Its frequently said that a car is the perfect way to experience Okinawa. It lacks the dense interconnected rail system that dominates the rest of Japan. We, however, were in no position to rent a car and so had to rely on boats, buses, and taxis to get around. As it turned out, navigating Okinawa without a car was not as difficult as we had heard.

We arrived in Naha in the evening. Ahead of us, we had two nights on a tropical island and two nights at a resort. Before we could fully relax, however, we had a full day of exploration in Naha. Most of which was spent exploring the ramparts of Shuri Castle.

Situated on the edge of Naha, Shuri Castle's fortifications were designed to protect it from invaders.
Situated on the edge of Naha, Shuri Castle’s fortifications were designed to protect it from invaders.

Staying in Naha

We had booked a hostel for our first night, but after two weeks of rail travel, and one very long boat ride from Kagoshima, nicer accommodations seemed inviting. We searched online for alternatives and found one quickly. From the start, we should’ve been suspicious of the price, but it seemed foolish to pass it up. Proud of our keen nose for deals, we made our way over to our new accommodations. In retrospect, it was ominous that the “station-adjacent” hotel was a 35 minute walk, buried in a warren of love hotels and hostess clubs.

As we entered the front door, a loud squawk grabbed our attention. One wall was taken up by parrots, budgies and other birds in all shapes and sizes. The noise they made didn’t seem particularly conducive to a quiet sleeping experience. Before we had a chance to rethink our booking, the smiling proprietress called us over to the front desk. Fortunately, our room was on one of the upper floors, far from the avian cacophony below. The room looked comfy in the dim evening light. However, the next morning, sunlight broke through the window, exposing a fine level of dust and grime everywhere. It looked like it hadn’t been cleaned in years, and we decided to make an early escape. When we checked back online later in the trip, the booking page revealed that the half-price deal we had quickly scooped up was a permanent offer.

Getting to Shuri Castle

Unlike much of Okinawa, Naha is fully accessible by public transportation. An extensive system of monorails links most of the city center. After a late morning, we decide to check out the city center. Using the monorail, we zipped around the city, taking in the eclectic mix of cultures that have converged on the island along the way. Stopping for lunch at a restaurant called Charlie’s Tacos, I enjoyed the best Tacos and Taco Rice, I’ve ever had. Unfortunately, we were running out of time, and I had to shovel the food down far too fast. Running to the monorail, we rode the train to the end of the line where we saw the tall walls of the castle rising up in front of us. After a short walk from the station, we arrived at the front gates.

The bright colors and ornate exterior of Shuri castle is frequently compared to the Forbidden City in Beijing.
The bright colors and ornate exterior of Shuri castle is frequently compared to the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Exploring the Castle

Stone shisa guard the entrance to Shuri castle. These stone sentinels are the distinct Okinawan lion-dog spirits that dot many sites around the island. Often in pairs, an opened mouth shisa wards off bad spirits and a closed-mouth one keeps in the good ones. As we passed the stone guardians, I rubbed the closed mouth shisa. I wasn’t sure if it would guarantee good luck, but hopefully it could ward off some bad weather for the rest of the trip.

Two Okinawan Shisa stand guard outside an entrance to Shuri Castle.
Two Okinawan Shisa stand guard outside an entrance to Shuri Castle.

The castle looming over Naha today is a reconstruction. Several fires destroyed the castle throughout its history, the most recent reconstruction began in 1992 and much of the current façade originates from that time. Historically, the castle was the center of power for the Ryukyu Kingdom and a major site of commercial and cultural exchange. The bright red wall and open layout of Shuri castle distinguish it from the kind of castles you see on the Japanese mainland. As you make your way through the ornate halls of the castle and out onto the ramparts, you can look out on the city of Naha. The view was stunning, but we didn’t have much time to linger. We had a boat to catch and a long beach stay ahead of us. I could only hope the shisa was looking out for us.

Name: Shuri Castle
Address: 1-2 Shurikinjocho, Naha, Okinawa 903-0815
Open: 8am–8:30pm daily

Post by Japan Journeys.