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Tuesday, May 20, 2014

Castles in the sky

View from Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
Welcome area to Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
I have to admit that before moving to Okinawa, I knew very little about the history of the island and its people. I still don't know much, but I am learning more with each adventure. One of the most striking visual reminders of the history of Okinawa are the beautiful castle ruins found on hilltops throughout the island. These castles are relics of the feudal days of the Ryukyu Kingdom before Okinawa was designated a prefecture of Japan. Shuri castle, near the city of Naha in the south end of the island, was the home of ruling family of the Ryukyu kingdom and the center of its government for centuries. This castle was built in the 1300's and although damaged several times throughout history, was most recently demolished in WW2. Shuri castle was rebuilt in 1992 and is now a park and museum (I have not visited this castle yet, but I will soon). The rest of the castles around Okinawa were homes to lords and the seats of local government. The Ryukyu kingdom was first invaded by the Satsuma Domain (now the Kagoshima Prefecture - the island of Kyushu and the island group that stretches from Kyushu to Taiwan) in 1609 and was taken as a tributary state of Japan. As a tributary state, Okinawa continued to be governed by its royal family. In 1879, Okinawa was officially made a prefecture of Japan and ruled by the central government of Japan. Today, the restored Shuri castle and the smaller castle ruins throughout the island have been dedicated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites.

The second enclosure at Nakagusuku Castle.
Okinawa is mostly a very busy, very urban place. The majority of the middle and southern part of the island is coated in cement with many-story apartment buildings everywhere you turn. The castles of Okinawa are separate from the hustle and bustle of the city; they are above and away, and are surrounded by green jungle. It sounds cliche, but visiting the castles really feels like stepping back in time. There is an overwhelming sense of peace and enchantment at the top of the hills encircled by ancient castle walls. I have visited two castle ruins so far, and I have experienced the same sense of calm and peacefulness while wandering along the impressive structures at both sites.

Rocks are perfectly smooth on the outside,
but crudely cut on the inside.
Each side of the wall is separate and
the gap is filled with rubble
The first castle I visited was Nakagusuku Castle (gusuku means castle in the Okinawan dialect), which is just north of Camp Foster. This castle is the best preserved of all the ruins on the island and was quite expansive. Because it is large and well preserved, it is one of the most visited, and requires a 400 yen fee to enter the ground. The ruins consist of 3 large enclosures, each a little higher than the one before it, and 3 small enclosures along the side of the main structure. The enclosures are essentially large courtyards surrounded by massive stone walls that organically rise up from the cliff sides. The walls were created by piecing together giant limestone bricks. The bricks are not held together with any sort of mortor or cement, they just fit together perfectly. In one enclosure (technically the 3rd, but the first you reach from the visitor's center), the bricks are hexagonal and the wall looks like a turtle shell or a soccer ball. The face of the wall is perfectly smooth without any gaps, which is so impressive considering the walls were built in the 1300's without modern machinery. It is obvious that a lot of time, energy, and attention to detail went into perfectly shaping and stacking the rocks, but it is still hard to imagine how exactly people were able to complete such a formidable project.
Nakagusuku castle walls
Old foundation of palace at Katsuren.
Sacred cave site at Katsuren. Cement box with sand for incense.
It is fun, however, to imagine what the castles looked like in their glory days. Inside the walls, there were once houses and offices. These structures were built of more temporary materials, and have been destroyed and rebuilt many times throughout history. Nakagusuku was the home of the city offices until WW2 when the buildings were destroyed for the last time. I was obviously not alive during WW2, so that may be one reason that I did not know about the battle of Okinawa. But, I also feel like I received a very European centered education. I have read countless books and seen many movies about World War Two in Europe, but I know much less about the war in the Asian arena. In Okinawa, the effects of World War Two can been seen everywhere. Besides the fact that that war was the impetus for U.S. military bases dominating the island, there was also a huge loss of life and property and the landscape and appearance of the island was forever changed.

Informative plaque about baby skeletons.
Another interesting feature of the castles are the "sacred places." Throughout the structures, there are many seemingly random piles of rocks, or group of bushes, or just a tree that is labeled "sacred place." The south enclosure of Nakagasuku is called holy ground and has 3 sacred places or places of worship. People still come to pray at these sacred places. I am a bit unsure about how and why a place is designated as sacred and do not know the rituals that surround praying and worshiping at a sacred place. I do know, however, that if there is a sacred place in Okinawa, it seems right that it would be in the castle ruins. It has to do with that sense of calm and enchantment that I mentioned earlier, it just feels right that the castle ruins would be a place to come to be quiet and pray or meditate.

I visited Katsuren castle about a week after visiting Nakagusuku. Katsuren is located in a quieter part of the island - on the Yokatsu peninsula, on the way to White Beach. The castle, and the hill it is built on, are smaller and less grand than Nakagusuku, but the structure fits in perfectly with its surroundings. If the two castles switched places, they would be less beautiful. Katsuren is built in much the same style as Nakagusuku, with limestone walls making up 3 main enclosures, each being a little higher and a little smaller. There are many sacred places at Katsuren as well, and some especially interesting archaeology finds. Near the interior wall of the third enclosure (largest, and lowest- the first one you enter), there are many infant skeletons buried in the fetal position facing the wall. Anthropologists are not sure what to make of this find, but it is certainly interesting and a bit creepy.

View of Katsuren as you approach from below.
Katsuren was a bit less impressive, and took less time to explore, but is special in its own ways. This castle does not have a welcome center and there is no fee to visit. When visiting, one kind of feels as though they discovered a secret, enchanted space - even if there are other visitors. Between the baby skeletons and a sacred cave, Katsuren is well worth the visit.

View from midlevel Kasuren. 

View of the first enclose, from the third enclosure of Katsuren.
Farms surrounding Katsuren. 

Me at the base of Katsuren.