Shuri Castle – Naha, Japan - Atlas Obscura

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Shuri Castle

Naha, Japan

The seat of the lost Ryukyu Kingdom has survived numerous fires and wars over the centuries. 

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Set on a hilltop overlooking the city of Naha, Shuri-jō or Shuri Castle served as the seat of the Ryukyu dynasty, an archipelagic kingdom that had a unique culture and prospered in maritime trade until the Empire of Japan absorbed all of its territory in 1879.

Believed to date back to the late 14th century, Shuri Castle was merely one of many local gusuku, as castles are referred to in the Okinawan dialect, when Shō Hashi, the founder of the Ryukyu dynasty, seized it and made it his royal seat. Unlike most historic castles of Japan, it was built in Chinese style and originally roofed with Goryeoan tiles, painted in a dazzling combination of red and gold, accentuated by breathtakingly ornate carvings of dragons.

Along with a number of historic Ryukyu sites, the site of Shuri Castle was designed as a UNESCO World Heritage site in 2000. This does not include the castle itself, however, as what you see is all modern reconstruction.

Built mainly in wood, the castle has always been liable to be lost in a fire, and has been lost that way numerous times even in the early days of the dynasty. During the Pacific War, it was horribly damaged in the Battle of Okinawa and all but a fragment of the wall and foundation was destroyed. In 1992, much of the castle was faithfully restored to its prime glory, becoming the most popular tourist spot in Okinawa.

But another tragedy has struck it, very recently. Around the midnight of Halloween 2019, a fire broke out and burned down all of the castle buildings to the ground. The cause of it is still uncertain, but it has been suspected that a short circuit lit the tung oil that coated the walls, spreading the fire all around. The structure is currently under restoration work and set to be fully open to the public in 2026, with some aspects of the reconstruction work open for viewing. 

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November 25, 2021

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