Castle’s history is enmeshed in the imperialist history between the island of Okinawa and Japan, which annexed the Ryukyu Islands into its feudal domain in 1879. Before then, Shuri had been the capital of Okinawa. Now, the city is part of Naha, the new capital of Japan’s Okinawa prefecture.

Thanks for reading!

Open Timings:

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)

Admission fees:

Adults: 800 Yen

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