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5 must-visit Okinawa castles
From restored to ruined, these ancient “gusuku" transport visitors to the days when the Ryukyu Kingdom ruled
While most visitors come to Okinawa for its natural attractions –- beaches, weather, wildlife -– the island prefecture is also a hotbed of archeological significance.
This is primarily manifest in a hefty supply of castle ruins, which are at least 100 years older than their mainland Japan counterparts.
At one point, Okinawa was the site of more than 220 castles, dating to the 15th century, when the area was known as the Ryukyu Kingdom.
These days, you can’t travel far without seeing castle ruins, some with walls still standing, many currently undergoing renovation.
Others have been neglected for so long that time and erosion have left only a few blocks of once magnificent structures.
According to Dr. Hideo Inoue, retired professor at the Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts, most of the castles were closed or destroyed about 500 years ago.
Known as “gusuku” in the Okinawan language, castles and castle ruins remain available to the modern visitor. A handful, including a couple UNESCO-listed heritage sites, rise above the rest.
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1. Shuri Castle
Shuri Castle is the top remaining testament to the Ryukyu Dynasty. It's also one of nine UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Okinawa.
At least a few hours are needed to tour the magnificent site and surrounding shrines. At certain times of the year, the castle is the scene of reenactments of royal processions and other important moments in history.
Shuri is the only Okinawa castle that's been restored to its full, former glory.
It was almost completely destroyed during the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. In 1992, it was rebuilt based on historical documents and pictures.
The castle is located in the busy Okinawa capital of Naha, but once you enter the grounds it's easy to forget you're in the middle of a bustling city.
1-2 Kinjo-cho, Shuri, Naha City; +81 (0)98 886 2020; www.oki-park.jp/shurijo-park
2. Katsuren Castle
Katsuren Castle is located northeast of Shuri Castle, in the city of Uruma.
It's built on a large limestone plot on a peninsula surrounded by the Pacific Ocean, giving it the nickname “Ocean Gusuku.”
Also designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Katsuren has a small museum filled with artifacts excavated at the site, including pieces from Korea, China, Japan and Southeast Asia.
3908 Haebaru, Katsuren, Uruma City; +81 (0) 98 978 7373; www.jcastle.info/castle/profile/110-Katsuren-Castle
3. Nakagusuku Castle
Located in the city of Kitanakagusuku, Nakagusuku -- or Naka Castle -- was built in the late 15th century to protect against attacks from the neighboring lord of Katsuren Castle.
With six courtyards, this fascinating ruin is a prime example of the masonry techniques used at the time -- most of the stacked stone walls are still standing.
Visitors can catch gorgeous, panoramic views of the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean from the top terrace.
5030 Oshiro, Kitanakagusuku Village; +81 (0)98 935 5719; www.nakagusuku-jo.jp/en
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4. Nakijin Castle
Nakijin Castle is located in the city of Nakijin, west of Nago on the Motubu peninsula.
Also a UNESCO World Heritage Site, most of it lies in ruins, but there are a few limestone walls still standing and a large museum filled with ancient artifacts and insight into the history of the area.
Nakijin was once a center of religious activity and features several utaki (sacred groves).
A visual treat is the view of the East China Sea -- quality on even a cloudy day.
The best time to visit is January or February, when the grounds' many hikan cherry trees are in bloom.
Hantabaru Imadomari, Nakijin Village; +81 (0)98 056 4400; Nakijinjo.jp/english/index.html
5. Tamagusuku Castle
Tamagusuku Castle is said to have been the first castle on Okinawa, built by the legendary creator of the Ryukyus, goddess Amamikiyo.
Don’t expect grand walls and stairways. Tamagusuku Castle's ruins are exactly that -- ruins.
Not much is left standing, but its significance and beautiful views make it worthy of inclusion on an Okinawa castle-hopping itinerary.
444 Tamagusuku, Monbara, Nanjo City; www.okinawastory.jp
More on CNN: Okinawa: Which island is for you?
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