Shuri Castle: The Palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom

Japan is a great country. It is known for its history, culture, and tradition. The country is also popular, as it experiences four seasons. Because of this, Japan, with its rich and beautiful nature, is often flocked by several tourists wanting to experience what it is like being in Japan. An archipelago, Japan houses numerous prefectures that people can choose from, one of them being Okinawa Prefecture, where the Ryukyu Kingdom used to stand.

The History of the Castle of the Ryukyu

By 日本語: 毎日新聞社 [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons

Many may not be aware but a certain part of Japan was initially also another country. This separate country was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom. It had its own nation before their islands were invaded in the year 1609 by the Satsuma domain, which is now known as the Kagoshima Prefecture. Having been invaded and losing the battle, the Ryukyu Kingdom became a tributary state to Japan.

Still, the kingdom was under the governance of the royal family from their residence, the Shuri Castle. However, the kingdom was completely abolished in the year 1879, just a number of years following the Meiji Restoration. Upon abolishment, it was incorporated to Japan and became known as the Okinawa Prefecture. Hence, it comes as no surprise that the culture in Okinawa may be unique in comparison to that of mainland Japan due to its history.

Some of the most notable monuments that signify the unique culture and heritage of this kingdom are the castles that are still standing in Okinawa. These castles are known as “gusuku.” Due to its significance and importance to the history of not just Japan but of the world, five castles, as well as four other related sites, were designated as UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the year 2000. Collectively, these sites are known as the “Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu.”

Nobody is actually certain when the Shuri Castle was built. However, it is known that the castle was already being used during the Sanzan period, which lasted from the year 1322 to the year 1429. It is assumed that the castle was constructed during the Gusuku period, similar to the other castles still standing in Okinawa.

Three principalities of Okinawa was unified by King Sho Hashi. Together, these were established as the Ryukyu Kingdom. Out of the three castles, the Shuri Castle was chosen as the residence of the king. Simultaneously, the castle also served as the capital of the kingdom. It continued to prosper during the Second Sho Dynasty.

Since the year 1429, the Shuri Castle served as the royal court as well as the administrative center of the kingdom in a span of 450 years. The castle was the focal point for a lot of things, such as foreign trade, economy, and politics. Shuri Castle was also considered as the cultural heart of the islands of Ryukyu. Based on documented records, even though the castle was burned down numerous times, the administration never failed to rebuild it again.

However, the Japanese feudal domain of Satsuma sent samurai forces to invade the castle during the reign of Sho Nei, on the 6th of May in the year 1609. The throne was eventually returned to King Sho Nei two years after the invasion as the Japanese withdrew its forces. The castle, as well as the city, was returned to the people of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Still, the kingdom remained a vassal state under Satsuma and continued to do so for around 250 years.

The headquarters of the Imperial Japanese Army was set up under the grounds of the Shuri Castle during the Second World War. Complex lines of defense and communications in the regions surrounding the castle was set up and completed by the year 1945. Starting on the 25th of May in the year 1945, the American battleship known as the USS Mississippi (BB-41) bombed it for a span of 3 days. Finally, on the 27th of May, the castle burned.

Following the Second World War, the castle site became the home of the University of the Ryukyus in the year 1950 until the year 1975. The castle was again reconstructed in the year 1958. Beginning in the year 1992, even the main buildings, as well as the surrounding walls, of the central castle was rebuilt in commemoration of its 20th anniversary of reversion. Today, the whole around the castle is known as the Shuri Castle Park.

The Construction of Shuri Castle

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / 

While most castles in Japan were constructed with Japanese architecture, the same cannot be said about Shuri Castle. Its architecture was highly influenced by Chinese culture. Hence, its functional and decorative elements can be best compared with those found in the Forbidden City. Only the Nanden and Bandokoro incorporated a Japanese style, as they were primarily used by the Satsuma clan for receptions as well as entertainment.

There are also numerous elements that showcase Ryukyuan nature. For one, Shuri Castle was constructed with the use of Ryukyuan limestone. Furthermore, the only living garden in a gusuku, known as the Okushoin-en, was also built using a limestone bedrock. Moreover, the garden was also arranged with the use of local cycads.

The castle was last renovated with the design based on the structure being a cultural center in mind. Instead of incorporating a design for military purposes, the design of the castle during its last renovation was also based on the structure being both an administrative and a political center. Only the buildings located in the main citadel were reconstructed as original wooden buildings. The Seiden was reconstructed with the use of wood that came from Taiwan and other places. This was after the removal of huge trees from the Yanbaru mountains.

On the other hand, the other buildings like the Nanden and the Hokuden were only renovated as facades. The interiors of these structures were created with the use of modern materials like concrete and steel instead of the traditional wood. Some old walls remain standing to this today and form the only living external remnants of the original castle.

A Guide to Shuri Castle

By 663highland [GFDL (, CC-BY-SA-3.0 ( or CC BY 2.5 (], from Wikimedia Commons

More commonly known as Shurijo in Japanese, Shuri Castle is located in the city district of Naha. The castle served as the home of several Ryukyu kings for many centuries prior to Okinawa becoming a prefecture of Japan in the year 1879. Shuri Castle is also among the Castles of the Ryukyu Kingdom sites, which are designated as a UNESCO World Heritage site.

The buildings present in this day in the castle were reconstructed in the year 1992 onwards. The entrance to the central buildings of Shuri Castle goes through several gates. One of these gates that is quite famous is the Shureimon Gate. Located on top of a hill, the castle lets visitors see the beautiful views of the district of Naha.

Because of the important role of the castle during the Ryukyuan period, both politically and religiously, Shuri Castle consists of several sites of historical interest. The same can also be said of the areas and structures surrounding the castle. The castle is comprised of three main zones. These zones are the central administrative area, the eastern living and ceremonial area, and the southwestern ceremonial area.

The central administrative area includes the Seida and Ura. Also known as the Ouchibara, which literally translates to “inside field,” the eastern living and ceremonial space is located at the back of the Seidan. On the other hand, the southwestern ceremonial area includes the Kyo-no-uchi, which literally translates to “inside capital.”

The main hall of the castle known as the Seiden sits on top of the hill. This main hall used to be the place for major affairs of the state as well as for ceremonies. Because of its significance, the building is decorated lavishly. The Seiden also serves as a landmark of Okinawa. Both its color, which is vermilion, and its architectural design are different in comparison to other castles located in mainland Japan.

In front of the Seiden lies the Una Plaza. This area was formerly used for ceremonies. On its three sides stand three structures. These structures are the Hokuden, the Nanden, and the Hoshinmon. The Hokuden, also known as the North Hall, and the Nanden, also known as the South Hall, used to be considered as administrative buildings. They were also used as venues to extend the kingdom’s warmest welcomes to envoys visiting from China as well as mainland Japan. The Hoshinmon is also known as the Hoshin Gate.

Visitors of the castle can take a circular route to see the interiors of the buildings. The tour begins at the Nanden. Exhibits are also displayed to provide visitors information about the history of the Ryukyu Kingdom. These exhibits also show the interaction between China and the Japanese mainland. Historical artifacts, which were either created on the island or obtained from foreign trade, can be found inside the buildings.

Photo by CEphoto, Uwe Aranas / 

The interiors of both the Hokuden and the Nanden were designed to look like modern museums. However, the interior of the Seiden was reconstructed with its original style in mind. With this, guests are able to imagine and really feel what it was like for the Ryukyu kings to live in the castle. One of the many exhibits inside the castle is a replica of the throne, as well as the crown, of the Ryukyu king.

People interested in visiting Shuri Castle can access the site by using the public transportation. One can take the Okinawa Monorail and get off at the Shuri Station. From there, one can either walk or take the bus. It takes around 15 to 20 minutes to reach the castle by foot. On the other hand, it takes only about 5 minutes to reach the castle on a bus, with a single trip costing 150 yen per head.

For people taking the bus, the bus number to take note of is either number 7 or number 8. Alight at Shurijo-mae. One can also get on bus number 1 from central Naha (Kokusaidori). This bus would take visitors straight to Shuri Castle in a matter of about 15 to 20 minutes. A one-way trip using this bus costs 230 yen per head. Get off at Shurijo Koen Iriguchi.

One may also opt to drive one’s own car. Using a private vehicle, one can reach Shuri Castle in a matter of 10 minutes coming from central Naha. If one is coming from Naha Airport, the trip may take about 20 minutes to reach the castle. It is also important to note that traffic may be expected when driving to the castle during rush hour.

Shuri Castle opens and closes depending on the season. From December to March, Shuri Castle is open from 8:30 in the morning to 6 in the evening. However, from July to September, Shuri Castle is open from 8:30 in the morning to 8 in the evening. Lastly, for the months of October and November, the castle is open from 8:30 in the morning to 7 in the evening. Admission is only until 30 minutes prior to closing time. The castle is closed on the first Wednesday and Thursday of the month of July. Admission costs 820 yen per head.

One side trip that one can take when going to Okinawa is the Ryugujo Butterfly Garden. Filled with tropical flowers, the garden is famous for its “paper kite” butterflies. It is also only a few hours away from Naha, where Shuri Castle is located.

Ceremonies Held Inside Shuri Castle

Back in the day, there were also ceremonies that were held inside the castle grounds. One of these ceremonies was called a “Yusa,” which was a religious ceremony. This was done by Chinese delegates back in the day to commemorate the late king. Aside from these, there were also celebrations held inside the castle.

One of these celebrations was known as the “Feast of Investiture.” Another part of the program following this feast is the “Mid-autumn Banquet.” To make these festivities livelier, they are accompanied by songs and dances. A temporary platform across the Hokuden serves as the venue for this banquet. Another banquet that took place in the castle is the “Choyo Banquet,” which included a boat race as well as musical performances.