There are a total of nine world heritage sites in Okinawa and while we lived there I made it a personal goal to visit all nine of them. Here are some sight-seeing tips for those of you that like this sort of exploration too.
Important things to remember:
Most tourist sites in Japan close at 5:30-6 p.m, so plan accordingly.
You must arrive 30 minutes before closing to enter all tourist sites in Japan.
There are entrance fees for nearly all of these sites that vary in pricing.
All of these sites require a lot of walking so adequate shoes and being in good physical condition is highly recommended. Some of the sites are a bit difficult to overcome as there are many unforgiving steps to climb and such.
Stay hydrated while attempting to visit all these sites as Okinawa’s heat can be quite intense.
It is best to bundle some of the sites to make the most of your travel time. Shuri Castle, Sonohyan-Utaki, Tamaudun and Shikinaen can all be done in one go if planned correctly as these sites are relatively near each other. Zakimi Castle and Katsuren Castle aren’t too far away from each other and can be bundled together in one day if planned correctly.
The other sites are scattered around Okinawa and will require some advanced planning to make the most of your travel time.
Most sites will take anywhere from 10 minutes to over 1 hour to get through.
Pack a lunch or bring snacks as some of these sites didn’t seem to have too many restaurant options nearby.
Nakagusuku Castle Ruins:
Located in Kitanakagusuku district, Nakagusuku Castle is a gusuku (Okinawan) style castle built in approximately 1440. This castle ruin sits up a large hill surrounded by beautiful views. What you should expect to see at this ruins site are the remains of the walls, some foundations and of course the beautiful city and an ocean view.
Zakimi Castle Ruins:
Located in Nakagai district, Zakimi castle was built between 1416-1422 but not much is left other than the walls you see standing and the two inner courts. The walking path leading up to the site was quite serene aside from the very loud buzzing of the cicadas found up and around the many trees. The view from the walls over looking the quiet neighborhood was very relaxing. Also, there is a really nice park next door which features a wooden walking path totally worth visiting. But don’t forget to bring a flashlight as there are a lot of active bats at night and sections of the park have no lighting.
Located in Shuri district this World Heritage Site is the most popular among the nine. Shuri Castle is an Okinawan style castle which was built by the Ryukyu kingdom during the 14th century. U.S war ships nearly decimated the castle during the 1945 Battle of Okinawa. It was reconstructed between 1958 and 1992 but sections of it are still being restored even when I visited in the fall of 2016. You can enter the castle after paying the entrance fee and learn about the different rulers that once resided in the castle among other interesting bits regarding the castle’s history.
Sonohyan-utaki Stone Gate:
Located along the walking path to the Shuri Castle is this Heritage site, the Sonohyan-utaki stone gate. This gate is among other religious significant stone gates in Okinawa, it was built in 1519. The gate is not opened for the public, it was only opened for the king, who would enter the sacred grounds to pray.
Tamaudun is a Ryukyu stone mausoleum where royalty was entombed. Tamaudun is at a walking distance from Shuri Castle and Sonohyan-utaki stone gate. This mausoleum was built in the early 15th century by King Sho Shin, the third king of the second Sho dynasty, for his father King Sho En. There are 18 kings and their families entombed in Tamaudun. Be sure to visit the underground museum next to the pay station to better understand the history of this site.
Nakijin Castle Ruins:
Located in northern Okinawa is Nakijin Castle, a Ryukyu fortress. The now castle ruin was built in the 14th century. The Ryukyu kingdom consisted of three principalities: Nanzan, Chūzan and Hokuzan. Nakijin was the capital of Hokuzan. This fortress is very large and it features several sacred Utaki groves, a Hikan cherry blossom path and a beautiful view of the over looking the ocean. The sunset view here is awesome. Also, there is an elderly couple which live next to the site who sell sugar cane energy drinks nearby. But don’t make the same mistake as me and drink the energy drink on an empty stomach, you’ll regret it!
Located in the center of Okinawa, in the a city of Uruma is Katsuren Castle, which is believed to be the oldest castle in Okinawa Prefecture. The castle ruin over looks the Pacific Ocean. Perhaps my favorite heritage site in Okinawa for various reasons: free entrance, 15 minute drive from the home I was staying in, and it was a very photogenic site in general.
Seifa-utaki Shrine located is located in Nanjo. It is considered to be one of the seven sacred sites of the Ryukyu kingdom said to have been built by Amamikiyo, the god of ancient spirits. The forest along the path of this site was preserved from damage during the Battle of Okinawa. The site consists of several natural rock formations including the well-known archway. There once were several buildings on this site, but now only the rock formation and rock path remain. This sacred site was only used by the royal Ryukuan families long ago. Entrance tickets for this site can be purchased via a vending machine in the parking lot area across the street on the main road. There is also an optional video you can watch to better understand the significance of this site in the facility in the parking lot area. After watching the information video you will make your way across the street to the main site where you will be required to watch a safety and information video. Be sure to prepare well for this site as the rock path can be really slick to walk on after rainfall.
Shikinaen Garden was once part of the Shuri Castle but now it is located 1.5km away in the city of Naha. This beautiful Ryukyu garden was constructed in 1799. Enjoy a relaxing stroll around this garden, there is much to take in at this site as the various rocked paths all lead to the focal point which is the Chinese style bridge and pond.
If you are anything like me and enjoy going to museums and heritage sites while traveling to foreign countries to learn of the country’s history then you will surely enjoy checking out all these sites. Have fun and happy travels!