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Exploring Okinawa Castles: 15 Must-Visit Locations

Hildur Photo
Hilda Jonsdottir
May 13, 2024
Katsuren Castle Ruins World Heritage Okinawa, Japan

Okinawa's landscape is dotted with the remains of gusuku, castles that are a testament to the Ryukyu Kingdom's rich history and cultural uniqueness. These fortresses, often perched on strategic hilltops, not only defended the island but also served as centers of trade and diplomacy in East Asia. Today, many are recognized as UNESCO World Heritage Sites, drawing visitors worldwide. 

This article takes you on a journey through 15 of Okinawa's must-visit castles, each offering a unique window into the architectural, historical, and cultural tapestry of this island prefecture. From the iconic Shuri Castle to less-known but equally fascinating ruins, these sites showcase the ingenuity of Ryukyuan design and the enduring legacy of a kingdom that once thrived in the crosscurrents of regional powers.

Central Okinawa:

1. Shuri Castle (Shurijo)

Shuri Castle in Okinawa Prefecture, Japan
Shuri Castle

Shuri Castle, the crowning jewel of Okinawan history and culture, served as the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom for several centuries. This architectural masterpiece, located in the heart of Naha, combines Japanese and Chinese architectural influences, showcasing the unique cultural blend that defines Okinawa. 

The castle's bright red lacquer and ornate dragon decorations symbolize the kingdom's prosperity and the royal family's divine authority. Despite suffering significant damage during World War II and a devastating fire in 2019, Shuri Castle has been meticulously restored, allowing visitors to experience the grandeur of the Ryukyu royals and learn about their sophisticated court customs and rituals.

  • Address: 1-2 Shurikinjocho, Naha, Okinawa

  • Timing: 8:00 AM to 7:30 PM

  • Entry Fee: ¥820 for adults

  • How to Get There: Accessible via the Yui Rail from Naha Airport to Shuri Station, then a 15-minute walk

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2. Iso Castle Ruins

Iso Castle Ruins
Iso Castle Ruins

Iso Castle, positioned near the southern coast of Naha, offers a stark contrast to the opulence of Shuri Castle. These ruins, primarily consisting of stone walls and foundational structures, provide insights into the defensive strategies employed by the Ryukyu Kingdom. 

Iso Castle played a crucial role in protecting the capital city from naval attacks, leveraging its panoramic views over the ocean. Today, the site is a tranquil spot for history enthusiasts and nature lovers, offering scenic walks amidst historical remnants and lush local flora.

  • Address: 3 Chome-47-11 Iso, Urasoe, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: A short walk from Shuri Castle, approximately 20 minutes

3. Ruins of Iha Castle

Iha Castle
Iha Castle

Located in the central region of Okinawa near Uruma, the Ruins of Iha Castle represent the historical complexities of the Ryukyu Kingdom's political landscape. Iha Castle served as a fortress for local chieftains before the unification of Okinawa under the Shuri monarchy. 

Its ruins, set on a hilltop, provide a glimpse into the military architecture of the time with remnants of stone walls that once formed a robust defense mechanism. The site now offers a peaceful haven, with sweeping views of the surrounding countryside and the East China Sea, perfect for a reflective day spent exploring Okinawa's storied past.

  • Address: Uruma, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Best accessed by car, around 40 minutes drive from Naha

Eastern Okinawa:

4. Katsuren Castle Ruins

Katsuren Castle Ruins World Heritage Okinawa, Japan
Katsuren Castle Ruins

Perched on a rugged peninsula, the Katsuren Castle Ruins are often hailed as the "Ocean's Gusuku" due to their commanding views of the Pacific Ocean and the East China Sea. This UNESCO World Heritage Site dates back to the 13th century and was once the residence of the infamous Lord Amawari, a figure known for his ambitious rise and dramatic fall. 

The castle's strategic position allowed it to control maritime trade routes, contributing to its prosperity. Today, the ruins offer visitors a chance to walk through stone walls that narrate tales of commerce, conflict, and cultural exchanges that shaped the region.

  • Address: Katsuren Haebaru, Uruma, Okinawa

  • Timing: 9:00 AM to 6:00 PM

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Approximately 45 minutes by car from Naha

5. Nakagusuku Castle Ruins

Nakagusuku Castle
Nakagusuku Castle, the ruins of the Ryukyu Kingdom in Okinawa, Japan

The Nakagusuku Castle Ruins represents one of the best-preserved examples of Ryukyu fortifications, boasting original stonework that has withstood the test of time. Constructed in stages from the 14th to the 15th century, this castle is a testament to the architectural and defensive ingenuity of the Ryukyu Kingdom. 

Its six courtyards, each with unique defensive features and linked by gates and winding paths, illustrate a sophisticated approach to fortress design. The site provides a stunning overlook of the surrounding landscape, including the modern-day cityscape, making it a favorite spot for both history enthusiasts and photographers.

  • Address: 1258番地 Tomari, Nakagusuku, Okinawa

  • Timing: 8:30 AM to 5:00 PM

  • Entry Fee: ¥400 for adults

  • How to Get There: Around 30 minutes by car from Naha

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6. Agena Castle Ruins

Agena Castle Ruins
Agena Castle Ruins

Situated near the central eastern coast of Okinawa, the Agena Castle Ruins might appear modest compared to more famous sites, but they hold significant historical importance. These ruins are remnants of a castle that played a crucial role in the internal power struggles of the Ryukyu Kingdom. 

Today, Agena offers a quiet retreat among pieces of old stone foundations and encroaching forest, allowing visitors to imagine the once-thriving castle that stood as a witness to shifting allegiances and the consolidation of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

  • Address: Agena, Uruma, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Best reached by car, about 40 minutes drive from Naha

Northern Okinawa:

7. Nakijin Castle

Nakijin Castle Ruins
Nakijin Castle Ruins

Nestled in the lush landscapes of northern Okinawa, Nakijin Castle stands as a testament to the region's historical depth and cultural significance. Dating back to the early 14th century, this site served as the fortress and administrative center of the Hokuzan Kingdom, one of the three original principalities of Okinawa. 

The castle's thick, imposing walls and strategic hilltop location provided a formidable defense against invaders and a vantage point for overseeing the surrounding area. Today, Nakijin is renowned not only for its historical importance but also for its spectacular cherry blossoms, making it a popular destination during the early spring bloom.

  • Address: 5101 Imadomari, Nakijin, Kunigami District, Okinawa

  • Timing: 8:00 AM to 6:00 PM

  • Entry Fee: 600 yen for adults

  • How to Get There: Approximately 1.5 hours by car from Naha

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8. Zakimi Castle Ruins

Zakimi Castle Ruins
Zakimi Castle Ruins Okinawa Prefecture Yomitan Village World Heritage Site

Zakimi Castle, constructed in the early 15th century, is a hallmark of Ryukyuan engineering and design, recognized by UNESCO for its historical and cultural significance. The castle's robust limestone walls and arched gates are particularly noteworthy, illustrating advancements in military architecture that influenced subsequent castle constructions in the region. 

Zakimi's strategic position allowed it to control and survey the western coast of Okinawa. The ruins offer a serene atmosphere, where visitors can wander through the remnants of this once-powerful fortress and enjoy panoramic views of Yomitan Village and the East China Sea.

  • Address: 7086 Zakimi, Yomitan, Nakagami District, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Around 1 hour by car from Naha

9. Gushikawa Castle

Gushikawa Castle Ruins
Gushikawa Castle Ruins

Perched on the rugged cliffs of the Okinawan coastline, Gushikawa Castle's ruins provide a stark reminder of the island's turbulent past and strategic importance. Unlike other castles built for administrative purposes, Gushikawa was primarily a defensive stronghold, protecting the southern approaches of the island from pirates and other maritime threats. 

The site today offers dramatic ocean views and a palpable sense of isolation, which underscores the harsh conditions under which the original inhabitants lived and defended their lands.

  • Address: 1730-1 Kyan, Itoman, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Approximately 30 minutes by car from Naha

Southern Okinawa:

10. Chinen Castle Ruins

Chinen Castle Ruins
View of the Chinen Castle ruins in Okinawa

Overlooking the Pacific Ocean from its strategic vantage point, the Chinen Castle Ruins embody the historical significance of southern Okinawa's defensive architecture. Dating back to the 14th century, this site served both as a fortress and a sacred space, with its grounds traditionally used for religious rites by the local community. 

The remnants of its stone walls, carved into the rugged terrain, tell a story of a castle that not only provided physical protection but also spiritual guidance. Visitors today can walk along the ancient paths, enjoying the tranquil scenery and the expansive ocean views that once served as a lookout for approaching threats.

  • Address: Chinen, Nanjo, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: About 30 minutes by car from Naha

11. The Itokazu Castle Ruin

Ruins of Itokazu Castle
Ruins of Itokazu Castle

The Itokazu Castle Ruin remains a profound symbol of the Ryukyu Kingdom's strategic ingenuity. Built in the 14th century, this fortress features impressively thick walls and clear lines of sight over the surrounding land, characteristics that made it an indispensable part of southern Okinawa's defense network against invaders. 

Today, the ruins stand amidst a lush landscape, offering a peaceful retreat where visitors can explore the expansive grounds and discover remnants of the past that illustrate the complexities of Okinawan warfare and community life.

  • Address: Itokazu Tamagusuku, Nanjo, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Approximately 30 minutes by car from Naha

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12. Shimajiri Ozato Castle Ruins

Shimajiri Ozato Castle Ruins
Shimajiri Ozato Castle Ruins

Shimajiri Ozato Castle, another lesser-known site, holds historical significance due to its role in regional governance during the Ryukyu Kingdom's era. Positioned to oversee vast agricultural lands, it was integral in managing the produce that was essential for the survival of local communities and for trade. 

The ruins today offer minimal structure but maximum historical resonance, giving visitors a sense of the everyday lives of those who once manned these fortifications and those who sought its shelter and governance.

  • Address: Ozato-574 Ozato, Nanjo, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Approximately 40 minutes by car from Naha

Western Okinawa:

13. Ufugusukujo Ruin

Ufugusukujo Ruin
Ufugusukujo Ruin

The Ufugusukujo Ruin, situated on a commanding hilltop, offers panoramic views that stretch across the western coastline of Okinawa. This site was once a formidable structure built in the 15th century under the reign of the legendary Lord Gosamaru, known for his strategic acumen in castle construction across the island. 

Although only foundation stones and sections of walls remain, they reflect the sophisticated defensive architecture of the time, designed to utilize the natural landscape for protection. Today, the ruins not only provide a glimpse into the military strategies of the Ryukyu Kingdom but also serve as a scenic spot to watch the sunset over the East China Sea.

  • Address: Nanjo, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: About 40 minutes by car from Naha

14. Ruins of Kakihana Castle

Kakihana Castle
Kakihana Castle

Nestled in the lush greenery of western Okinawa, the ruins of Kakihana Castle hold stories of feudal lords and local governance. This castle was a vital point in the defense network of the Ryukyu Kingdom, particularly during times of internal strife and rebellion.

Its strategic location allowed for control over the nearby regions and served as a lookout for incoming threats from the sea. While much of the original structure has succumbed to time, the remaining stone walls and foundations invite visitors to explore and imagine the once-bustling castle grounds.

  • Address: Ginoza, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Approximately 1 hour by car from Naha

15. Shimotabaru Castle Ruins

Shimotabaru Castle Ruins
Shimotabaru Castle Ruins

The Shimotabaru Castle Ruins are one of the lesser-known historical sites in Okinawa, offering a quiet reflection on the island's expansive history. Situated away from the more tourist-frequented paths, Shimotabaru was primarily a residential and administrative center, crucial for overseeing the agricultural activities of the region. 

The ruins are modest, mostly consisting of the base foundations and some wall segments, but they are poignant reminders of the everyday lives of those who lived and ruled from this remote stronghold.

  • Address: Nago, Okinawa

  • Timing: Open 24 hours

  • Entry Fee: Free

  • How to Get There: Around 1.5 hours by car from Naha

Wrapping Up Your Castle Journey in Okinawa

In conclusion, Okinawa's castles are not just relics of the past but vibrant pieces of history that invite exploration and wonder. From the majestic ruins of Nakagusuku to the serene beauty of Zakimi Castle, each site offers a unique glimpse into the Ryukyu Kingdom's rich heritage. 

Whether you're a history buff, an architecture enthusiast, or simply in search of breathtaking views, these 15 castles are must-visit locations that promise unforgettable experiences.

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Frequently Asked Questions

How many castles are in Okinawa?

Okinawa is home to over a dozen castle ruins, remnants of the Ryukyu Kingdom era. The exact number can vary depending on whether smaller fortifications are included, but notable sites generally number around 15.

What are the popular castles in Okinawa?

The most popular castles in Okinawa include Shuri Castle, Nakagusuku Castle, Katsuren Castle, and Zakimi Castle. These are renowned for their historical significance, architectural features, and scenic locations.

What is the best castle to visit in Okinawa?

Shuri Castle is widely considered the best castle to visit in Okinawa due to its historical importance as the former royal palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, its stunning architecture, and the comprehensive restoration work that allows visitors to appreciate its former glory.

How far is Shurijo Castle from Kokusai Street in Okinawa?

Shurijo Castle is approximately 3 to 4 kilometers from Kokusai Street, Okinawa’s famous international shopping street. It typically takes about 10 minutes by car or approximately 20 minutes by public transport to travel between these two popular attractions.