Okinawa is home to a unique culture that differs considerably from that of mainland Japan. Until the islands were invaded by the Satsuma domain (present day Kagoshima Prefecture) in 1609, Okinawa existed as an entirely separate country from Japan, known as the Ryukyu Kingdom.
After the invasion, the Ryukyu Kingdom served as a tributary state to Japan, but continued to be governed by the royal family from Shuri Castle. It was not until 1879, a few years after the Meiji Restoration, that the kingdom was abolished and incorporated into Japan as Okinawa Prefecture.
The castles of Okinawa, known as "gusuku" in the Okinawan language, are among the most vivid monuments that testify to the unique cultural and historical heritage of the Ryukyu Kingdom. In the year 2000, five castles and four related sites were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites under the collective title of "Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu".
Shuri Castle (Shurijo) was the most important castle of the Ryukyu Kingdom, serving both as the central government office and royal residence. The present buildings are beautiful reconstructions from 1992. Shurijo is the only castle in Okinawa that has been reconstructed. Only ruins remain of all the other castles.
The Nakagusuku Castle Ruins are the best preserved among the many castle ruins across Okinawa. The castle's division into multiple citadels can still clearly be recognized. There are also nice views from the castle's hilltop location onto the surrounding area and Nakagusuku Bay.
The Katsuren Castle Ruins are located on the Yokatsu Peninsula along the eastern coast of Okinawa Honto. The castle was built on a steep hill close to the coast and offers nice views of the surrounding area. The castle is best known as the former seat of the popular Lord Amawari.
The Zakimi Castle Ruins are located on a hill near Cape Zampa in central Okinawa Honto. The castle served as a safeguard against rebels in the north of the island and allows for a commanding view over the area.
The Nakijin Castle Ruins are located on the Motobu Peninsula in northern Okinawa Honto. The castle served as the seat of the northern kings before the island was united into the Ryukyu Kingdom in the 15th century. The barely populated hillside and wild forests around the ruins give Nakijin Castle a unique character.
The Tamaudun Mausoleum served as the mausoleum for the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom. It consists of two courts and three stone chambers where the remains of members of the royal family were stored. The mausoleum is located just a short walk from Shuri Castle.
Sonohyan Utaki Stone Gate
The Sonohyan Utaki Stone Gate is located along the the approach to the main hall of Shuri Castle. The gate is the entrance to a small sacred forest which served as the guardian shrine of the Ryukyu Kingdom.
Shikinaen Garden served as a second residence for the royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom and for the entertainment of visiting dignitaries. Located at the outskirts of Naha, the garden features wooded areas and a large central pond with palace buildings along its shores.
Sefa Utaki is one of the most sacred spots of the indigenous Okinawan religion. The site is located on a densely forested hillside and features several rock formations that are connected with each other by walking paths.
Getting there and around
The castles are spread across Okinawa Honto. See their individual pages for access details.