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Nakijin Castle, Magnificent, Gigantic Ancient Center of Power

Date Posted: 2001-01-12

In the outer reaches of Motobu Peninsula, the remaining walls of Nakijin Gusuku (Castle) stand like stone ghosts amidst the surrounding wild mountains. After having survived the ravages of war, countless typhoons, and the aging process of time, this once magnificent fortress has become a symbol of Okinawa's ancient past. Excavation of the castle has helped historians and archeologists piece together many previously unknown aspects about Okinawa's history.Archeologists estimate that construction on Nakijin Castle began at the end of the 13th century - over a hundred years before the beginning of the Ryukyu Dynasty. Chunks of limestone were used to form both inner and outer walls, which extended for over 1.5 kilometers. The castle's interior once supported several buildings used to house the King, his family, vassals, a small army, and supplies. Many horse bones were unearthed at one section of the castle, indicating that stables also might have existed.Each separate area was located at different levels of elevation, and was protected by many inner walls. The King's quarters rested on the highest level of elevation with guarded inner gates. Main gates were located at the castle's northern and southern end. Although the castle shows no signs of the sophisticated stone-cutting work found at other castle sites on Okinawa, its exquisitely curved walls demonstrate a high level of architectural design. One of Nakijin Gusuku's most striking features was its enormous size. The castle's total land area covered approximately 14 acres, making it the largest gusuku to have existed during its time. Today, a long walkway of steps leads you from the northern gate up to the castle's main courtyard. Cherry blossom trees, which were planted more recently, line the ancient stone path and form a beautiful corridor of floating pink petals every January and February.Nakijin Castle was also known as a very sacred place; several different prayer sites existed within its walls. Priestesses called Noro were given high-ranking status, and evidence points to their living quarters having been located at very distinguished areas on the castle grounds.
The Kings who were to command Nakijin Castle gained an extra advantage from its naturally fortified location. A sharp cliff that drops to the Shigema River on its eastern side made it almost impossible to wage an attack from that direction. Most enemies approaching from the south were deterred by mountains of thick forest, while the castle's high bluff offered a commanding view of the sea to the north and northwest.In the decades following initial construction, Nakijin's power in the northern region of Okinawa grew quickly. As troubles within the central government greatly weakened the throne of the young and inexperienced King Tamagusuku at the beginning of the 14th century, Nakijin became one of two breakaway provinces. The Lord of Nakijin Castle declared himself King of northern Okinawa, which became known as the Kingdom of Hokuzan. With Okinawa Island divided into three separate kingdoms, Nakijin Castle began its era of greatness as the center of power for the region that presently exists from Onna-son to Hedo Misaki. This vast territory encompassed a land area that was greater in size than both the newly formed kingdom in the south called Nanzan and Tamagusuku's Kingdom of Chuzan put together. No other castle site on Okinawa has produced more artifacts from this period in Okinawan history than Nakijin. (Many items collected by the Kingdoms of Chuzan and Nanzan were either destroyed or looted during the Battle of Okinawa.) Elegant pieces of Chinese pottery dating back to the end of the thirteenth century, along with metal arrow heads and swords, are some of the significant finds at Nakijin Castle. A devastating blow to Nakijin's command came in 1415 with a conflict between the King, Han-anji and the Chuzan King Hashi, who had moved his base to Shuri. When three Nakijin chieftains defected, pledging their allegiance to Chuzan, Hashi had the strength he needed to seize the north. With a huge army, Hashi attacked Nakijin in 1416. At first Nakijin Castle's strong walls and natural barriers helped Han-anji to fend off the attack, but the much larger army of Hashi eventually became too overpowering. Inside Nakijin's walls, Han-anji, feeling betrayed by the gods, angrily chopped into a stone prayer site with his sword. The King and his loyal retainers then committed suicide. After having lasted for about a century, the Kingdom of Hokuzan was finished.Hashi sent his younger brother to take control of the newly seized northern territory, and for the next two hundred years Nakijin Castle survived as an outpost for government officials from Shuri to advance the policies set forth by the Ryukyu Kingdom. In 1665, the last regent was ordered back to Shuri by the Satsuma Clan, who had attacked the Ryukyu Islands in 1609 under the order of the Tokugawa Shogun. With its stone walled enclosure empty, centuries of history for Nakijin Castle came to a final end.Tourists have now replaced the kings, vassals, and priestesses that once roamed the gardens of Nakijin Gusuku. The stone walls remain quiet, but they still can defend their claim as one of Okinawa's most impressive historical remains.

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