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Chinenjou Castle's origins are hidden mystery

By: David Knickerbocker

Date Posted: 2002-09-28

This weekend, my wife and I hopped in the car and headed down to the bottom of the island to Chinen to visit one of Okinawa's oldest castles. I have heard about Chinenjou in a few of my books, but I could not find much information about the site in neither books nor the Internet. Two books written by the Okinawa Prefectural Board of Education both say that the origin of the castle is unknown but it is known to be ancient, and that's about it. For some reason, this lack of information sparked my interest and I had to visit the castle for myself to see this ancient dwelling place.

I learned by talking to a few of my local Okinawan friends that Chinen is a very religious area of Okinawa. It is said that there are many noro living here. Noro are women who serve as messengers of the gods. They are similar to shamans. Anyone can become a yuta (fortune teller), but the Okinawans believe that noro are selected by the gods. In this way, noro can be compared to prophets. A nearby island called Kudaka is known as the island of the gods, and all women on kudaka must become noro. Though many noro live in Chinen not all of them are from Kudaka. In this case, the role of noro was passed through generations.

Chinen is a very religious community and I have been told that the castle served more of a religious purpose than did some of the larger fortresses of Okinawa. There was once a holy place called Tomori-Utaki located within the castle. It was here that the king and kikoe-ogimi, an authorative female spiritual leader, would pray. Chinenjou once had the form of a renkakushiki (connected castles) and the ruins consist of the remains of two castles called kojo (old castle) and shinjo (new castle). It was mentioned in a famous Okinawan book called Omorososhi, but the book only talks about the old castle, not the new one, and no significant information is given on the origins of the site. Omorososhi was written by Iha Fuyu, known as the father of Okinawn literature, and has become a significant book about the history of old Okinawa.

Though the origins of Chinenjou are shrouded in mystery, I have been told that the castle was built during the gusuku (castle) period before the Sanzan period (a time when three kingdoms ruled Okinawa) when Aji (lords) ruled small areas of the island. Later, Okinawa was united into three separate kingdoms--Nanzan in the south, Chuzan in the middle, and Hokuzan in northern Okinawa.

Chinenjou is regarded as a very famous place to the local Okinawans, as is nearby Sefa Utaki. A few have agreed with me that the place has a unique spiritual atmosphere about it. When we visited Chinenjou, I felt the need to talk quietly and tread lightly. I felt as if I were walking on holy ground. I haven't found information to prove or disprove that notion. The ruins sit on a slope just north of Chinen village. Once you park your car, you'll see a small dirt path leading towards the castle. Before arriving at Chinenjou, you'll have a nice walk in the woods. I found some other old structures nearby, but I'm not sure exactly what there were. It's a mystery. Everything about Chinenjou was mysterious when I visited. Even the trees and fruits appeared to be different than at most other places I've seen. After your walk in the woods, you'll finally approach the castle gate. After exploring the castle grounds, if you continue forward on the path you'll see a sign all in Japanese. This announces that there is a tomb 200 meters away. We never learned who was buried here, but the tomb was located high on a cliff. Though the climb to the top is tiresome and dangerous, the tomb was as worthy of a visit as Chinenjou itself.

If you're looking for a mystery, check out the Chinenjou ruins. The drive is a long, the hike is hard, and the area is protected by swarms of mosquitos, but the castle is unlike anything you'll ever see on Okinawa. The scenery is beautiful and the castle is intriguing. Chinenjou was dedicated a Prefectural Protected Structure on June 7, 1962 and National Historical Monument on May 15, 1972. To get to Chinenjou, go south on rt. 329 on the island's east coast. At Yonabaru turn right on rt. 331 and continue through Sashiki and Chinen. Pass Sefa Utaki and you'll see a sign announcing Chinenjou. Turn right and park in the small parking lot on the right. Good luck on your adventure.

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