Getting There: Contrary to Mainland Japan, public transportation outside of Naha (the capital) is quite limited. Therefore, I recommend renting a car. Depending which country you’re visiting from, you may need to get a International Driver’s License (mandatory for Americans visiting Japan). The positive thing is that parking is affordable at Shuri Castle at 320Yen (around $3), there’s even an attendant who offers to park your car in the very tight spaces offered! No car? See the tips from Japan Guide on how to get there.
I visited Shuri Castle for the first time in 2003 when I first lived in Okinawa. It was my first time living abroad and everything look so new and foreign. When I first entered the castle area it was sensory overload with the lacquered details, the women in kimonos, and the men in traditional costumes. Almost Twelve years have passed and I have experienced many exotic destinations in between but I still had the wide-eyed curious look at my most recent visit to Shuri Castle last weekend. Here are my highlights:
The Experience: As you enter the castle, you’ll see plenty of tourists, mostly from Mainland Japan and some from South Korea. I was surprised that with so many Americans on the island, we only saw a handful of our people. There are women dressed in Kimonos offering tourists to take photos dressed up in Kimonos and the staff throughout the park are dressed in traditional attire, taking you back to the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom in Japan.
Although the exterior of Shuri Castle is free, to get to the good stuff (the castle interior fee is 820Yen (around $8) you have to pay the entrance free. When you walk into the Seiden (the inner palace), you’re transported to the golden era of the Ryukyu Kingdom with its lacquered detailed red exterior. When you enter the structures within the Seiden, you are required to take off your shoes (don’t forget to have socks or a good pedicure!). They even provide you with a bag to carry your shoes as you tour the grounds.
A must-do experience at Shuri Castle in Okinawa is tea in the castle grounds. The tea room was remodeled to reflect how the kings at the time would entertain their guests. In the tea service you can see the merge of Chinese and Japanese culture (Okinawa had also Chinese occupation centuries ago) in its offerings: Chinese tea and egg based Japanese cookies. Our favorite were the sesame paste cookies, delicious. The kimono clad staff explains (mostly in Japanese) the tea ceremony, thankfully there’s a booklet in English explaining the menu and the history behind the cookies served.
We continued to explore the displays of art, artifacts, and sculptures around the Seiden grounds. It is interesting to see how the castle has been reconstructed to look exactly like the times of the Ryukyu Kingdom centuries ago given that it was destroyed during WWII. The reconstruction began in 1992 and in 2000 it became a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 11th in Japan.
The Verdict: We concluded our visit with a walk around the external gardens of the castle at the Ryutan lake and Enkanchi which was peaceful and serene with the calm waters, the large koi fish swimming in the lake and the ancient trees which line the grounds. Perfect place to end as the castle area can be quite busy with so many tourists. Shuri Castle is a must see for anyone visiting or living in Okinawa, especially if you love design and history.
For more information about Shurijo Castle, visit the official website.