Nakagusuku Castle ruins stand atop a hill in Nakagusuku, Okinawa, telling the storied history of the Ryukyu Kingdom. Built from distinctive curved Ryukyu limestone walls that blend seamlessly with the natural rocks and landscape, this 15th century gusuku (castle) is a testament to the masonry skills of ancient Okinawa.
Designated a UNESCO World Heritage Site, Nakagusuku Castle ruins offer panoramic views over Nakagusuku Bay on the east and the East China Sea on the west. Its strategic location allowed the castle to defend against attacks from the east by Lord Amawari of Katsuren Castle. Today, the ruins are one of Okinawa’s most famous castles and historic attractions.
History of Nakagusuku Castle
Nakagusuku Castle was likely built in the late 14th century by the first generation of Nakagusuku Aji (lords). Construction spanned generations until around 1440, when Lord Gosamaru relocated from Zakimi Castle on the king’s orders. Utilizing advanced masonry techniques, Lord Gosamaru built the north enclosure and third enclosure. He committed ritual suicide at Nakagusuku Castle in 1458.
After Lord Gosamaru’s death, Nakagusuku Castle became the administrative center of the Ryukyu Kingdom. This included housing the Nakagusuku village office until its destruction in 1945. The castle suffered little damage over the centuries, leaving its ruins remarkably intact today.
In 1879, the Ryukyu Kingdom fell when Japan annexed Okinawa. Nakagusuku Castle became part of Japan’s Okinawa Prefecture. The ruins were later transformed into Okinawa’s first park, housing a zoo and amusement park. In 1972, Okinawa reverted to Japanese control, and Nakagusuku Castle regained recognition for its heritage value.
World Heritage Status
In 2000, Nakagusuku Castle ruins were inscribed on the UNESCO World Heritage List as one of the Gusuku Sites and Related Properties of the Ryukyu Kingdom. This distinguished the castle as one of the top cultural sites in Japan. Just six years later in 2006, the castle ruins were also designated one of Japan’s 100 Most Famous Castles.
Nakagusuku Castle Layout
Built atop a 150-170 meter high plateau, Nakagusuku Castle occupies a strategically defendable location. The southeast side is fortified by 15 meter high jagged cliffs. On the northwest, a steep slope provides defense. Entry to the castle is only possible via the north and south gates situated along the ridge.
Within the castle grounds, six stone-walled enclosures divided the complex. Barricades were ingeniously constructed from Ryukyu limestone in curved lines harmonizing with the topography. Cubical stones precisely fit together without the need for mortar.
Nakagusuku Castle offers striking panoramic views over the surrounding landscape. The ruins also feature archaeological remains like the tomb of Lord Gosamaru. Ascending uphill amongst the castle walls gives a glimpse into Okinawa’s past as the formidable Ryukyu Kingdom.
The Mystery of Lord Gosamaru
Lord Gosamaru was a key figure in Nakagusuku Castle’s history, though many details remain uncertain. He came from a noble background in Yamada Castle, later becoming the Aji (Lord) of Yomitan. Gosamaru worked closely with King Sho Hashi to unify the Ryukyu Kingdom.
As a reward for his loyal service, the king granted Lord Gosamaru control of the Yomitan mountains area. Here Gosamaru constructed Zakimi Castle and became its Aji. However, the rising power of Lord Amawari of Katsuren Castle soon threatened the kingdom’s stability.
To check Amawari’s power, the king ordered Lord Gosamaru to relocate to Nakagusuku Castle. As Nakagusuku Aji, Gosamaru expanded the castle defenses. After being framed for treason by Lord Amawari, Gosamaru committed ritual suicide at Nakagusuku Castle in 1458, along with his wife and children.
Lord Gosamaru’s dramatic fall remains one of Okinawa’s most storied events. Though details are uncertain, his loyalty to the Ryukyu Kingdom and contributions to Nakagusuku Castle are undeniable. The ruined walls Lord Gosamaru built still stand today as Okinawa’s gateway to the past.
Visiting Nakagusuku Castle Ruins
Nakagusuku Castle ruins are located in the village of Nakagusuku, about one hour drive north of Naha in Okinawa Prefecture. The ruins can be reached by taxi from Naha Bus Terminal to Nakagusuku (30 minutes, around 1500 yen) or Tomari Port (50 minutes, around 3000 yen).
Entry to Nakagusuku Castle ruins costs 400 yen. The site is open daily from 8:30am to 6:30pm, taking around 1-2 hours to explore. An uphill walk is required to reach the former castle compounds, but the effort is rewarded with sweeping views.
Near the ruins, a small exhibit hall presents artifacts and information on the castle’s history. English language brochures are also available. Guided tours can be booked in advance through the Nakagusuku Village Office.
As one of Okinawa’s most significant heritage sites, Nakagusuku Castle ruins offer an intriguing glimpse into the island’s past. The sloping stone walls blending with the natural landscape create a visually stunning historical venue not to be missed.
Another beautiful and historic site you must visit when in Japan is the magnificent Nagoya Castle, an iconic city symbol.