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Centuries old Shuri Castle dominates Okinawa History

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2006-08-25

The classic red tiles of Okinawa‚s Shuri Castle are indelibly a part of the island nation‚s history. Shuri Castle, first built in the late 13th or early 14th century, is the best known of Okinawa‚s cultural images.

The Shuri Castle is thought to have been constructed at the behest of Satto, King of Chuzan and Urasoe Castle. Things get muddled until documented history picks up in 1429, when Sho-hashi brought Okinawa together under his rule and established his capital, with Shuri as his headquarters.

The castle was the center of Okinawa power, religion and culture for some 450 years as the Sho Dynasty ultimately was transformed into the Ryukyu Kingdom. Still later, the Japanese government forced King Sho Tai, the last Sho king, to surrender in 1879. The Meiji Government of Japan ended Okinawa‚s independent rule and made it a Japanese prefecture.

The early 20th century saw efforts to destroy the castle, but strong figures within the Japanese government argued for keeping it. Those men won, and in 1925 Shuri Castle was designated a national treasure, and restoration work performed.

World War II saw Shuri Cstle pummeled and reduced to mortar and ash as American forces sought to dislodge Japanese 32nd Army soldiers who‚d build a 1,000 meters long tunnel beneath the castle. The tunnel still exists today, although officials say there are no plans to restore it. Fire destroyed the original buildings, and the replicas of the original castle grounds and buildings have been painstakingly rebuilt. The castle‚s main gates and walls have also been restored.

After the Battle for Okinawa, the site became Ryukyu University until the mid-1980‚s. After the educational stint, the castle was restored to its original majesty and glory in 1992, 20 years after Okinawa reverted to Japanese government control.

Take Your Time

To appreciate the sights and culture of Shuri Castle, you must allow yourself time. Plan on a minimum of 2-3 hours at the Castle, where you‚ll be able to leisurely absorb the many Okinawa customs and culture as you make your way through the castle grounds and its principal buildings.

Cameras are recommended, but for those who don‚t want to be bothered, there is a souvenir store at the end of the castle tour. The shop sells everything from post cards to photographs, and lots more memorabilia available.

Four gates and three buildings are your Shuri Castle visit focus. Kankaimon Gate is the main castle entrance, where historically, only the king, his court and special guests passed. Two other gates, Kyukeimon and Kobikimon, were used by the castle court staff, and for allowing construction materials onto the castle grounds.

The colorful Houshinmon Gate opens to the inner courtyard, in front of Seiden, the castle‚s main hall. Nanden Hall provides a snapshot into Ryukyu history, featuring laquerware and paintings produced across the kingdom‚s centuries.

Hokuden Hall served a variety of purposes through the years. Decorated in traditional Japanese style, it was used as a reception area for Chinese dignitaries. It also served as an assembly building and as home to the Kingdom‚s legal community.

The heart of the castle, though, is Seiden, one of the most spectacular buildings ever constructed on Okinawa. Enjoy the dragons and count the pillars; 101 on the first floor and another 92 on the second level, and still another 60 on the third floor.

Seiden is the central state hall, used by the King. It is unique because of its combined Japanese, Okinawan and Chinese styles, all skillfully integrated into its wood construction. The reconstruction centers on court records of how the building stood in 1712, using imported Taiwan Cypress.

Entry Fees

Admission charges are nominal: Adults Y800, Y600 for high school and college students, and Y300 for elementary and junior high school students. Shuri Castle is free for children under age six.

Getting There

From the military bases, go south on Highway 58. Turn left at Tomari Takahashi intersection (approaching downtown) and continue for approximately ten minutes. The route is clearly marked with Shuri Castle Park signs in English. Follow additional signs to the underground car park.

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