Our exploration of Naha’s iconic Shuri Castle continues from my previous post – though we’ll be spending more time outdoors on this occasion. Let’s have a look at some of the outlying structures that played an important role in the spiritual, ceremonial, and official affairs of those who once resided within these walls.
Note: This is the second part of a two-post series featuring Shuri Castle. Click here to read the first part.
After leaving the Seiden, my companion and I left Shuri Castle’s inner compound by way of the Uekimon gate (which we’ll have a proper look at later). Instead of going down the main path that leads back to the entrance/exit near the Shureimon area – from where we began our exploration of the grounds earlier that day – we followed a narrow walkway right next to the gate that took us sharply to the east.
We eventually stepped out into a large open space beneath the walls of the inner compound, an area that had only recently been restored and reopened to the public.
From here, the massive limestone retaining wall of Shuri Castle’s central enclosure reared up above us like a sheer cliff of solid grey rock.
Excavation work in this area revealed a cave-like man-made structure called a gama (ガマ), cut into the natural rock upon which the castle walls were built.
After exploring the newly opened space, we headed back west, passing the Shukujunmon (淑順門) as we did so. This gate leads into the Ouchibara, an enclosure east of the Seiden which once served as the private residential quarters of the king and his family.
In due course, the path took us back to the Uekimon (右掖門), through which we’d exited earlier from the inner compound.
From here, we followed the stone-paved path that channels exiting visitors towards the Shureimon area, and ultimately off the castle grounds. It’s not a particularly long walk, but long enough to offer great views of the sloped, slightly rounded stone walls that are such an iconic feature of gusuku, or Ryūkyūan-style castles.
A few days later, we returned to explore Shuri Castle a second time – although the course we followed on this occasion was quite different.
From Shuri Station, we made our way on foot towards the entrance on the far eastern edge of the castle park.
Along the way, we passed a reproduction of the Kokuō Shōtoku-hi (国王頌徳碑), a commemorative stone tablet set up in 1543 during the reign of King Shō Sei. The original was destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, and this replica – based on a surviving fragment and similar monuments from the same period – was set up in its place (though not on the same spot).
The park’s eastern entrance isn’t the approach usually recommended for visitors to Shuri Castle – and with good reason. Despite being much closer to the nearest railway station, this gate is quite far from the more scenic paths that start near Shureimon and lead directly to the main structures in the heart of the compound. That said, setting off from this entrance does offer a rather interesting alternative, especially if one has already done the traditional route on a previous visit.
The first stretch was a relatively featureless stroll through a pleasant expanse of parkland.
As we approached the castle walls, I spotted a small enclosure surrounded by a low stone barrier. I’m not entirely certain, but this was probably one of Shuri’s many utaki, or sacred spaces revered in the indigenous Ryūkyūan belief system.
At one point, there was a sign warning visitors to beware of habu, a local species of poisonous pit viper.
We did run into a spot of trouble along the way…though it had nothing to do with snakes. Contrary to the morning weather forecast, an unexpected downpour began to spread across the castle grounds, and we hastened towards the visitors’ centre in the west (near Shureimon) seeking refuge from the rain. We resumed our exploration after a brief snack and shopping break, following a flight of stone steps that branched off the main path to the northeast (between the Sonohyan-utaki and Kankaimon).
Near the foot of the steps, we chanced upon a concrete doorway half-hidden behind thick vegetation.
That portal once led into an underground shelter, tunneled through the earth and rock beneath Shuri Castle in the winter of 1944-45. This network of hidden corridors briefly served as the headquarters of the 32nd Army, a force mobilised to defend Japan’s southwestern islands against Allied invasion during the closing stages of the Second World War.
A short distance away is the Enkanchi (円鑑池), a pond with a square-shaped island in its midst.
We circled around the pond towards the lone bridge leading to the island, passing a flock of local birds quenching their thirst in a muddy puddle. (Either that, or they were pecking at small prey lurking on the ground.)
The wooden structure on the small island is the Bezaitendō (弁財天堂). Originally constructed in 1502 as a repository for Buddhist scriptures sent from the Kingdom of Joseon (modern-day Korea), the shrine was destroyed during the Satsuma invasion of 1609 and not rebuilt until more than a decade later. Obliterated yet again during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, Bezaitendō was re-erected in 1968.
East of the Enkanchi pond are the scant remains of what was once the grandest temple in the former kingdom. Begun in 1492 on the orders of Shō Shin (r. 1477–1527), third king of the Second Shō Dynasty, Enkaku-ji (円覚寺) was the main temple of the Ryūkyūan royal family. Kings would come to offer prayers at key moments during their reigns, and funeral ceremonies would be observed for them here after death. The temple was of such importance that after the former ruling clan’s two other family temples were closed when the kingdom was absorbed into Japan, Enkaku-ji remained in service (if somewhat poorly maintained), and was even designated a National Treasure in 1933.
Like much of Shuri Castle, Enkaku-ji was levelled during the Battle of Okinawa. Only the temple’s west-facing Sōmon (front gate) and its iconic Hōjō-kyō bridge have been rebuilt so far. Excavation work is currently underway, and plans have been mooted for further reconstruction work on the temple site.
The compound was closed off, but I managed a peek at one of the Hōjō-kyō’s carved stone balustrades through the wooden bars of the front gate.
Walking along the uphill path that leads from Enkaku-ji back to the main pedestrian road, we enjoyed a splendid view of the Kyūkeimon (久慶門) gate, which was mainly used by female courtiers entering the central enclosure from the north.
Our second visit to the castle was almost over, but not before a short break spent in the park’s rest centre. Housed in the building’s exhibition hall was a large model of Shuri, capital of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū, with the eponymous castle at its centre.
And with that, our exploration of Naha’s iconic royal stronghold was at an end. I’m quite eager to return someday, especially since the large sections of the castle compound that were inaccessible at the time (due to excavation or reconstruction work) hold the promise of new discoveries waiting to be revealed during a future visit.