The islands of Okinawa Prefecture are sprinkled with the remains of gusuku: massive stone-walled castles that are in some ways similar to, and yet in many other ways different from, the classic Edo Period castles of the Japanese mainland. Whilst none are as well preserved (or at least as well rebuilt) as Shuri Castle in Naha, even ruined sites such as Nakijin Castle serve as impressive reminders of the power and authority wielded by those who once ruled these lands before they became part of Japan.
From around 1322 until the early 15th century, Okinawa-hontō – the largest island in the Ryūkyūan archipelago – was divided into three chiefdoms: Sannan (or Nanzan) in the south, Chūzan in the middle, and Sanhoku (or Hokuzan) in the north. The ruler of Sanhoku and his court were based at Nakijin Castle (今帰仁城, Nakijin-gusuku or Nakijin-jō), a mighty fortress on the Motobu Peninsula, with commanding views of the surrounding territory and the sea beyond.
The castle was besieged and taken in 1416 by the armies of Chūzan, whose ruler would ultimately unite the three states into a single kingdom. It was subsequently used as the headquarters of the Hokuzan Kanshu, a regional administrator appointed by the new central government in Shuri. Destroyed once again during the Satsuma invasion of 1609, and abandoned by the Hokuzan Kanshu when his office was abolished in 1665, the castle site nonetheless retained – and to a degree still retains – a certain importance amongst some Okinawans as a place of worship, thanks to the sacred sites located within or near its walls.
In 2000, Nakijin Castle was inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List under the group heading “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū“, together with eight other Okinawan landmarks including Shuri Castle, the Tamaudun mausoleum, and the Shikina-en royal garden.
Incidentally, Nakijin Castle is also included on another list: the Nihon Hyaku-Meijō (日本100名城), which catalogues 100 culturally significant castles across Japan. Here’s the special hyaku meijō stamp I collected on the day of our visit. Note that the date is given in the traditional Japanese era-name format: “30.5.7” is 7th May in the 30th year of the Heisei Era (i.e., 2018).
We visited the castle as part of a northern Okinawa bus tour, but it’s also possible to come here independently (whether by car or by regular/express bus services). Further details are available on Japan-Guide and Nakijin Castle’s official website.
From the visitors’ centre (where the tour bus dropped us off and the guide purchased our tickets), we entered the castle’s outermost enclosure, the Gaikaku (外郭). This area’s defensive wall is only about two metres in height…
…which makes for a rather interesting contrast against the towering barrier of grey limestone blocks that we saw next.
This length of wall is pierced by the Heirōmon (平郎門), which now serves as the main access point for tourists visiting Nakijin Castle. Unlike your typical Japanese castle gate – which ordinarily consists of a wooden building anchored to walls on either side – the Heirōmon is constructed entirely out of stone (although it may once have had a superstructure built in wood).
From the Heirōmon gate, a long stone-paved path took us deep into the castle compound. The cherry trees planted on either side were quite green and unremarkable during our visit – hardly surprising as it was already May, after all. That said, it’s worth bearing in mind that as the southernmost prefecture in Japan, Okinawa has the distinction of being the first part of the country to see its sakura break out into bloom each year. Nakijin’s trees usually open up in late January to early February, about two months ahead of the Japanese mainland, and during that time the pedestrian road we were walking upon would be canopied by branches laden with rich pink flowers.
After following the straight path, which eventually rose in steps and tiers up the rocky hillside, we emerged onto a grassy clearing.
This was the site of the Ūmiyā (大庭), a courtyard around which some of the castle’s state halls are believed to have stood. The area may have served a similar role to the Unā of Shuri Castle: a secure, monumental space for official ceremonies. Granted, the Ūmiyā of Nakijin strikes one as being far smaller than the Unā of Shuri, though this is only to be expected given that the chiefdom of Sanhoku (a.k.a. Hokuzan) was not nearly as prosperous or powerful as the united Kingdom of Ryūkyū that eventually succeeded it.
Off to one side of the Ūmiyā is a stone monument, bearing a poem composed in honour of the legendary Shigema Utudaru.
Said to have been a kaminchu (a person endowed with spiritual power) and a woman of great beauty, Utudaru came from the village of Shigema near Nakijin Castle to become a concubine of the Lord of Sanhoku. Thanks to her prayers – or so the stories say – an heir was finally born to the royal family when the ageing ruler was starting to despair of offspring to secure his line. She is also said to have assisted the new heir when a crisis over succession loomed. Such was the loyal Utudaru’s reputation that the locals later revered her as “Nakijin-ukami”, or “goddess of Nakijin”.
En route to the next section of the castle compound, we passed one of Nakijin’s utaki (御嶽): a sacred space in the native Ryūkyūan religion. This is the Soitsugi (ソイツギ), also known as the Jōnai-shita-no-utaki (城内下之御嶽) – one of two ibe (イベ) located on the grounds.
Ibe are held to be the most sacred type of utaki. This particular spot was where prayers for bountiful harvests were offered on the eighth month of the lunar year, as part of the annual Gusuku-uimi rites.
We soon entered the Ūchibaru (御内原): an inner enclosure where the women of the Sanhoku royal court are believed to have resided. This elevated vantage point offered fantastic views of another section further down, which we’d already passed earlier but weren’t able to see directly into…
…the so-called Ūshimi (大隅). That enclosure down there – which features some of Nakijin’s tallest stone walls – is said to have been where the Lord of Sanhoku’s war horses were bred and trained for use in battle. Indeed, it’s not difficult to imagine how the natural rock formations of the Ūshimi ward might have played a role in training cavalry units to fight on the rugged terrain of the northern chiefdom.
Here’s a zoomed-in shot of one part of the Ūshimi wall. For scale, note the staff member standing near the base of the guard tower at centre.
Another of Nakijin’s utaki can be found within the Ūchibaru enclosure. Here we have the Tenchiji-Amachiji (テンチジアマチジ), or the Jōnai-ue-no-utaki (城内上之御嶽). This was reputed to be the most sacred place on the castle grounds, so highly revered that men were not permitted to enter. On this hallowed ground, the women of the Sanhoku court prayed for the welfare of the state, and the castle’s senior priestess performed important rites not just for the Gusuku-uimi (which also involved the Soitsugi we’d seen earlier) but for the so-called Upu-uimi as well, conducted in the seventh lunar month.
From here, we moved south into Nakijin Castle’s innermost enclosure: the Shukaku (主郭), also referred to as the Honmaru (本丸), the latter being the conventional Japanese term for the core section of a typical castle. This area has some of the best-preserved building foundations on the grounds, with the restored retaining walls and column bases hinting at the form and size of the wooden structures that once stood here.
The Shukaku has a sacred site of its own: a shrine dedicated to a fire deity that was worshipped here during the days when the Hokuzan Kanshu ruled the area. This small building is still in use today, such as during the Shiro-uimi rites held on the 10th day of the eighth lunar month.
Walking towards the southern edge of the Shukaku, I noticed the remains of a gate built into the thick enclosure wall.
This portal leads down to the Shijima-jōkaku, or Shigema-jōkaku (志慶真門郭), where the houses of the Lord of Sanhoku’s closest retainers are believed to have stood. There isn’t much left down there – just a few markers outlining the foundations of several long-lost buildings – but the views of the castle walls that can be enjoyed on the walk down (and back up) are not to be missed.
Here’s another view of the Shigema-jōkaku, taken from up on the level of the Shukaku enclosure.
There’s quite a bit more to see on the grounds – such as the exhibits housed in the nearby Nakijin Village History and Culture Centre – but alas, time had run short and we had no choice but to return to the assembly point for our bus. That said, I’m glad to have covered many of this historic landmark’s key sections, and I look forward to visiting again in order to see the rest.