A Day Trip at Shuri Castle
Whether it was the awamori spirits you drank or sanshin music you danced to yesterday, last night you had a the strangest dream of your life. You dreamt that you were a Ryukyuan in the 13th century. In of itself odd as indeed you are a 21st century tourist. But past odd, in the dream you were a type of priestess with supernatural powers called a Noro. Then to top off all this with a final bit more surrealism, you, the priestess in the dream, were composing a Ryuuka or Ryukyu style poem, on a starry summer night under a stark Banyan tree, on a first generation iPad.
“I've made offerings to utaki
Prayed for my lord’s health and success
Night is here and so is the moon
Time to rest till morning”
Now you finish the sata andagi you bought from a convenience store and board an early monorail train at Asahibashi Station which is two stations north of Akamine Station, the southernmost of Japan’s over 9,000 commuter rail stations. The train runs along the Yui Line, operated by the Okinawa City Monorail Corporation, and you take it up out of the city into the surrounding hills, to the terminal station at Shuri.
Out of Shuri Station you make your way west with other tourists, eager to explore Shuri-jo, along the north side of the ancient fortress grounds through Shuri Castle Park. You climb a set of limestone stairs up and through a gate in the fortress wall and enter the castle complex. The commanding view of the land and sea below makes it obvious why the location was the perfect site for the Middle Kingdom’s royal redoubt.
Shuri-jo was built during an ancient arms race, called the Sanzen period, between the three tiny kingdoms that made the little dollop of terra firma straddling the South China and Philippine Seas, on the edge of a 7000 plus meter deep ocean floor trough, home. The fortress was built in a style unique to the island known as Gusuku, incorporating Chinese design with local characteristics and materials. These Gusuku were built across the island between the end of the 12th century and the beginning of the 14th, in response to both internal island conflict and threats from across the seas. A number of them are World Heritage Sites today.
Hokuzen and Nanzan or northern and southern kingdoms respectively, were conquered by the leader of Chuzan or middle kingdom, Shou Hashi, the unifier of Okinawa, who founded the Ryukyu Kingdom in 1429. The kingdom would flourish in a duel vassal state position, toeing the line between the contentious relations between China and Japan, until the beginning of the 17th century when the Tokugawa Shogunate came to power in Japan. The Tokugawa bakufu took more direct control over the island monarchy, even imprisoning its king for a time in Edo, which marked the beginning of the end of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Shuri-jo had been badly damaged and diminished by the first half of the twentieth century and was completely destroyed during WWII by the savage fighting on Okinawa during the early summer of 1945. Used by the Japanese Imperial Army as their headquarters, in May of 1945 it was shelled by the American battleship the USS Mississippi for three days, and what remained of Shuri-jo was lost to history. The University of the Ryukyus was established on the site after the war and shortly after that the rebuilding of Shurimon began in 1958. Since then, with painstaking care and efforts, the historical treasure is being rebuilt for posterity.
You find the Houshinmon gate where tickets are sold and purchase one that allows access into the inner sanctuary of the complex. Inside you first admire the courtyard where elaborate ceremonies and coronations took place, striped red and white it’s like no other. The three main halls ring the Una, as the courtyard is known, the Hokuden which was used for Ryukyu state administrative purposes and received Chinese envoys, the Nanden where VIPs from the Statsuma Clan were entertained, and the Seiden, facing east toward China, where the king ruled. Dragons abound, exquisite reproductions are carved in both stone and wood.
The king’s throne is one of the highlights inside Seiden’s highly polished interior, and you enjoy the next couple of hours wandering the main hall and the rest of the complex’s buildings, exhibits and its souvenir store. Then you head out from the east end of the park’s grounds to get a look at Shurimon (gate), and then head back along the gate road below Shuri-jo, past Enka pond and the Benzaitendo shrine next to it, which houses important Buddhist scriptures, gifts from a long dead Korean king.
You continue downhill on your way to Route 29 which will loop you back to Shuri Station, when on your right you come across a hidden gem of a restaurant, serendipitously, just as you are realizing that you are famished. The unassuming sign of Ryukyu Sabo Ashibiuna is poking out at the end of a limestone, orange tile topped, moss covered wall on your right. The quaint garden wall was the only part of the residence, built on land once owned by the Ryuku King, to survive WWII. Nestled behind it, with its garden oasis, is the perfect place to have a peaceful rest and a great late lunch.
After doing just that, opting for a delicious bowl of Okinawan soba, you make your way back to Shuri Station, then catch a train back to Naha City. Along the way the view from the raised tracks offers you placid vistas of Naha’s whitewashed urban sprawl, its plethora of rooftop gardens and flower covered verandas bathed in the slanting rays of afternoon sun.