Shuri Castle, Okinawa
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Okinawa’s iconic castle doesn’t look so iconic in the grey weather
Shuri Castle (首里城, Shurijo) on Okinawa Island was once the center of the Ryukyu Kingdom and dates back to the late 14th century (although the details are sketchy on this point). What is known is that trade with Japan, China and parts of Southeast Asia brought items and influence to the castle making it one of the most unique castles in Japan. Like many castles in Japan however, Shurijo seems to have not been built to survive what it was built for - to stand up against aggression and adversity, so it is that the castle has been raised numerous times through wars and fires, the most recent being during WWII. What the visitor to Shurijo sees today is a reconstruction that dates back to the early 1990s. It must be a fine reconstruction job though, as the castle was designated as a World Heritage Site in 2000. The Shurijo site is a large one but it’s only the main cluster of buildings, starting from the gate, “Koufukumon”, that command an entrance fee - 820 yen. So, for the cheapo traveling in Okinawa, there’s something to be gained from seeing just the free stuff that comes with Shurijo. You can see, and walk through, the front gate of the castle - the Kankaimon Gate - its weathered grey stonework a stark contrast to the brilliant vermillion for which Shuri Castle is famous. This would be a good photo spot were it not for the legions of visitors pouring through it (including school groups). Still, the patient photographer might be able to catch a break in the crowds. To the left as you look at Kankaimon, is the Sonohyan-utaki Stone Gate, also a World Heritage spot. Just west of this you’ll find the impressive, 16th century Shureimon one of the main gates in the castle grounds. Head through this, away from the castle, and you’ll come to the visitor’s lobby and a rest center where you can find vending machines, sheltered benches and toilets. Passing through Kankaimon and heading into the grounds on your right, you’ll find an observation deck (Iri-no-Azana) worth seeking out for the views over downtown Naha below. Through the same gate and heading straight on, you can explore the northern flank of the castle, an area guarded by impressive stone walling and sturdy gates. It’s in this area that you’ll find the “Nichiei-dai”, some form of “water clock”, as well as catch glimpses of the ocean beyond the walls. What you won’t be able to get much of without paying the entrance fee though, is a view to the main “seiden” or hall of Shuri Castle - the one that’s on all the pictures. Entering the paid area of the Shuri Castle is where you really get to see all the vermillion that you’ve seen in a thousand images prior, including the “seiden” the most fancy structure of Shuri Castle. After purchasing your ticket (which you can do from a train station style machine, or at a counter with a member of staff) you pass through a gate on your left (there’s a medical center here if needed) and into the main courtyard (“una”) where you’ll see the seiden in front of you. In this space you’re flanked on all sides by, mostly, vermillion structures. And that’s about it in terms of the outside experience. Heading inside, a route encircles the una guiding the visitor through a “museum” experience until entering the seiden, the interior of which has been restored to the glory of its Ryukyu days. I don’t use the term “glory” lightly. The interior of the seiden is well worth a look. I was a bit pushed for time so kind of rushed through the interior, although the number of visitors in there doesn’t really give the feel of a space in which you’d want to linger. You exit at the northwestern corner of the una. Going through the gate here means giving up (figuratively) your ticket of entrance, and you’re back out on the northern flank of the castle. It seems to me the Shurijo experience comes with two caveats - one is the weather. We’ve probably seen images of the castle, its brilliant vermillion ablaze against a bright blue sky. It looks spectacular. However, replace the bright blue with a slate grey and the vermillion is not so much ablaze as it is looking a bit dull. I was here on such a day, and quite frankly, it tarnished the whole Shurijo experience, not to mention the photos. The other caveat is more luck of the draw - restoration works. At the time of visiting, and the time of writing this review of Shuri Castle, the main hall (seiden) of the castle was / is undergoing some work (until late 2018). This means that the main facade is mostly hidden under scaffolding and netting. So, bad weather and maintenance together make for not the best of Shuri Castle experiences, especially given the air of anticipation around a visit to such an iconic place. In fact, unless you’re really into the history, paying the 850 yen entrance under such circumstances is to flirt with a questionable cost performance. Still, the free aspect of Shurijo are worth making the trip here should you be on Okinawa Island. Hours: 8:30 - 19:00 (last admission 30 mins before closing) - the rest of the grounds can be explored at anytime and are lit up (along with the castle) until midnight. There are security guards in the area … and lots of cats! We accessed Shurijo by car. The castle has its own parking of which you can check space availability on the castle’s web page. There is also private parking available nearby. The drive here took us about 10 mins from central Naha. If you’re driving straight from the airport better to take into consideration the sometime heavy traffic that clogs the main road from there. The monorail has a station nearby - Shuri Station. The castle is a 15-20 min walk from here.