Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of ... (UNESCO/NHK)

Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of ... (UNESCO/NHK)

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Five hundred years of Ryukyuan history (12th-17th century A.D.) are represented by this group of sites and monuments. The ruins of the castles, on imposing elevated sites, are evidence for the social structure over much of that period, while the sacred sites provide mute testimony to the rare survival of an ancient form of religion into the modern age. The wide- ranging economic and cultural contacts of the Ryukyu Islands over that period gave rise to a unique culture.

Source: UNESCO TV / © NHK Nippon Hoso Kyokai

Gusuku Sites & Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (UNESCO) Remains from the lost kingdom of Ryukyu

The sites are all located on the main island and can be accessed from the capital city, Naha by bus, car or monorail. Set foot inside brightly painted castles, walk behind the once-thought impenetrable stone walls of the Gusuku forts, and pay a visit to the final resting place of generations of the Ryukyu royal family.


  • Visiting the most important castle of the Kingdom of Ryukyu
  • Paying your respects at the rocky tomb of Ryukyu royal families
  • Walking behind the stone walls that protected the long-lost kingdom

The building of Gusuku

A rise in dictatorships in various areas of Okinawa around the 12th century led to the construction of castle-like buildings called Gusuku. These buildings were not like Himeji Castle —another registered World Heritage site—but more like a fort surrounded by well-built stone walls. During the 14th century, the areas were unified into three counties and the Kingdom of Ryukyu was finally established in 1429. It was at this time when the symbol of the Kingdom—Shuri Castle —became the sole Gusuku.

Outside influence on Shuri castle

When you enter the castle, you will notice a strong influence from various Asian cultures proving that trade with surrounding countries was very active at the time. The pattern of dragons or vermillion lacquer coating shows the influence of China, and the structural form of the roof shows the Japanese influence. Shuri Castle was destroyed in World War II so most of the present buildings are reproductions built up until 1992.

The Castle is built on upland 120 m above sea level overlooking Naha City and surrounded by stone walls. The largest wooden structure in Okinawa—the Shoden or central building—was built on the castle premises. A trip to the castle is a great way to spend half a day.


The Gusuku Sites and related properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu were inscribed into the list of UNESCO World Heritage Sites in Japan in November 2000. There are 9 sites included within this collective property. All of these sites showcase the glory that the kingdom once had in Japan that lasted from the 14th to the 17th century. The trade industry played a key role in the flourishing of this kingdom in Asia.

The nine sites that are encompassed within this property includes Nakijin Castle, Katsuren Castle, Shuri Castle, Nakagusuku Castle Ruins, Zakimi Castle, Tamaudun Mausoleum, Sonohyan Utaki Stone Gate, Shikinaen Garden, and Sefa Utaki.


Though there had been Lords of Nakijin prior to the creation of the Hokuzan kingdom, and thus some form of chiefly residence can be presumed to have been on or near the site before, it is believed that the gusuku form of Nakijin castle only emerged at the founding of the kingdom. It is located on the Motobu Peninsula, on a rocky outcropping, facing out over the East China Sea.

The castle is separated from the main mountain mass of Motobu on the east by a steep drop into a gorge with a stream at the bottom. A steep drop to the north and northeast from the castle drops down to the shoreline. A small harbor inlet here once served the castle, while Unten harbor, the main port of the Hokuzan kingdom, lay roughly 5 to 6 miles to the east. [3]

The royal residence was located at the highest and innermost part of the complex and was surrounded by a small garden with a spring. Three shrines (uganju) stood at the highest point of the precipice. In a less inner enclosures, located at a somewhat lower elevations, were residences for certain vassals, along with administrative buildings, stables for the horses, and garrisons for the warriors of the principality. [3] As was typical of gusuku construction at this time, the stonework of the walls was very solid, but quite rough, with a relative lack of precision fitting or fine cutting. [3] Roughly 1500 meters of limestone castle wall remain today. [4]

The castle saw three generations of rulers before being attacked and destroyed by the armies of Chūzan in 1416. Lords of Hokuzan governing in subordination to the royal capital at Shuri would continue to make their residence here for several centuries afterwards.

In 1609, the Japanese feudal Domain of Satsuma invaded the Ryukyu Kingdom. After fierce fighting in the Amami Islands, they landed on Okinawa Island at Unten harbor. They attacked Nakijin Castle with heavy casualties on both sides, but the Japanese prevailed and burned the castle. [5]

As a tourist site, the ruins are particularly known for the beautiful view out over the East China Sea, for the impressive grandeur of the castle walls, and for the overall amount of space taken up by the castle grounds. [6] Hokuzan in general was characterized by wider spaces, or at least less dense settlement and population, than Nanzan and Chūzan, the other kingdoms on the island at that time. Nakijin is also consistently among the first places in the country to see, and celebrate, the blooming of the cherry blossoms (sakura) each year. [6]

Katsuren Castle was built on a large hill of Ryukyuan limestone, [3] 98 meters (322 ft) above sea level on the Katsuren Peninsula. With the Pacific Ocean on two sides, it is also called the "Ocean Gusuku". Its "golden age" was in the mid-15th century, under the powerful Aji of Katsuren, Amawari. [2] The castle was destroyed in 1458 by the Ryukyuan army. Precious tile and Chinese porcelain of the era have been excavated from Katsuren. Such remains testify to the magnificence of the ancient structure and the robust entrepôt trade between Japan, Korea, China, and Southeast Asia. [3] The castle also has an active shrine of the Ryukyuan religion within the first bailey dedicated to Kobazukasa. [4] In the 2010 Okinawa earthquake an outer wall at the northeast of the third bailey of Katsuren Castle was damaged. [5]

Katsuren Castle was designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 2000 as part of one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu. [4] Katsuren Castle was designated a Designated Historical Monument ( 史跡 , Shiseki ) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972. [6]

In 2016, both ancient Roman currency and medieval Ottoman currency were excavated there. This was the first time that Roman coins were excavated in Japan. [7] [8]

Katsuren Castle can be reached from the Naha Bus Terminal at Naha Airport via the Number 52 bus route, a ride of 1 hour and 20 minutes from the bus terminal. The castle is a five-minute walk from the Katsuren Danchimae ( 勝連団地前 , Katsuren Danchi-mae) stop. The castle site can also be reached by the Okinawa Expressway via the Okinawa Minami IC. [9]


Local power-holders known as anji - who might be understood as chiefs, village heads, local lords, or by a number of other descriptors - first began to emerge in the 8th to 10th centuries. Communities became more organized and began to emerge as distinctive locales, building walls or other fortifications separating their villages from wilderness, and from one another. Though today, especially in standard Japanese or in English, the term "gusuku" is used almost exclusively to refer to a specific type of fortress, placenames preserve the fact that the term originally referred to villages, and was later used to refer to a wide variety of structures, including guardtowers and warehouses, places of worship, and tombs. Today, there are over 300 places on Okinawa which are called gusuku. Γ]

Settlements incorporating embedded-pillar buildings, tombs, and fields, became quite numerous across the islands in the 12th-13th centuries. Gusuku construction then developed further in the 13th-14th centuries as a few powerful anji emerged, seeking to expand their power, and fueling a period of armed conflict. They built new buildings with pillars on stone foundations, and encircled the settlements in high stone walls and waterless moats, transforming them into fortresses. Δ] Most of the largest and most famous Ryukyuan gusuku fortresses, and those with the most impressive stone walls, date to this period. Gregory Smits identifies this period of the initial widespread construction of gusuku on Okinawa Island and Kumejima with the political and economic center of gravity in the Ryukyu Islands shifting from the Amami Islands (esp. Kikaijima) to Okinawa in the 13th-14th centuries. Ε]

Like castles around the world, gusuku were not merely military fortifications, but residences for the powerful, and symbols of power, prestige, and wealth. Shô Hashi established Shuri castle as his palace, and the center of political & administrative affairs for the kingdom, while other gusuku, such as Nakijin gusuku, the largest on the island, had already been used by the lords (kings) of Hokuzan as a sort of palace as well.

Many gusuku continued to be occupied and used by anji under the Ryûkyû Kingdom, who served as local administrators. Many others, presumably, fell into disuse, however, in the 17th-19th centuries, and all suffered extensive damage in the 1945 battle of Okinawa. Some have since been named World Heritage Sites, and many more have become public parks or the like.

The World Heritage in Japan

A DVD produced in order to enhance the knowledge of the eleven properties in Japan currently included in the World Heritage List.

Natural Heritage
- Shirakami-Sanchi (Shirakami Mountains): possesses the world's largest primeval beech-tree forest, virtually unaffected by human contact
- Yakushima: possesses Japanese cedar trees over a thousand years old

- Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area: the oldest wooden structures in the world

- Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto: the shrines and temples that have been places of worship in the ancient capital of Kyoto, which has a history of over 1,200 years

- Himeji-jo (Himeji Castle): a beautiful castle admired as the "white egret castle"

- The Historic Villages, Shirakawa-go and Gokayama: the Gassho-style Farmhouses constructed in conformity with the natural conditions of the region - which is subject to deep accumulations of heavy snow

- Itsukushima Shinto Shrine: a shrine that extends out over the ocean and is beautifully integrated with the form of the mountains behind it

- Hiroshima Peace Memorial (Genbaku Dome or Atomic Bomb Dome): conveys the horror of nuclear war to people today

- Historic Monuments of Ancient Nara: the magnificent shrines and temples, Mount Kasuga's primeval forests and the historic ruins of the Heijyo-kyo ancient capital in Nara, which was the capital of Japan before Kyoto and has a 1,300-year history

- Shrines and Temples of Nikko: the Shrines and Temples in Nikko, a sacred site for those who religiously worshiped mountains, with a history of approximately 1,200 years

- Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu: the group of historic sites that show the characteristics of the unique Ryukyu culture that developed from the latter 14th century, when the Ryukyus began moving toward a unified state, to the late 18th century after the establishment of the Kingdom of Ryukyu

The DVD also contains 2 minutes-long documentaries about each site

This material cannot be posted online in full. It is available for consultation in our Reading Room or, when indicated, via Video on Demand (VOD)

Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) – Okinawa, Japan

Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Okinawa 沖縄県 designated in 2000. It is also one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu and a Designated Historical Monument (史跡 Shiseki) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972.

Hubby has sworn that he will not leave the house until summer is over. To those who have been and are in Okinawa, you will know what I mean. This island sizzles in summer! But weekends are meant to be outdoors so we braved the sun and drove to Katsuren Castle located on the east side of the island. It is perhaps one of the most beautiful backyards we have in Okinawa and probably my new favorite. A gusuku (fortresses of regional chieftains when Okinawa was an independent Ryukyu Kingdom) nestled on top of a hill in Uruma City, it is one of Okinawa’s proud UNESCO World Heritage Sites designated in 2000. It is also one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu and a Designated Historical Monument ( 史跡 Shiseki) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972.

Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) is a UNESCO World Heritage Site in Okinawa 沖縄県 designated in 2000. Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) is one of the nine Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu and a Designated Historical Monument (史跡 Shiseki) by the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs in 1972. Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku), a UNESCO World Heritage Site located in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan.

It is said that King Sho Taikyu of Ryukyu Kingdom was threatened by the power of an aji lord (ruler of a petty kingdom in the history of the Ryukyu Islands), Amawari of Katsuren, so he arranged a marriage between Amawari and his daughter, Momoto Fumiagari. However, the king learned that Amawari plotted to attack Shuri Castle and overthrow him as a king so he had his royal forces defeat and killed Amawari. There were no powerful lords that arose from Katsuren Castle thereafter.

Some of the artifacts found at Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan.


The castle has 4 enclosures.

3rd Enclosure – Ceremonies and rituals took place in this enclosure.
2nd Enclosure – It is believed that a pillard building as grand as Shurijo Castle stood within, serving as a core of the castle and a public office of the region.
1st Enclosure – It is speculated as a repository for valuables.

The stairs leading to the third enclosure of Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan. View of the second and first enclosure as seen from the third enclosure of Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan. The old and original steps to the top of Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) as seen on the left, and the new stairs on the right. Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan is built on a limestone and some beautiful rock formations are very captivating.


There are numerous gods being worshipped in ancient Okinawa, believed to protect the island and the Okinawans in daily life. There are some of these altars at Katsuren to protect the Aji and the castle itself.

The altar of Umichimun or God of Fire at Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan. This is believed to be the castle’s kitchen. The Ushinujigama (gama means cave) Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan. This was used as a refuge during war and natural disasters. The Tamanomiuji-utaki at Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan. This stone protects the castle as a sacred shrine. This is also a place of worship dedicated to a god who protects the Aji or the regional lord of Okinawa. This is believed to lead to Ushinujigama.


And the reward after the climb? A beautiful panorama view from the top!

View of the lower enclosures from the top of The Tamanomiuji-utaki at Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan. The beautiful panorama view from the top (first enclosure) of Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan.

Still want to lurk at home until summer is over?

Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan. Katsuren Castle 勝連城 (Katsuren-gusuku) in Uruma City, Okinawa 沖縄県, Japan.

Katsuren Castle - is one of the oldest castles in Okinawa located 98m above sea level on the Katsuren Peninsula, one of its most famous owners was Ryukyuan Aji (lord) Amawari in the middle of the 15th century, enjoy the beautiful Pacific Ocean view from the top of the castle ruins Read more

Zakimi Castle (Zakimi-jo Gusuku) - the construction of the gusuku fortress under the guidance of Gosamaru took from 1416 till 1422, this tourist attraction is located in the Yomitan Village

Nakijin Castle - located on the Motobu Peninsula, it was built during the 14th century, the castle ruins are an impressive site especially the amazing view over the East China Sea from the top

Shuri Castle - one of the most important buildings to visit in Okinawa, it was for many centuries the Ryukyu kings residence and its a must-see during your Okinawa trip Read more

Tamaudun Mausoleum - located near the Shuri Castle, was built in 1501 and is the Royal Mausoleum of the Second Sho Dynasty of the Ryukyu Kingdom

Sonohyan-utaki Stone Gate - the gate was built in 1519 on the grounds of Shuri Castle and stands at the entrance of Sunuhyan-utaki (sacred forest)

Shikinaen Garden - the beautiful garden was established in the year 1799 on the Shuri Castle grounds and served as one of the residences of the Sho family (royal family of the Ryukyu Kingdom)

Sefa-utaki - is located on the Chinen Peninsula, it was the most sacred place in Ryukyu Kingdom, several rock formations were worshiped as objects representing god

Japanese Properties on UNESCO’s World Heritage List

UNESCO (United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization) started to list properties in the World Heritage List in 1978. As of 2020, about 1121 sites were inscribed, distributed among 167 countries in the world. Some of them can boast a high number of sites such as: Italy (with 55 properties), China (55), Spain (48), France (45) and Germany (46).

Enlisted natural and cultural heritage is considered of a great value for humankind and the list intends to help protect them. For tourists, it is useful to identify must-see sites, that might not be internationally famous, and to plan their travel itinerary accordingly.

Japan joined the World Heritage Convention in June 1992 and boasts about 20 properties inscribed in the World Heritage List. Mount Fuji was added in 2013, with a great fuss.

The 23 Japanese Properties inscribed on the World Heritage List

  • Himeji-jo (1993): Himeji Castle, renovated in 2015.
  • Buddhist Monuments in the Horyu-ji Area (1993): in Ikaruga City in the Kansai area.
  • Historic Monuments of Ancient Kyoto (Kyoto, Uji and Otsu Cities) (1994): no need to introduce as they are already famous.
  • Historic villages of Shirakawa-go and Gokayama (1995): two very typical villages whose access by train is not easy.
  • Hiroshima Peace memorial (Genbaku Dome) (1996): a museum in memory of 1945 atomic bombings.
  • Itsukushima shinto Shrine (1996): the grand shrine of Miyajima and its huge floating torii.
  • Historic Monuments of ancient Nara (1998): the description does not state if deers are included!
  • Nikko’s shrines and temples (1999): a popular gateway from Tokyo.
  • Gusuku sites and related properties of the Kingdom of Ryukyu (2000): on Okinawa island.
  • Sacred Sites and Pilgrimage Routes in the Kii Mountain Range (2004): Kumano Kodo pilgrimage route and the whole peninsula, from Ise to Osaka, including Koya-san and Yoshinoyama.
  • Iwami Ginzan Silver mines and its cultural landscape (2007): In Shimane prefecture North to Hiroshima.
  • Hiraizumi – Temples, Gardens and Archaeological Sites Representing the Buddhist Pure Land (2011): in the north of Sendai.
  • Fujisan, sacred place and source of artistic inspiration (2013): no need to introduce it again.
  • Tomioka Silk Mill and Related Sites (2014): in Gunma Prefecture, between Tokyo and Nagano.
  • Sites of Japan’s Meiji Industrial Revolution (2015): 23 places in Japan including Gunkanjima / Hashima Island, setting of the James Bond movie Skyfall.
  • The National Museum of Western Art in Tokyo, the Architectural Work of Le Corbusier, an Outstanding Contribution to the Modern Movement (2016).
  • Sacred Island of Okinoshima and Associated Sites in the Munakata Region (2017), a shinto archipelago open to visitors only on May 27 each year, forbidden to women and limited to 200 men.
  • 12 Hidden Christian Sites in the Nagasaki Region (2018).
  • Mozu-Furuichi Kofun Group: Mounded Tombs of Ancient Japan (2019): in Osaka.
  • Yakushima (1993): the famous island and its forest in the south of Kyushu, that inspired Miyazaki for his movie Mononoke Hime.
  • Shirakami-Sanchi (1993): with its virgin forest in the north of Honshu.
  • Shiretoko (2005): national park on the Shiretoko peninsula, in the north-east of Hokkaido and Japan.
  • Ogasawara Islands (2011): a paradisiac archipelago far off in the Pacific Ocean, 1,000km south of Tokyo.

7 sites on the "Tentative List"

Japan selected these sites as they are considered worthy of joining the World Heritage List:

Watch the video: Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Kingdom of.. UNESCONHK (February 2023).

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