Just down from the Gusuku Road is Okinawa World. Don’t let the name put you off – it’s actually an interesting spot where quite a few old Okinawan buildings have been collected from across the island and preserved plus various traditional arts and crafts, shows botanical gardens and the like. Well worth a visit. One of the most interesting parts was that it stands on top of a cave system that runs the entire length of the park. You can walk through the caves and then back up through the park.
This is from the steps leading down into the caves:
Formations along the walkway:
The caves were used to store and age the Okinawan spirit, awamori:
Water constantly flows through the caves forming pools:
Although it might not be as extensive or spectacular as some other cave systems, it’s definitely worth a look.
The south-east corner of the main island of Okinawa is relatively little visited but does have some interesting sites along what’s called the Gusuku Road. ‘Gusuku‘ is a bit of a controversial word as there is some debate among archeologists as to what it actually refers – it may be a stone fortress/residence, a defensive site, or a place of ancestor worship or burial place – and the period referred to as the ‘Gusuku Period’ pre-dates the Ryukyu Kingdom, possibly as far back as the 12th or 13th Centuries. Along the Gusuku Road, there are sacred sites and the ruins of several castles.
Starting by the ocean on the eastern coast is Sefa-utaki, one the most sacred sites on Okinawa and now a world-heritage site:
Continuing further down the road is Tamagusuku-jo Castle (there’s actually a couple of other sites on the road before that but we missed the turn-off), the oldest castle on Okinawa and said to have been built by the legendary creator of the Ryukyus, Amamikiyo. An amazing natural stone circle forms the entrance:
From the 16th Century or so on, the site was used more as a sacred place of worship. This is the remains of an alter:
Just up from here is Itoman-jo Castle, built in the 14th Century. It is the largest in the area and is relatively undeveloped so it feels a bit like stumbling onto an undiscovered ruin in the jungle:
The Tsuboya district of Naha has long been a centre of Okinawan pottery and a lot of shops still remain that are good examples of traditional architecture. It’s a great area to wander around and browse the different styles of Okinawan pottery. There’s also a good museum of pottery making in the area that is well worth a look.
Just next to Shuri Castle is Tamaudun, the Ryukyu royal family mausoleum used since the 16th century. The Okinawan burial traditions are quite different from mainland Japanese – the bodies were stored in stone chambers for several years after which the bones were ritually cleansed and placed in mausoleums. The buildings here were extensively damaged during the war but have been restored.
Approach to the front entrance:
The main mausoleum. The left chamber was for kings and queens, the right one for princes and princesses, and the central one was where they stored the bodies:
Before the central government decided it had strategic value and annexed it 1879, Okinawa had its own local culture – the Ryukyu Kingdom. The seat of the kingdom is Shuri Castle in Naha, now the capital of Okinawa, which was originally built in the 1300s but completely destroyed in WWII. The buildings here are a reconstruction built in 1992 but they did a very good job of it and you get a splendid sense of the uniqueness of Ryukyu culture.
The approach to the front gate:
The main gate to the castle, Shureimon:
Stairs leading up to the main castle entrance give some idea of the power that the kingdom once held as a main point on the trade routes between China, Korea and Japan:
There are wonderful views from the castle out over Naha city to the ocean in the distance: