For the moment, let’s skip over our second full day in Okinawa – though I do hope to tell that tale in due course – and move straight into the third, when we visited a large garden that was the setting for a secondary palace of the Ryūkyūan royal family. Not a place where East meets West, but one where East meets East: a masterpiece of the landscaper’s art that draws upon both Japanese and Chinese aesthetics to yield something that Ryūkyū can call its very own.
Tuesday, 8th May 2018.
The skies over the Okinawan capital were heavily overcast, but the morning weather reports held out a promise of several rain-free hours early in the day. Time to take full advantage of this brief window.
From our hotel in downtown Naha, we walked to the main bus terminal next to Asahibashi Station (on the Yui Rail line). The terminal was one big construction site at the time, and some of the boarding points that were previously concentrated in or around the building had been temporarily dispersed into the surrounding streets. Fortunately, a quick visit to the information centre put us on the right track, and soon we were travelling on the bus route that would take us to the former royal garden of Shikina-en (識名園).
Laid out towards the end of the 18th century, Shikina-en – also known by its Okinawan name, Shichina-nu-udun (識名の御殿, Shikina-no-goten in standard Japanese) – was constructed as a retreat for the King of Ryūkyū and his prominent guests. The 1945 Battle of Okinawa left the garden in ruins, but it was slowly resurrected through a costly restoration effort that began three decades after the end of the Second World War. In 2000, Shikina-en received a double honour: designation as a Special Place of Scenic Beauty by the Japanese government, and inscription as a World Heritage Site (together with other Okinawan landmarks in the group heading “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryūkyū“) by UNESCO.
After paying 400 yen each at the entrance, we set off on a tree-shaded path past the reconstructed guardhouse…
…and eventually arrived at the Tsūyō-mon. This secondary gate and the path leading from it were used by those working in Shikina-en.
A little further on stands the larger Sei-mon, the garden’s former main gate. This portal was once reserved for the use of the royal family, as well as the most esteemed of their guests: the sappōshi, ambassadors despatched by the Emperor of China to serve as his representatives at Ryūkyūan coronations. Both the Sei-mon and the smaller Tsūyō-mon were built according to the yājō style, which was used only for gates attached to the houses of high-ranking individuals.
From the Sei-mon, the royal family and their guests would have been escorted down a broad path paved with broken pieces of local limestone…
…which would eventually lead them to the grassy shores of Shikina-en’s central pond.
We turned left and paused to inspect the Ikutokusen, a stone-lined spring that supplies fresh water to the garden pond. In addition to its role as a water source, the spring is home to a rare type of freshwater alga known as shima-chisuji-nori.
The path continued east, through the remnants of what might have once been a gate (judging from the square-cut stonework and the pair of column bases embedded into the pavement).
The walls on either side began to take on a more rustic appearance, with rough stones piled up to look like natural formations.
We soon reached a grassy clearing on the central pond’s northwestern shore – the site of Shikina-en’s sprawling Udun. This elegant wooden mansion was a secondary palace of the Ryūkyūan royal family, a place where the king and his courtiers might relax and entertain important guests. Whilst clearly showing a large degree of Japanese influence (particularly in its interiors), the red-roofed Udun nonetheless retains a distinctive Ryūkyūan character.
Here’s a distant shot of the royal residence, taken from across the water.
After leaving the Udun, we walked towards the pond’s southeastern shore, crossing to the other side by way of a pair of stone bridges (ishi-bashi). Built in the Chinese style, these bridges are quite different from those one might encounter in the Japanese gardens of the main islands.
The northern section of the pond features a small island connected to the shore by an arched bridge, the central span of which was carved out of a single block of local limestone. At the centre of the island stands the Rokkaku-dō, a Chinese-style hexagonal pavilion with a double roof of black tile.
Next, we headed westwards along the southern shore. A low hill offers a great vantage point from which to appreciate the pond’s northeastern half, with the Ryūkyū-style Udun and the Chinese-style Rokkaku-dō taking their places in the beautifully composed landscape. One might also sense a visual affinity between Shikina-en and the circular landscape gardens that were so popular amongst Japanese daimyō of the Edo Period, reinforcing the harmoniously blended heritage that the designers of this garden drew upon for inspiration.
Looking towards the west, we spied a small bridge built over an opening along the edge of the pond. Excess water flows through this outlet – known as the Taki-guchi – and shoots out of a stone spout into a channel below, forming a small waterfall as it does so. I observed a long flight of stone steps leading down to the bottom of the ridge; alas, the way was blocked and I couldn’t get a proper glimpse at the waterfall itself.
A little later, we passed the Funa-ageba: a small harbour equipped with a set of low steps leading right up to the water’s edge, where pleasure boats were stored.
We then followed a gravel-strewn path that branched off from the main course, leading towards the steep slope that marks Shikina-en’s southern boundary.
Near the edge of the slope stands the Kankō-dai, an octagonal wooden pavilion that serves as an observation point.
Despite its rustic appearance, the Kankō-dai may have played a role in Ryūkyūan diplomacy … particularly in the kingdom’s relations with its powerful neighbour, China. This was due to the fact that one couldn’t view the sea in any direction from here – a somewhat rare attribute, given that Okinawa-hontō is a not-particularly-large island where the coast is never too far away. Imperial ambassadors from the Chinese court are said to have been taken here during their visits, in the hope that the unique sea-less vista would give them the impression that the Ryūkyūan realm was a lot bigger than it actually was.
This part of Shikina-en also contains a feature one wouldn’t normally associate with Japan…
…namely, a clump of banana plants.
Now I come from the tropics myself, and bananas are a common sight in my corner of the world … but these plants weren’t something I expected to see growing out of Japanese soil (except perhaps in a greenhouse or nature park). A strong reminder, if one were ever needed, of our distance from the main islands and the very different environment that gave rise to a very different culture on the Ryūkyū archipelago.
Having seen most of Shikina-en’s main features, we started on the long walk back to the garden entrance. This took us through some hidden paths that were probably used mainly by guards and palace staff, away from the view of the royal family and their guests.
At one point, we walked past the rear section of the Udun and through a space in the surrounding stone wall – perhaps the 18th-century equivalent of a service entrance. Next to the palace building, we saw a wooden structure known as the Kago-ya. This once served as a sort of garage for kago, the palanquins in which aristocrats were transported, as well as a rest area for the bearers who carried the heavy kago on their shoulders.
An impressive garden indeed, and – with its distinctive Ryūkyūan flavour derived from both Chinese and Japanese influences – an excellent point of reference for appreciating a very different garden that we saw later the same day.
But let’s save that story for another post.