Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, Shuri Castle ( 首里城) Shurijo was the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom between the years 1429 to 1879 in Southern Japan. Shureimon (守禮門) is the main gateway to the Shurijo complex & this 2nd ceremonial gate was built between 1527 to 1555. The Kanji characters on the plaque mean, “Ryukyu Kingdom is a land of propriety”. Shureimon (守禮門) is also featured on the ¥2,000 notes printed in commemoration of year 2000.
Sonohyan-Utaki (園比屋武御嶽) is a sacred grove of trees & plants ( Utaki) of the traditional indigenous Ryukyuan religion. This Ishimon (石門) erected in 1519, is one of the sites inscribed under the Gusuku Sites & Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu & designated an important Japanese Cultural Property. This was where the King would offer prayers for order throughout the kingdom & for safety during his travels.
Kankaimon “Welcome Gate” ( 歓会門) is the 1st Main gate to the castle & it was to welcome the investiture envoys from China. It was built around 1477-1500 during the reign of King Sho Shin but was burned down during the Battle of Okinawa & restored in 1974.
Shuri Castle was mostly destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945 & after the war it was used as a university campus. Beginning in 1992 the castle was reconstructed based on historical records, photographs & from memory.
Just before you get to the Zuisenmon ( 瑞泉門), there is this natural spring Ryuhi (龍樋) with a Dragon head spout which was brought from China in 1523. Drinking water for the royal palace was drawn from here & was said to be carried to the Tenshinkan by Naha Port for the Sapposhi (Ambassdor) or Chinese envoys dispatched to Okinawa.
This 500 year old castle in Okinawa’s capital city of Naha was the administrative centre & residence of the Ryukyuan kings for centuries until 1879 when Okinawa became a prefecture of Japan.
Zuisenmon (瑞泉門) which means “auspicious spring gate” is located near Ryuhi (龍樋) & probably built around 1470. It was burned & destroyed in the Battle of Okinawa & reconstructed in 1992. On both sides of the gate are stone Shishi lions, placed there for protection against evil.
Roukokumon (漏刻門) is a gate that houses a water clock ( Roukoku) in the turret. During the Ryukyu Kingdom, high ranking officials visiting the castle would dismount from their horses & palanquins here as a sign of respect for the king.
View of Kankaimon (歓会門), part of the moat that surrounds the hilltop Shuri Castle & the city of Naha.
The Nichiei-dai (日影台) a sundial, was used between 1739 till 1879 to tell time in Shuri Castle as a supplementary tool to the water clock. It is situated in front of Roukokumon (漏刻門) next to the Tomoya (供屋).
Within the Tomoya (供屋) is a replica of the Bridge of Nations bell, the original is found at the Okinawa Prefectural Museum. According to historical records, it was documented that this bell was set up at the Seiden of Shurijo in 1458 but as the location was not clearly identified, the bell was placed here. Inscriptions on the bell describe the might of the Kingdom of Ryukyu as a maritime state.
Suimui-utaki (首里森御嶽) is a walled up little space of worship ‘created by the gods’ found in the Shicha-nu-una (下之御庭) or courtyard just before Houshinmon (奉神門). There are 10 places of worship within Shuri Castle & this is one of them that was restored in 1998.
Houshinmon (奉神門) is the main citadel entrance to the Una (御庭) & ticketing entrance to the castle proper. The meaning of its name is “a gate to respect the gods”. The passageway at the centre was for the king, Chinese investiture envoys & other high-ranking individuals. Other officials entered through the side passages.
Though the date of the construction of the Houshinmon (奉神門) is not known, records show that these stone balustrades were completed in 1562.
The Una (御庭) was the central reception & ceremonial area in front of the Seiden (正殿) or State Palace. On your left is the Hokuden (北殿) “North Hall” originally the judicial & administrative centre where Chinese envoys were received, built around 1506-1521. On your right is the Nanden (南殿) “South Hall” which was used for entertaining Satsuma envoys & now houses an exhibition.
The Seiden (正殿) is the Main Hall or State Palace situated east of the Una (御庭) & facing West towards China that contains the Throne room, royal living & ceremonial areas. Two 4.1m high Dai-Ryu-Chu or Great Dragon Pillars crafted from sandstone stand in front of the Seiden (正殿) symbolising the king.
The architectural style, colourful decorated eaves & motives used throughout the castle especially the Golden dragons, show Chinese influence & great similarities to the Forbidden City. The Seiden (正殿) is the largest wooden structure from the Ryukyu Kingdom & was also referred to as the Kokuden or National Palace. The walls & other painted surfaces of the Seiden (正殿) are coated with tung oil & parts of the base are lacquered.
This left Dragon Pillar is called Ungyou & is crafted from sandstone taken from Yonaguni Island.
The Seiden (正殿) is a 2 layered structure with 3 floors. The Shoin (書院) on the 1st floor or Shichagui was reconstructed around 1715 & you can see beautiful wooden sliding doors & corridors partitioning rooms that exude simplicity & tranquility that blends right in with the adjoining gardens.
This is the Goshoin or the King’s Office, where the king conducted his daily business & his officials were posted nearby. Sometimes the Sapposhi (Ambassdor) or Chinese investiture envoys & officials of the Satsuma posted to Naha were invited here to be entertained.
These red roof tiles were later additions from 1715 after a huge fire gutted the roof. The roof was originally covered in gray tiles which required baking at higher temperatures & due to the shortage of firewood, red cement tiles were used in replacement.
This is the Usasuka or Throne on the 1st floor, Shichagui of the Seiden from which the king conducted political duties & ceremonies. The king’s children & grandchildren sat on both sides of the throne which was called the Hirausasuka.
It was unusual but there are 2 thrones within the Seiden (正殿) one on top of the other. At the back of the Usasuka on the 1st floor Shichagui, you see this flight of stairs that leads to the 2nd floor Ufugui‘s Usasuka & the king used this stairway to commute between the two.
This staircase on the south side of the Seiden (正殿) was where a bell allowed communication between the 1st floor Shichagui & 2nd floor Ufugui.
The 2nd floor Ufugui was regularly used by the Queen & high-ranking ladies of the court. The 3rd floor is an attic built for ventilation purposes.
This is the dazzling & opulent Usasuka or King’s Throne located on the 2nd floor Ufugui with pillars on both sides depicting dragons & clouds in colourful surroundings. The king’s seat was reproduced based on a portrait Ogoe painted of King Sho Shin who reigned from 1477 to 1526.
The form of the altar is similar to those found in Shumidian Buddhist temples. On the panels at the sides are engraved designs of grapes & squirrels. On the sides of the handrails are a pair of standing Golden dragons & other fittings made with gold inlays on black lacquer.
Previously the kings of Ryukyu Kingdom were bestowed with crowns bearing 7 strips & Ming-style robes produced in China during their investitures but after the fall of the Ming Dynasty, Ryukyu began producing more elaborate investiture crowns & Ming-style robes from mid 17th century. This is a replica of The King’s Crown dating between 18th to 19th century. It is a black woven hat with 12 thin strips of gold running parallel vertically along the front of the crown; each strip is decorated with 24 jewels or small orbs of gold, sliver, jasper, quartz, coral etc with a total of 288 of them. A large golden hairpin Kanzashi with a dragon design on the head of the pin was also worn with the crown. The original is housed at Naha’s City Museum of History & has been designated a National Treasure.
Looking into the central courtyard or Una (御庭) of Shuri Castle where various ceremonies & rituals took place throughout the year. There are rows where tiles are laid called the Sen & the alternating colours of these rows was indicative of where the officials stood in order of ranks. The path in the centre, the Ukimichi was trodden only by the King, Sapposhi (Ambassdor), Investiture envoys sent by the Chinese emperor & high-ranking individuals.
This is a model to scale of the entire Seiden (正殿) which is made completely of wood, which makes it fire prone.
Sadly, at pre-dawn on 31st Oct 2019 a large fire broke out & burned down the
Seiden (正殿), Hokuden (北殿) , Nanden (南殿) & Bandokoro (番所). Domestic news sources say that 6 buildings have been left beyond repair & 400 artefacts were lost in the fire.
Okinawa’s tourism industry is reeling from this shocking loss of their most prominent tourist attraction that drew 2.8million visitors last year, even as the locals mourn the lost of the “symbol of Okinawa.”
This is the 5th time that Shuri Castle was destroyed following incidences in 1453, 1660, 1709 & 1945. Great efforts will be made to raise funds & rebuild Shuri Castle which is an important symbol of the Ryukyu Kingdom & an expression of its history & culture & an extremely important part of Japan.