The Kingdom of Ryukyu on Okinawa Island, Japan

by Audrey on April 13, 2013

Today fellow travel blogger Julio Moreno takes us to the forgotten Ryukyu Kingdom in Okinawa Island, Japan. Julio has been visiting UNESCO World Heritage Sites for years, and shares his opinions (some sites are raveable, others aren’t) on his website Travel World Heritage. You can also find him on Facebook and Twitter. The floor is yours, Julio!

Okinawa-Island-Japan

Explore:

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu on Okinawa Island, Japan

Location:

Okinawa, Kyushu, Japan

Background and information:

If you want to see ruins of the ancient Roman Empire, where do you go? While many would quickly point to what is now Italy, the question really depends on what part of the Roman Empire as it expanded into much of Europe, Northern Africa and the Middle East. Civilizations as well as empires rise and fall. However, for simplicity, sometimes we think of country’s borders as being eternal. We think of Italy, as being “The Roman Empire,” which is only partially true. Furthermore, some civilizations completely vanish altogether as they are absorbed by another, stronger power. Some, like the Ryukyu Kingdom, are but a memory, and to experience their heritage, you have to know where to look! Like most things that take effort, the reward is worthwhile in this fantastic UNESCO World Heritage Site. In case you haven’t figured it out yet, if you want to see ruins of the Ryukyu Kingdom, you go to Japan.

Okinawa-Island-Japan

In Eastern Asia, there are now four major countries: China, South Korea, North Korea and Japan. However, from 1429-1879, there existed another naval power, the Ryukyu Kingdom, in what is now Okinawa Prefecture in Kyushu Province. The Ryukyus made a huge network of seafaring trade routes with Japan, Korea (unified at the time), China, and Manchuria (somewhat independent at the time). Their Kingdom was mainly based on the big island of Okinawa, but consisted of an archipelago of hundreds of islands. From their castles in Okinawa, they controlled their domain.

Beach-Okinawa-Island-Japan

This world heritage site includes the ruins of all the Ryukyu castles in Okinawa, the Royal Mausoleum, and most importantly, the Shuri Castle.  Unfortunately, Okinawa was heavily bombed during WW2 which resulted in the destruction of all Ryukyu castles. However, a massive reconstruction effort has led to the rebuilding of the Shuri Castle, and the surrounding royal city. While the entire area is no more than 25 years old, every effort has been made to restore it to its original form, down to the last detail. If you are a fan of cultures past, this site is one of those gems that not many people know about. Oh, by the way, did I mention that Okinawa itself is a paradise island?

Beaches-Okinawa-Island-Japan

I really loved the history lesson from visiting this site and the island in general (as you can already tell). It felt like I was discovering an ancient civilization I had never heard about before. Maybe I am a nerd, but when I was looking at the ancient maps in the castle and reading the history, I “wowed” a few times aloud and got looks. I was also surprised at how different Okinawans look compared to mainland Japanese people. It was easy to point out the locals and the tourists from the main land, despite both of them speaking Japanese. You may want to get Japanese lessons on Takelessons.com or from a private tutor to make the trip easier. The history in the castle said that Okinawans are more ethnically similar to Chinese people. The last thing I loved from this trip, as weird as it sounds, was driving on the left side of the road. Japan drives on the left, and since, like I mentioned, public transportation was limited, I rented a car (which, at $30 a day, wasn’t too expensive). All in all, Okinawa was a pretty awesome experience, but here is a more balanced pro and con concerning the UNESCO WHS:

Ryukyu Throne Okinawa

Pros:

-The Shuri Castle restoration is essentially complete, and is one of the most beautiful ones in Japan, on par with the ones in Kyoto which I visited a few months prior to this.

– The main castle is super simple to get to, as the monorail connects from the airport to the archaeological area.

-Okinawa as a whole, feels like a completely different country from Japan. Japan is a very busy place with hoards of people everywhere. Okinawa is a very calm and relaxing place, which even has its own language that is different from Japanese.

-The setting of this site is Okinawa Island, one of the most beautiful islands in Eastern Asia. The water is bright blue, and is considered to have some of the best scuba diving in the world.

Cons:

-Transportation is a hassle in Okinawa. They only have a single monorail line. While it will lead you to the Shuri Castle (the highlight of this site), you need to rent a car to get to the other castle ruins, or the beaches.

The castles are not original. While that might not be a big deal to some, I feel like there is something special about knowing that something has stood in that same spot for hundreds or thousands of years.

Eating sushi in Okinawa

One final note to backpackers, or people on a budget: Have you been scared away from Okinawa or Japan in general because you have been told that Japan is super expensive? Yeah, so was I for a long time. The thing is, it is a complete myth. Yes, Japan is more expensive than South East Asia, but overall, it is more than reasonable is you are not a big spender. Food can be found for ~600 Yen, accommodation for ~$20 a night per person in hostels (or even hotels). Okinawa, and Japan in general, are immensely cheaper than Europe (Italy is my personal experience) if you are a frugal person.

Have you visited Okinawa Island in Japan?

{ 14 comments… read them below or add one }

Turtle April 15, 2013 at 9:11 am

Ahh… I’m in Japan at the moment and have been thinking about going to Okinawa. I’m pretty sure I’m going to run out of time – but this post makes me want to try to squeeze it in even more!

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Julio Moreno April 15, 2013 at 11:14 pm

I think you should definitely try! It is not as expensive as you would think and the beaches will not disappoint. Also, this particular castle, I would say, rivals many of the ones on the mainland.

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Ray @StingyTraveller April 20, 2013 at 2:02 am

Great post. Especially appreciate the pros and cons list!

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Julio Moreno April 21, 2013 at 11:34 pm

Thanks Ray, and I’m glad you like the pros and cons. My whole travel blog is based on the concept. 🙂

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zoomingjapan April 22, 2013 at 12:20 pm

I’ve been to around 100 Japanese castles, but I really liked Shuri Castle. It’s so different from the castles on the “main islands” – even if it’s not an original anymore.

I agree that for visiting the other castle ruins a car is your best option! If you get a car with car navi, it’s not a problem. Just make sure you have a valid driver’s license. Some nationalities will need a translation of their driver’s license, others can use an international driver’s license. Better check carefully before you come to Japan! 😉

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Julio Moreno April 25, 2013 at 11:39 am

I used an international license. Actually, I believe it is called an international driving permit, which is just a translation of your US license provided for 15 USD by the AAA. BTW how much is this car navi? I used J-car (or something like that) because it was 3000 Yen a day. Is navi cheaper? I love a good deal on car rentals since I don’t own a car myself.

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Julio Moreno April 25, 2013 at 12:19 pm

I used an international license. Actually, I believe it is called an international driving permit, which is just a translation of your US license provided for 15 USD by the AAA. BTW how much is this car navi? I used J-car (or something like that) because it was 3000 Yen a day. Is navi cheaper? I love a good deal on car rentals since I don’t own a car myself.
Also, I didn’t know there were 100 castle in Japan… wow. Do you live there? I’ve been to Osaka on a trip and saw the one there and the one in Kyoto.

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zoomingjapan April 25, 2013 at 1:55 pm

It really depends on so many factors! The rental car company, the region, the season (everything is more expensive during high seasons) and the size of the car.
Most rental car companies I have used in Japan won’t charge you extra for a car navi, so definitely get one with it!

Yes, I live in Japan, actually not too far from Osaka.
There are much more than 100 castles in Japan, but a lot of them are now ruins (e.g. only the castle walls are left) or are reconstructions. The one in Osaka you saw is also a reconstruction. There are only very few who survived all the wars, fires, earthquakes etc. over the years and are still in their original shape. Those are very special. Among them Himeji Castle is one of the most famous castles.

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Julio Moreno April 25, 2013 at 12:24 pm

Oh, I kjust checked out your site. I love Japan so I’ll add it to my favorites :).

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memographer May 2, 2013 at 8:33 am

Very informative post. Thanks, Julio! going to check out your web now.

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Julio Moreno May 7, 2013 at 12:37 am

Thanks for visiting! 🙂 And I am glad you enjoyed the post.

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Esti May 3, 2013 at 6:02 pm

The Shuri-Jo is easily the easiest place to reach in within the island.
And it’s worth the visit.

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Julio Moreno May 7, 2013 at 12:38 am

It sure is. I am glad you had as much fun as I did.

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flipnomad August 15, 2013 at 7:50 pm

gorgeous! would love to visit one day!

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