The Ryukyu Kingdom emerged about 600 hundred years ago, when the Ryukyu Islands were unified for the first time under a single king. The kingdom was centered on the island of Okinawa, located to the south of Japan and to the east of Ming (present-day China).
Even though, it was small, the Ryukyu Kingdom traded with Ming, Japan, and other countries in Southeast Asia. During this time, the people of the Ryukyu Islands adapted technology and culture imported from the foreign countries, and integrated it into the local culture. As a consequence, the kingdom flourished. One can easily imagine how many foreigners would have strolled around Naha, the port town of the kingdom, and visited Shuri, where the king’s castle is located. Having people with different colors of skin and numerous languages, these places must have been very cosmopolitan.
The Ryukyu Kingdom lasted for 450 years, and Shurijo Castle was its royal residence. Its importance has been recognized, leading it to be included as part of the “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu” which was designated as a World Heritage Site in year 2000. However, on the 31st October 2019, Seiden (the main palace) was completely burnt down by a fire , devastated not only people of Okinawa, but the many people around the world that have been moved by the beauty of Shurijo Castle.
Okinawa has repeatedly experienced losses and reconstructions throughout its long history. To find out about Shurijo Castle and culture of Okinawa that created the castle, I explored the ancient capital with a guide who showed me around Shurijo Castle.
Feel the Past and Present on the Way to Shurijo Castle
I joined the 5-hour tour of Shurijo Castle and its vicinity. The tour was conducted by our guide Yukari Marsh from the Okinawa Interpreter Guide Association (OIGA).
When I arrived at Shuri monorail station, Yukari greeted me with a lovely smile. During the approximately 20-minute walk to Shurijo Castle, she covered many things of interest, including: the climate and transportation system of Okinawa; went it detail describing about modern buildings with their red roof tiles, and the materials used for traditional Okinawan architectures; and pointed out that I can buy both hot and cold drinks from Japanese vending machines, something uncommon in other countries. Yukari, with her unique point of view, introduced many things I might have easily passed by otherwise.
As we turned left at the corner of SuiSavon store, the atmosphere of the area changed from modern street to a quiet alley. There was more greenery in the area beyond the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts school buildings where public traffic was restricted.
We arrived at the Shurijo Castle Park on a weekend morning, and there were still not many people. The sun shining through between lush green trees and the fresh air around the area was refreshing. On the left was Enkaku-ji Temple, which was built in the 1490’s and was later destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. The temple’s elegant main gate was restored in 1968. “Buddhism was worshipped by the royal family and upper-class warriors in Shuri; however, it did not spread among commoners who usually worshipped their ancestors. Yet, the traditional Eisa dance, which originated in Buddhist dance, still remains as a remnant of Buddhism’s influence,” Yukari explained. Her insight into the religion of the Ryukyu Islands and the origin of Eisa dance was fascinating.
Across from Enkaku-ji Temple lies Benzaitendo, where the goddess of sea voyages has been enshrined on an island in the middle of Enkanchi Pond. It was the other side of Tennyo-bashi Bridge and the area was very peaceful. Watching a couple of carp in the pond and red-faced wild duck with black and white feathers swimming above them gracefully made me feel relaxed.
Leaving peaceful Benzaitendo, we walked through a jungle-like wooded area as we headed to Shureimon Gate. We suddenly encountered the sight of visitors, and it made me feel like I was awakened from my dream.
The Sacred Shurijo Castle
After going through Shureimon Gate, to our left was “Sonohyan Utaki Stone Gate,” a World Heritage Site. Utaki is a sacred area in traditional Okinawan religion. Since it was a “gate,” I wondered what was behind it, however, according to Yukari, “Usually, there isn’t any so-called ‘sacred body’ placed in utaki. It is a sacred place filled with ‘Ki (vital energy)’.” The stone gate may be a landmark to indicate the place where sacred “Ki” is in abundance.
On the way to the inner Shurijo Castle, using her handmade materials Yukari explained how people of the Ryukyu Islands left records before they used letters in a way that was easy for me to understand. Yukari’s materials were filled with information that was not to be found on the information boards or in the guidebook. I was able to visualize lives and values of the people back in that time, and became ever more interested in the history of the Ryukyu Islands.
Yukari also explained the characters of the stone work on the castle walls, the period they were built, and how Ryukyu’s gusuku (castle) was different from the castles of China, Japan, and Europe by using her materials and showing me images on her tablet. She said “Castles in Japan and Europe are usually used as royal residences, political centers, and as fortresses. However, gusuku was a royal residence, political center, and place for prayers. That was the significant difference from other castles.” The complicated shapes of the Ryukyu limestone, even small bumps, were combined and laid together perfectly. I was impressed by the beauty of the walls.
As we walked through Kankaimon gate, we were greeted by a pair of shisa, well known Okinawan guardian lions, and by a man in traditional Ryukyuan costume. The next gate that appeared was Zuisenmon. The wavy castle walls that are a characteristic of Ryukyu’s gusuku and curvy stairways leading to the gate were so elegant. The vermilion turret on the stone gate with clear blue sky in the back was a sight to behold.
At the lower right side of the stairs there was a Ryuhi (dragon fountainhead), from which spring water flowed. It is the original one sent by China in 1523, and the Chinese envoys’ words to praise the water are engraved on the surrounding stone monuments. When Yukari jokingly explained “It is just like today’s TripAdvisor reviews,” I thought how people never really change much, and felt closeness to the envoys.
Colorful Castle of the Southern Island
After going through Zuisenmon gate we found ourselves standing in front of Rokokumon gate, the half-burnt down building came into the view right away. Although I had watched it on TV and video numerous times already, it still hurt when I saw the sad sight with my own eyes.
We entered the square called Shicha-nu Una after going through Kofukumon gate, which luckily survived the fire. Since entrance to Una, the main square where Seiden stood, was still limited to the general public on that day, we passed by Hoshinmon gate, the main gate to Una, and headed to a lookout called Iri-nu Azana
On the way to Iri-nu Azana, we went up few steps in between a limestone passage and turned around to see Una. While I was stunned by the pitiful sight of the burnt down Seiden and debris of Nanden and Hokuden palaces around Una, comments of disappointment and sighs could also be heard from other visitors.
Yukari showed me a pictorial record of the inside and outside of Shurijo Castle that was brightly decorated in red, blue, green, and gold. “Craftsmen had a hard time trying to reproduce the red color of the lacquer which decorated Seiden. And Shurijo Castle was symbol of the champru (mixed) culture of the Ryukyu Islands and the people visiting here could actually experience it in Una” continued Yukari. The vivid colors and spacious Una in front of Seiden reminded me of the Forbidden City in China; however, there was kara-hafu gable which is Japanese style dome shaped decoration, on the facade of Seiden. They were fused together and became Ryukyu’s original style. By looking at the pictures, it made me realized how beautiful the Seiden of Shurijo Castle once was.
When looking down Shuri and Naha spreading in front of Iri-nu Azana, I imagined that the kings of the Ryukyu must have been able to see the clouds crossing the sky and on to the Kerama islands on the horizon, just as I was seeing it today; and ships from various countries would have come and gone the port of Naha during the Great Trade Era which thrived during the 15th century.
It took almost 30 years to restore Shurijo Castle, and although Seiden was burnt down, I was able to understand the history of the Ryukyu Islands, and learn about the kingdom from the beautiful shapes of the castle walls, which reminded me of a piece of cloth waving gently in the breeze making up the architecture around the castle. There were certainly more things to see in Shurijo Castle than I had expected.
Bring Your Luck with Buku-buku Cha!
To take a break after the walking, I wanted to go to café or restaurant outside of Shurijo Castle. Yukari took me to a place called “Karisanfan” where Okinawa’s unique tea “Buku-buku cha” is served. Only a 5-minute walk from Shureimon Gate, here you can enjoy a traditional way to drink Buku-buku cha. Although historically a common tea found in many places in Japan, nowadays it is rare, and exists only in a few areas.
To make Buku-buku cha you start by blending roasted rice, water, and green tea called Yanbaru-cha, which is from the northern part of Okinawa’s main island (Yanbaru), or sanpin-cha (jasmine tea) in a big wooden bowl. Then the ingredients are whisked with a 20-centimeter long bamboo whisk to make foam. Scoop up the foam and put it on the tea in another cup or glass, after that sprinkle crushed peanuts on top of it, then your Buku-buku cha is ready to be served! Hard water is the key to making it foam, and they use spring water from Kakinohana in Nanjo City. Once the foam is made, it will sometimes stay fluffy for about an hour. Also, at Karisanfan, a customer can make their own foam. While whipping the ingredients in the bowl, I started to smell the crispy aroma of the tea. A great thing about Buku-buku cha is that, unlike the Japanese tea ceremony, there are no strictly proscribed manners and everybody can enjoy it in a casual way.
We put the fluffy cotton candy-like foam on top of the warm sanpin-cha and cold shell-ginger tea that we ordered on that day. I opened my mouth wide and bit into the foam topped with crushed peanuts mixed with brown sugar, and then, awkwardly, sipped the tea under the foam. Great fun!
Buku-buku cha of Karisanfan comes with homemade chinsuko cookies or chinbin an Okinawan crepe, shekwasha jelly, and seasonal fruits, so I was able to take time to enjoy the tea and sweets of Okinawa. Buku-buku cha can also be written in Japanese kanji as “福々茶 “ which means to bring luck. Up until the Second World War II, people used to drink Buku-buku cha to wish one good luck and a safe voyage. Have some Buku-buku cha to wish yourself a safe voyage and as a memory of your trip!
Tofu Restaurant where Tradition and Modernism Fuse
One of the places Yukari recommends for dining is “Tofu-ya Beans.” In Okinawa, there is a slightly hardened tofu called shima-dofu. It is rich and slightly salty in taste. Also, the process to make shima-dofu is different from that of mainland Japan, and it contains more protein.
Beans is a tofu restaurant located on Ryutan Street in Shuri, and the dishes they prepare are a fusion of traditional and modern. Also they use “yushi-dofu,” freshly made at the restaurant each morning. Yushi-dofu is soft tofu before putting in a mold to harden it, and is a classic Okinawan dish. Here, you can enjoy simple yushi-dofu, spicy Mabo Yushi-dofu, Yukari’s favorite Tomato Cheese Yushi-dofu, tasty Seafood Tomato Yushi-dofu, and Chop-Suey Yushi-dofu filled with vegetables, each dish is reasonably priced between 500-700 yen and, a combination plate for 600-850 yen.
Beans is a small but cozy place. Combination plates come with steamy hot yushi-dofu, five kinds of colorful appetizer, and a bowl of rice. Seafood Tomato Yushi-dofu is modest in saltiness, but the tomato soup is very tasty and rich with the essence of sea foods. With the soft and smooth texture of yushi-dofu it is so delicious! Even people who are not so keen on tofu because of its blunt taste, will love it for sure. Do try Beans’ yushi-dofu cuisine.
I enjoyed learning about Shurijo Castle and the food culture of Okinawa on that day, and the 5 hours passed quickly. Other than those places we visited, there are many more places around Shuri: Awamori distilleries; a Bingata craft shop, where people can also experience textile-dyeing techniques; a World Heritage Site Tama-udun Mausoleum and so on. Also, you can spend time just walking the Kinjo-cho Stone-paved Road that is reminiscent of the Ryukyu Kingdom era; relax at a local café; or you can get a dose of energy from the 300-year-old Giant Bishop Wood of Kinjo-cho.
Shurijo Castle has been burnt down a couple of times in the past, however, each time, it rose from the ashes like a phoenix. Although many people were shocked by the sad incident, this might be an opportunity to pass the knowledge and techniques that we gained from the last reconstruction onto the next generations. I believe that if many people visit Shurijo Castle, watch the historic moment of the process of reconstruction, and share what they saw with others, that alone will be a major contribution toward the reconstruction of the castle.
You can easily enjoy Shuri by yourself, or with family and friends. I toured around Shuri with a guide from OIGA this time; OIGA has English, Chinese, or Korean speaking guides, who can attend visitors from outside of Japan. If you are interested in learning more about the culture and history of Shuri, OIGA can arrange bilingual tour guides, 1-day tour, transportation, and more, all catered according to your preference. Please check OIGA’s website for details.