From the 15th to the 19th centuries, the kingdom of Ryukyu spread over Okinawa and the Amami, Ryukyu, and Sakishima Islands. Despite its fairly small geographical size, it played an important role in maritime trade with Southeast Asia and was connected to the Ming Dynasty. Although the kingdom dissolved by the 19th century, visitors can still get a taste of its former glory by exploring a number of interesting sites in the region.
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Shuri castle (located in the Shuri neighborhood in Okinawa’s capital city Naha), was once the home of the Ryukyu emperors. Although it was nearly completely destroyed in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa, it has since been meticulously reconstructed to its former glory thanks to photographs, historical records, and recollections of local inhabitants. Today visitors can see the Chinese influence on the building in the red lacquer and dragon motifs, walk under the restored Shureimon Gate in the castle grounds, tour the royal mausoleum, and see the entrance to Sonohyan-utaki, a sacred grove of trees.
With just over 300 inhabitants, the island of Taketomi in Okinawa might be small, but it packs a punch when it comes to the history of the Ryukyu kingdom. Here you can tour a well-preserved Ryukyu-style village; the one-story homes with red-tiled roofs will take you back in time.
Nakagusuku and Zakimi Castle Ruins
These two important Ryukyu structures are located around 30 minutes away from each other on the island of Okinawa. Both speak to the heyday of the kingdom, when they served a strategic purpose as defensive outposts against northern rebels. At Zakimi, only the stone walls remain, but visitors can climb up for great views over the surrounding landscape. There’s also a small museum exploring local crafts and history, including funerary customs. At Nakagusuku you can clearly see the ruins of the separate citadels that made up the castle.