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Okinawa’s Royal Tomb, Mystic Groves and Pleasure Garden

Date Posted: 2001-01-19

In the final installment of our series on the historical sites chosen by UNESCO for World Heritage status, this week we focus on two sacred places, a mausoleum and a garden, Ryukyu cultural legacies which now have the recognition of the wider world.

Nine remnants of the Ryukyu Kingdom were chosen for registration as World Heritage Sites. These historical locations all have their roots in the unification of the Ryukyu Kingdom in the latter half of the 14th century and they were important centers of community activity through to the end of the kingdom in the late 18th century. They represent the unique and distinctive culture of the Ryukyu Islands. The criteria used by UNESCO for their selection was that while relatively unknown to the world, they exist as important cultural legacies from a prosperous trading kingdom of ancient Asia.

The nine places all fall under the classification, Gusuku, which in its narrowest sense means “castle”. It comes from the written the Chinese character for castle. Five of the Heritage Sites are actual castles. But the four others can also be called Gusuku, because in Okinawa this term is used to designate
not only fortresses but also tombs, sacred places for prayer, and early village communities.The first of these other sites is the Tamaudun, built in 1501, which was the royal mausoleum of the second Sho Dynasty. The front courtyard is made of filled coral. It was where the bones of the royal family were placed in the three gabled tombs in the inner court.The other site, the Shikina-en Garden, was used to entertain Chinese investiture envoys. The most beautiful garden created in the Ryukyu Kingdom, it boasts an artificial pond in the shape of the character for Kokoro (Heart or Mind). It also housed the largest country villa of the royal family, built in the late 18th Century.Utaki – Sacred Places on the IslandThe utaki or sacred groves of the Ryukyus are spiritual spaces and the two utaki accepted as World Heritage sites, Sefa-utaki and Sonohyan-utaki are deeply related to beliefs in traditional Okinawan nature worship.The Sefa-utaki is considered the most sacred of places and from it Kudaka Island, thought to be the island of the gods, is visible.It is believed to be one of the seven original utaki created by the founding goddess of Ryukyu.The second, Sonohyan-utaki, was where the
king would pray for a safe journey when he would depart Shuri castle. The gate to the grove is constructed of stone except for the doors, which are of wood. Prayers were offered here for important ceremonies of the kingdom.Rebuilt after the destruction of WWII, they continue to be places of worship in the daily lives of the island's people.It is hoped that by receiving World Heritage Site status these legacies from the Ryukyu Kingdom will contribute to world culture through their spirituality and beauty.

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