Postcard 36: Shuri Castle, Okinawa

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A few weeks ago, as I was scrolling through my Twitter feed, a former NHK TV personality tweeted that Shuri Castle, one of Okinawa’s main tourist attractions, was on fire.

He was joking, I thought. Either that, or he was talking about some other castle in Okinawa — not the Shuri Castle I just saw with my own eyes only a month ago.

As I looked into it, scouring news sites for 20 minutes or so, I realized it was the Shuri Castle I had just visited on Oct. 7, 2019. I saw videos of bright orange flames tear through the main hall of the 600-year-old UNESCO World Heritage site — and it just broke my heart.

After sitting with the feeling of shock for about an hour, that feeling slowly transformed into an overwhelming sadness, followed by gratitude — mostly because I knew I was extremely fortunate to have set foot on this beloved historical site in Okinawa.

And I was optimistic — because Shuri Castle had stood the test of time, being rebuilt numerous times. The castle, which emerged in the 15th century and served as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom for hundreds of years, had been destroyed many times over the centuries but each time rising from the ashes.

The most recent destruction was when the castle was bombed in 1945, during the Battle of Okinawa. But beginning in 1992, the site underwent major reconstruction — as did other historic Ryukyu locations destroyed during the war.

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The day my family and I visited the Shuri Castle located in Naha, it was beautiful and sunny out, but very hot and humid, making for an arduous yet worthwhile tour of the castle grounds.

After entering the grounds through a Japanese-style gate, much of the walk to the main building of the castle was an uphill climb. But there were two options: a more difficult path with stairs or an easier one without stairs.

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We stopped to take photos at several different gates until finally, we reached a bigger gate that would lead us to a large, open space fronting the main hall.

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The bright red colors and the interesting architectural design of the building sitting in front of a cloudless, blue sky made for a simply breathtaking view of the castle. It was as if I was looking at a postcard.

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We then made our way through the main hall, where we had to take off our shoes and place them in plastic bags that were prepared for us at the entrance.

Much of the two-story building included models of the castle during the Ryukyu Kingdom as well as historical artifacts that helped bring Shuri Castle’s storied history alive.

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Though the Shuri Castle has undergone many fires in the past, sadly, the most recent blaze destroyed hundreds of the artifacts. And although the castle will likely be rebuilt, those artifacts are lost forever. Luckily, according to media reports, about 1,100 other artifacts and ancient documents were kept in fireproof archives, so those may still be intact.

After perusing the main hall, we then journeyed uphill to a vantage point that offered spectacular panoramic views of the Shuri Castle as well as the city of Naha.

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I didn’t know it then, but that day would be the first and last time I’d see Shuri Castle this way. I didn’t realize how truly grateful and blessed I was to have had the opportunity to visit one of Okinawa’s most treasured masterpieces. I realize it today.

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