“Akusai wa hyaku-nen no fusaku.” Literally: A bad (or wrong) wife spells a hundred years of bad harvest. ~Japanese Proverb
Every day on the way to White Beach back in 1999 I would pass what appeared to be ruins on a hilltop among the urban sprawl of Okinawa’s Katsuren peninsula. Then for a few weeks, there was intense activity at the site, something which of course peaked my interest. Finally deciding to play hooky from work one day, I turn my Honda Accord hatchback up the steep, crudely constructed concrete hillside road and barely made the climb to a grass and gravel parking lot. And then my adventure really began!
It turned out that these ruins, once the site of one of the most significant castles of Okinawa which played a key role in Ryukyu history, were being hastily (and only partially) rebuilt, repaired, restored and cleaned in anticipation of a millennial celebration in early 2000. And thus began my love affair with this castle that I admired during my daily commute to and from work, and to which I visited often with my family back in the early 2000’s when we lived on Okinawa for almost four years.
One inescapable aspect of living on Okinawa is that the very ground is dotted with a plethora of intriguing castle ruins, reflecting in the present the rich Ryukyu past when regional kings fought a series of wars over their fiefdoms, eventually leading to the unification of the Kingdom of the Ryukyus. By some accounts, there are upwards of 500 documented sites that once held a castle, large or small.
Okinawan castles are often called gusuku, and are indicated by a “- jō ” suffix in writing. But “castle” is a bit of misnomer; a gusuku is more akin to fortresses of regional chieftains, dating to a time when Okinawa was independent from Japan, and more aligned with Korea and China. Except for Shuri Castle, completely destroyed in World War II but impeccably restored to its rightful grandeur, most castles exist as ruins, many just mere crumbling stone walls. Although little may be visible to the eye, the remains of the day reflect the strong history of Okinawa and remain culturally important. In fact, all the places where gusuku once stood are regarded as sacred sites, still used as active places of worship and for religious and cultural ceremonies by local residents.
Unfortunately, much of the specific history of most of the sites remains unknown, with little specifics being well-recorded. Primarily, we know those that had developed into strong fortresses, having been led by powerful chieftains that grew in size and stature by subsuming lesser gusuku. Three of the most famous chieftains in Okinawan history are Lord Amawari of Katsuren, Lord Gosamaru of Zakimi and Nakagusuku, and Lord Hananchi of Nakijin, all on the main island of Okinawa. Archaeological excavations at their respective castle sites prove the power and wealth of these Sovereigns, and show their entrenched engagement with China and other Southeast Asian countries.
One of the most popular sites among visitors is Katsuren Castle on Okinawa’s central eastern shore, dating to well before the 15th century. Katsuren Castle (勝連城 Katsuren-gusuku), also Katsuren-jō, is known in the Okinawan language as Kacchin Gusuku. Katsuren Castle was built on a large hill of Ryukyuan limestone, 322 feet above sea level on the Katsuren Peninsula of Okinawa. Not surprisingly, the castle offers magnificent panoramic views of the East China Sea and the Pacific Ocean. With water on two sides, it is sometimes referred to as the “Ocean Gusuku.” As a sacred site the castle contains a shrine of the Ryukyuan religion dedicated to Kobazukasa.
Its walls, although massive and timeless, couldn’t contain the intense royal intrigue brewing there. According to rich legend and some historical accounting, King Sho Hashi considered the regional chieftain named Lord Aji Amawari of Katsuren, the 10th Lord in succession of Katsuren castle, a powerful rival. Famous for fostering prosperous international trade, Amawari was also known as a cunning and politicized leader. Legend has it that he pushed his predecessor, the 9th Katsuren Castle Lord, Lord Mochizuki Aji, off the top of the castle walls. As Aji was considered a tyrant and was detested by the people, not only did Amawari assume Lordship, he also became a popular savior to the people of Katsuren.
King Hashi sent his daughter, matchless beauty Momoto Fumiagari, to marry the young Lord Amawari, as one means to keep Amawari in check. Ah, I hear you sigh, a tale as old as time as lovers’ intrigue generally leads to ruin. But as Awamari’s strength and popularity continued to grow, Hashi then moved his faithful disciple Lord Gosamaru, from Zakimi Castle in the north, to Nakagusuku, just south of Katsuren, to keep a watchful eye on his ambitious son-in-law. Amawari, whose dream was to unify the island under his control, eventually attacked and killed Gosamaru (with Shuri’s support), and then attempted to overthrow King Sho (of Shuri), but was defeated and killed in 1458.
However, like in the genesis of all legends where truth is lost to time, the people of Katsuren today sees things quite differently. Amawari, popular among and compassionate to his people at the time, was a great threat to the King, and thus it was the King who held the hidden agenda. In another example of revisionist history, the characterization of Amawari is being slowly transformed from one of traitor to hero. Funny what a few centuries can do to rehabilitate just about anyone’s character.
In any case, the 10th Lord of Katsuren Castle, Lord Amawari, was abruptly killed in some sort of politically charged spat, no doubt involving the rivals of Nakagusuku and Shuri castles. Oh, and surely over the girl (wink). He was the last powerful personality to infect Katsuren, and the castle slowly fell out of favor and into slow decay.
The castle has 4 enclosures, each at a differing elevation. The first is relatively open, with the castle’s walls there being actively rebuilt during our visit. The 3rd Enclosure, going from bottom to top, is most likely where ceremonies and rituals took place. Moving up the large wooden staircase to the 2nd Enclosure, visitors find the foundation of a massive pillared building as grand and on par with Shurijo stood here, based on fragments of expensive Chinese and Korean pottery and colorful architectural decorations. This level served as the core of the castle where the Lord and his Lady resided, and, in effect, served as the public “government” offices for the region. Moving up some stone stairs to the uppermost 1st Enclosure, one finds the best views and smallest space, used for the safe repository of valuables according to most speculation.
The journey to the ruin’s highest level can be completed (mostly) via the modern, handsome and sturdy wooden staircase, but you may also elect the more authentic and exciting journey up the crumbly rock ramp that is immediately adjacent. Be forewarned though, this is not the day to be wearing your laid-pack island-time flip-flops; sturdy shoes for this adventure are a must. The limestone is jagged and especially slippery when wet.
As a religious site, Katsuren is still very active. Numerous gods were worshipped in ancient Okinawa, believed to protect the island and the Okinawans in daily life, and many of those are still worshiped today. Not surprisingly, there are a few altars at Katsuren, which continue to protect the castle and region. Interestingly, the castle’s kitchen also is the site of the Altar of Umichimun, the Ryukyu God of Fire. The grounds also hold an entrance to a cave called Ushinujigama (”gama” means cave), which was most likely used as a refuge during war and natural disasters. Finally, the Tamanomiuji-utaki stone at Katsuren Castle serves as a sacred shrine. This stone remains an active place of worship, and is believed to connect underground to Ushinujigama, connecting two sacred sites together.
Katsuren Castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000, and is one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu. It was also declared a Designated Historical Monument (史跡 Shiseki) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972.
Although the wrong wife can lead to the ruin of her husband, hopefully you can visit Katsuren with a mate more well-suited. And maybe, just maybe she won’t have a power-hungry father with an army at his disposal. More likely the long journey involving a couple of U-turns, poorly functioning air conditioning and perhaps and a man who won’t ask (or take) directions will be the origin of any relationship rift(s). Don’t be in a rush to physically get there, even though you have must visit this fascinating site. The drive there can be frustratingly slow. Nevertheless, it can be made a scenic and relaxing ride. So adjust your clocks to Island Time, and take in some of the more rural areas of Okinawan on your way.
But just keep one eye on that spouse of yours…. You never know what schemes may be hatched with the rich Ryukyu Kingdom history and colorful intrigue as their guide!
Open: Closed Mondays and December 29th – January 3rd.
Address: 3908, Haebaru, Katsuren, Uruma-City, Okinawa Prefecture, 904-2311
Entrance Fee: Free
Directions: Exit the Okinawa Expressway at Okinawa Minami and make a left onto Highway 23. At the Ikento intersection turn right onto Route 16. Follow the road straight for several kilometers (be patient – it takes longer than you think or want!) until the roads starts uphill as it gently curves left ninety degrees. Just after the road curves, you’ll find a sign pointing to the Katsuren Castle ruins on the right, with the museum and parking area on the left.
See my complete set of photos in my Flickr stream here: Katsuren Castle