Shuri Castle: rising from the ashes

On the morning of October 31, 2019, people in Japan (and perhaps the rest of the world) awoke to learn that Okinawa’s Shuri Castle, the seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom from 1429 to 1879 and a World Heritage site, had suffered a horrendous fire. It took more than ten hours to extinguish the flames. The Seiden (central hall), Nanden (south hall), Hokuden (north hall) and five other structures were completely destroyed.

This was not the first time the historic castle had burned, although it was probably the first time that the world had the opportunity to witness the flames live via television news footage.

The castle had also burned in 1453, 1660, 1709 and 1945.

The hilltop castle has massive Ryukyuan limestone fortifications that housed a number of buildings besides those that burned. Indeed, it is the stone fortifications of the castle that are recognized as World Heritage. The buildings that burned were mostly built in the 1990s based on historical records.

Perhaps because of the castle’s prior history of fire destruction, officials soon began planning for reconstruction and the work has already begun. More than JPY5 billion (USD47 million) has been donated toward the reconstruction work which it is hoped can be completed by 2026.

In the meantime, many parts of the castle park, in particular most of the castle’s imposing ramparts, have been re-opened to visitors.

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I was privileged to have a chance to view some of the reconstruction work during a special opening related to the Travel and Tourism Expo currently taking place in nearby Ginowan.

The first stop was the workshop where the dragon pillars are being restored. These two pillars once flanked the stairs leading to the Seiden. Carved of fine-grain sandstone from nearby Yonaguni Island, each is about 3.1 meters tall and weighs about 1.5 tons. Although they were not destroyed by the flames, the intense heat caused a number of cracks and breaks in the stone. These are now being carefully repaired by injecting a special kind of resin.

Although the pillars will ultimately be replaced by replicas, they will be preserved as models for the replicas. The distinctive style of the pillars, with the dragon’s tail curved around the base of the pillar is unique to Okinawa.

Also surviving the fire was Hoshin-mon, the red gate leading to the Una central courtyard that was once surrounded by the three largest buildings that the fire did destroy.

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During the reconstruction, visitors are permitted only limited access inside Hoshinmon, so this was a special opportunity to get a clear view of the damage and the work that is now being done. It was a stark contrast to the majestic sight that had greeted me on a visit less than two years earlier.

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If one can turn such a tragedy as this fire into any kind of triumph, perhaps it is that the fire has enable archaeologists to engage in further study of the oldest foundations of the Seiden’s predecessors, providing information on those early buildings and how they evolved over time. Soot stains on the foundation stones provide evidence of the earlier fires, too.

Seven foundations have been discovered, most filled in with dirt, likely as they were built over top of. The foundations have revealed how the size, and even shape, of the structure changed over time, sometimes rebuilt as a larger structure and sometimes being extended to enlarge an existing structure.

Perhaps another positive result of the fire is that the next reconstruction will attempt to be truer to the buildings that were occupied by the Ryukyuan kings, as much as possible using the same building materials. For example, wood for the supporting pillars and beams for Seiden will be harvested from the forests of Yambaru, at the far north end of Okinawa Island, just as the pillars and beams of the 1730 Seiden were.

In addition to the castle’s ramparts, the Royal Mausoleum also remains open to visitors. Known as Tamaudun, the mausoleum sits below the castle’s outermost gates, apparently placed there so that visitors would have to pay homage to the royal ancestors before reaching the current occupant of the throne of the Ryukyu Kingdom.

The mausoleum consists of three primary chambers built into a hillside, beginning from 1501. The three chambers housed the remains of the Ryukyuan kings and their consorts, perhaps in emulation of the Ming Tombs of China, given the various other cultural influences China exerted over the Ryukyu Kingdom.

A small museum at the entrance provides an overview of the site’s history and structure, as well as information about the kings themselves and even replicas of a number of the royal coffins.

The mausoleum itself, principally made of the same Ryukyuan limestone as the walls of Shuri Castle, was also badly damaged during World War II and has required substantial repair and restoration.

To end on a high note, as my evening visit for the Expo opening did, here are some images from the light show projected onto Kankai-mon, one of the principal stone walls/gates of the castle, reiterating the fact that Shuri Castle is nothing if not a symbol of survival and renewal.

© 2020 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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