Okinawa didn’t become a part of Japan until the year 1879. When this group hundreds of islands was known as the Ryukyu kingdom, they established a lot of trades and connections with both China and Japan. As a result, you can see traces of Chinese and Japanese cultures from most of the Okinawa buildings.
The best example of the foreign influenced structures is the Shuri castle. Listed as one of the top-100 Japanese castles, a Japanese national treasure, as well as an UNESCO World Heritage Site since the year 2000, it stands out from the rest of the castles in Japan with its bright red colour and its mere-2-floors high design. This palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom will remind you how multi-cultural and diverse the history of Okinawa is.
The original construction date is unknown, and the castle has been destroyed and rebuilt several times throughout history. The castle is in the center of the Shuri castle park in Shuri-city, about 5km (roughly 20mins drive or an hour walk) from Naha, Okinawa’s capital city.
Walk through any of the castle’s gates around the park and the Chinese influence is already very visible. The redness; the four-Kanji plate displayed high on the gate; the 3-doors design with the center door reserved for the emperor and important guests only. The gates served the purpose of pleasing the foreign ambassadors.
Unlike most Japanese castles designed with symmetry and straight lines, the cobblestone-walls of the castle were built to the shape of the hill, forming an irregular and random shape around the castle rather than square of rectangle. For this reason, the castle probably wasn’t built with protection and battle tactics in mind. The main structures are built with wood and mostly painted red, except for the Northern and Southern houses which remained their wooden colours in respect to the Japanese building traditions. The “wave” gables are also inspired by the Karahafu of Japanese structural designs.
On the other hand, the colour red and the dragons came from Chinese traditionals to represent the king. In fact, a dragon with 5 claws was a symbol of the Chinese emperor, so all the dragons here in Shuri-castle only had 4 claws out of respect.
The palace’s yard has the design that intrigued me the most. Instead of straight lines, the floor is tilted at an angle so the officers would be sitting slightly unsymmetrically as the emperor gave his speech.
The interior of the castle felt surprisingly narrow and tight, but the structure itself is very beautifully designed. The natural sunlight coming through the patterned windows combined with the dim lighting create a very mysterious yet elegant atmosphere. At the center of the castle’s main building, the emperor’s seat sits slightly elevated in a small room, displaying a sense of superiority that is approachable. Personally, I really appreciated how the inside of the castle had minimal exhibitions on display and all historical information are gathered in the two side houses instead. This way, rather than a museum, the castle remains its original atmosphere as a castle.
While Okinawa is famous for its beautiful coastline, magnificent beaches and clear water, Shuri castle is definitely worth a visit up the hills. Its design, its history and its existence itself are all one of a kind. You will come out understanding a whole lot more about Okinawa as a part of Japan and its time when it was a country, and it is a must-go for those interested in Japanese history or Japanese castles.