Medieval Okinawa – When the Ryukyu Kings Ruled Urasoe-jō
Visitors to Okinawa seek out the ancient castle ruins of the island that tell the stories of the Kings of the Ryukyu era. The most famous one surely is the majestic Castle Park of Shuri. But before the political base was built there, it resided in Urasoe, on a hill that would later on become known to American soldiers as Hacksaw Ridge during World War II.
Today, when visiting the castle sight, the northern walls of the kingly tombs are re-constructed and remodeled after the dark and massive stones that were used in the time back then. You begin to wonder how it must have been, living on the highest hill in the area, overlooking the valley below.
It was a great strategic place to build your seat of power and even served as a defensive position to the Japanese military in 1945 against the American solders that swept over the island to go south. 600 years prior to World War II, Urasoe jō (Urasoe castle, in Okinawan: Urashii Gusiku) was built as the largest castle on island in its time. It was a strong beacon for Chuzan, the central part of Okinawa main island.
Before Okinawa was united in the 15th century as the Ryukyu kingdom, it was divided into three kingdoms called Hokuzan (northern Okinawa), Chuzan (central Okinawa) and Nanzan (southern Okinawa) which all had castles and rulers. Urasoe jō sits roughly 140 meter above sea level and served as the royal castle for King Eiso of Chuzan (1260–1299), member of the Tenson Family and the first Ryukyu monarch of the Eiso line, who also built the castle. After his death he was entombed on the northern side of the castle where a little mausoleum called Urasoe Youdore stands even to this day.
In the 14th century the castle was expanded and eventually big parts of the massive stone walls were taken to construct to Shuri-jō when the seat of the rulers was moved there in the 16th century. During that time Shō Iko, the son of King Shō Shin (who had a long reign in the great days of Chuzan) remained in Urasoe and managed to rebuild a lot of the ruins that had been left behind.
Urasoe-jō was eventually burned and destroyed in the 17th century during the Satsuma’s invasion of Okinawa. Shimazu Iehisa, a member of the Shimazu Clan of the Satsuma Province (nowadays Kagoshima) marched into Ryukyu and fought a three month war, finally capturing Shuri and overpowering the ruling king Shō Nei, whose allegiance was then forced to the Satsuma Domain.
Urasoe-jō was devastated as well and ruler Shō Nei was put in another tomb next to Eiso at Urasoe Youdore after his passing. The tomb site was the last element of the castle to be ruined during World War II. After 1945, it was rebuilt by the Okinawan government to enclose the tombs of the two kings once again.
When visiting the castle park, the restored Youdore is a great little sight to explore. The visitor can follow up the trail to see the Urasoe-jō’s walls and remains and enjoy the great view over Nishihara, Urasoe and Ginowan. The Hacksaw Ridge site is being restored by the Okinawan government as well for visitors to see. The castle park reminds us that the history of Ryukyu is not limited to Shuri-jo. It is being remembered everywhere on this beautiful island. One wonders how the times of the kings really were and how the struggle of power with each other and the mainland kingdoms affected life on this tropical island. Urasoe-jō is a place that sets you back in time to re-live a little bit of medieval Okinawa.