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Cherry blossoms bloom in ancient castle ruins

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-01-21

The cherry blossoms are in full bloom in northern Okinawa, and one of the more colorful festivals celebrating the season is at the Nakijin Castle ruins near Motobu.

The setting for the Nakijin Castle Cherry Blossom Festival is the ruins of the 14th century castle once fortress home to the Lords of Nakijin what was then the Hokuzan principality of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The festival opens Friday at 6 p.m. with traditional ceremonies, Okinawa traditional dance and Eisa, and runs through Sunday, February 7th.

Nakijin Castle Ruins are a historic part of Okinawa, and are listed as a UNESCOís World Heritage Site. Visitors to the ruins and the festival will find themselves absorbed in the breathtaking views of the cliffs and the mountains, and the view overlooking the China Sea. The road leading to the castle site is beautiful, and sets the stage for the paths paved with stone stairs leading to the top of the mountain. The beautiful cherry blossoms are in bloom along both sides of the romantic pathway.

Formal festival activities continue on Saturday, January 30th, with traditional dance, live music and Eisa starting at 3 p.m. A second performance begins at 5 p.m. A single performance begins at 3 p.m. on Sunday the 31st. Similar performances take place on the closing weekend, February 6th and 7th, with traditional Okinawan music, Eisa and live music. Throughout the festival, which is free, there are opportunities for visitors to have their pictures taken wearing Okinawan traditional costumes, and enjoy free samples of cherry tea.

Entry to the Nakijin Castle Ruins themselves costs •400 for adults and •300 for youngsters 6~18. Groups of 10 or more may enter for •320 for adults and •240 for youth. Itís well worth the price to see the Nakijin Castle, which took more than a century to build at the start of the Ryukyu Dynasty. Both inner and outer walls, which stretch more than 1.5 kilometers, are constructed of limestone. The castleís grandeur is created by its size, large by standards of the time, and by the staggered levels. Within the castle were a series of buildings that housed the king, his family, his army and warehouses. Each area is built at a different elevation, with protection by additional inner walls. The Kingís quarters were at the highest level, with even more inner walls and gates.

Nakijin Castleís main gates were at the castleís northern and southern ends of the 14+ acres castle grounds. Three shrines, uganju, were located at the highest point, near the kingís residence. The view from the castle ruins is spectacular, looking down from the main Motobu mountain to the east, dropping into a gorge with a stream at the bottom. Steep drops to the north and northeast led to the shoreline and a small harbor about six kilometers from the Unten Harbor, the Hokuzan Kingdomís main port.

Hokuzan Kingdom was one of three in the Ryukyuís of the late 14th century, with Nanzan in the south and Chuzan in the central region of the island. Hokuzanís Nakijin Castle was a very sacred place, with several prayer sites located within the castle walls. Nakijin became a powerhouse in Ryukyu politics, capitalizing on young and inexperienced kings in other regions. The Lord of Nakijin Castle declared himself King of northern Okinawa.

While Chuzan was the leader in international trade with China during the era, Hokuzan amassed more artifacts. Archeologists have found evidence of Chinese and Vietnamese culture, as well as other southeast Asia regions, supporting the notion Hokuzan was a trading leader, particularly in the spices business. Hokuzan ultimately fell to the military power of Chuzanís rulers, who used the northern Okinawa location as an outpost to headquarters in the Shuri area. The castle was finally abandoned in 1609 as Tokugawa Shogunate and the Satsuma Clan took control of Okinawa.

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