Shurijo Castle, a World Heritage Site, where a day starts with the sound of a bronze bell
Shurijo Castle, located 30 minutes away by monorail from Naha Airport, stands on top of a hill overlooking Shuri, the ancient capital of Okinawa. It was the center of the politics, diplomacy and culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom that lasted for around 450 years from the 15th century.
Okinawa, which consists of about 160 islands, located at the southwest tip of Japan, went through a period in the 14th century when three powers of the northern, central and southern parts competed and a unified kingdom, “the Ryukyu Kingdom”, was created in 1429. The Ryukyu Kingdom flourished through commerce with China, Korea, Southeast Asia as well as mainland Japan, which greatly influenced the Kingdom creating a unique culture where diverse cultures blend. Shurijo Castle, the World Heritage Site, is the symbol of this.
Leaving early in the morning is recommended for the tour of Shurijo Castle. After the bronze bell is hit rhythmically at 8:25 am, the door of Hoshinmon Gate that leads to Una (square) in front of Seiden (main hall) of Shurijo Castle is opened with the shout of “Ukejo”. This is a special moment in the morning when the classical music of the Ryukyu Kingdom is played.
After you walk through Hoshinmon Gate, you see a square called “Una”, which is surrounded by buildings on both sides with Seiden (main hall) in the middle. This is where important events were held including a ceremony to welcome “Sapposhi”, a messenger from a Chinese Emperor.
Okushoin, or inner drawing room, where the King rested during the break in his government business, is a Japanese style building with tatami mats. The style of the construction of the castle where Chinese and Japanese styles coexist is also a highlight not to miss.
In “Sasunoma”, which was a waiting room of the prince, the heir of the Kingdom, you can enjoy four types of popular sweets of Okinawa including Chinsuko and Sanpin tea (Jasmin tea) (for a fee).
You also cannot miss the seven gates and the garden of Shurijo Castle. The graceful curved line of the stone walls that lead to the gates shows the sophisticated architectural technology used. The material of the stone walls is Ryukyu lime stone that grew up in coral reef in the ancient time.
“Kyonouchi”, located in the garden, is said to be the birthplace of Shurijo Castle. This is a sacred place where Miko, or the shrine maiden, prayed to wish for the prosperity of the Kingdom and for a good harvest.
“Iri-no-azana (observation deck)” which is built on the west side of the castle. You can get a full view of Naha City and Naha Port and also the Kerama Islands in the distance on a clear day.
Shurijo Castle finishes the day wrapped in beautiful light after sunset (illumination until midnight).
The banquet of fantasy glowing in the moonlight
Shurijo Castle in autumn is full of events where you can experience the culture of Ryukyu. The most important one is the event that recreates “the banquet of Chushu (middle of autumn)”, held on August 15 in the old calendar, which was held to entertain “Sapposhi”, a messenger from a Chinese Emperor. Classic Ryukyu dance by the performers who are Living National Treasures is performed, with the Seiden (main hall) in the background with the moonlight shining on it.
At the Shurijo Castle Festival (October 31 – November 3 in 2015), you can enjoy seeing a reenactment of a picture scroll depicting the time of the Kingdom including “Sappo-Gishiki”, the enthronement of the King of Ryukyu, the procession of a mission from China and an Imperial visit of the King and the Queen.
“Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum”, another World Heritage Site
“Tamaudun Royal Mausoleum”, located in a 5-minute walk from Shurijo Castle, is a grave of the past Ryukyu Kings. It is said to have been built around 1501 by Sho Shin, the third king. There are three compartments in a row made by drilling a natural cliffs that stretch from east to west. The family crest of the Sho family and peony are engraved on the wall of Tamaudun and stone-carved Shisa, or Okinawan lion statues, that protect the grave, are placed on top of towers on the left and right.
Pull the thick rope and bring in happiness and peace
In Okinawa, from the period of the Ryukyu Kingdom, tug-of-wars were held in various places telling the fortune by their result, wishing for good harvest, catch of fish and luck for the next year. “The Great Naha Tug-of-War” started around 1450 and stopped for a while from 1935, but it came back to life again in 1971. It is a famous event in Naha to bring in happiness and peace by pulling a thick rope and wishing for happiness for your family and a prosperous business. It is scheduled to be held from October 10th to 12th in 2015.
With a 200m long (about 7,900 inches) rope weighing around 43 tons (about 95,000 lbs.), 15,000 people pulling the rope, and 270,000 people participating including spectators, the Great Naha Tug-of-War Festival was recognized by the Guinness World Records in 1995 for “the thickest rope made with rice straw in the world”. This record has not been broken yet.
The venue of the tug-of-war is the main street of Naha City, Route 58. The street is designed to be able to remove the curb stones in the center for the tug-of-war. There are announcements in Japanese, English and Chinese to make it easier for tourists to participate.
An exciting experience with shouts and uplifting spirits
“Everyone in my family participated. My daughter was very excited to experience the tug-of-war for the first time. The powerful and energetic shouts of people who wear the same costume uplifted my spirit naturally and I pulled the rope with all my might. It was also nice that you can cut out and take home the rope you pulled as a good luck charm.”
You can learn the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom in multiple languages
If you are interested in the culture and the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom, go to the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. The museum introduced a multilingual audio tour using a smartphone from May 2015. If you download the app at the entrance of an exhibition room and walk closer to any of the 50 permanent exhibitions in the museum, you will see the explanation automatically shown on your smartphone and can listen to the detailed explanation in five languages of Japanese, English, Chinese (Mandarin), Korean and Spanish.
It is located in Omoromachi which has a DFS in the city, the only DFS available in a city in Japan, and many shopping malls, so you can enjoy strolling and shopping in the city on your way home.
Let’s give it a try! Experience the culture unique to Okinawa
Experience Ryuso, the traditional costume of the Ryukyu Kingdom
Ryuso is the traditional costume of the Ryukyu Kingdom. This bright-colored costume that aristocracy wore, dyed with the Bingata method, is easy to put on even if you have never worn it before because you can wear it with just one waist strap.
Dyed goods unique to Okinawa that use real coral and make the most of its pattern. Using dyes of blue, red, yellow and purple as you like, dye an item by patting it. You can make your original stole or T-shirt or bag in about 40 minutes, which makes a great souvenir.
“Is this tea?” “Bukubuku Tea” surprises people who see it for the first time. It is a mix of the liquid extracted by boiling roasted rice, coarse green tea and Sanpin tea (Jasmine tea) whipped up with a hard tea whisk. Crushed peanuts are sprinkled on top of the foam and there are different types of teas such as coarse green tea and Sanpin tea and a bite-sized red rice (rice with red beans in it, served at the time of celebration) under the foam. This was served to entertain a mission from China during the period of the Ryukyu Kingdom and it has been loved by people in Okinawa as the tea for celebration.
The culture of the Ryukyu Kingdom gives a beautiful and strong impression. Let’s go see its beauty, a place known to make you want to visit again and again! The flowers of Okinawa including cherry blossoms that bloom the earliest in Japan are scheduled to be introduced in the February issue in 2016. Stay tuned for this one, too.