Okinawa day 4: Shuri Castle

The first thing Bell said to me when I woke up was to complain about my snoring last night. She said that I snored in a high pitched tone which made it more grating on her ears. So she tried to wake me up. But I was in a really deep sleep. Even after Bell shook me three times, I did not wake up. In desperation, Bell took the TV remote and hit me on the hand. It worked! According to Bell, because my memory about this part is rather hazy, I woke up and turned on my side which stopped the snoring.

We went down for breakfast at 9 am. I wasn’t expecting much considering that Tokyu is an economy hotel chain. I was pleasantly surprised when I saw the breakfast selection. It wasn’t too bad for an economy hotel. Tokyu Bizfort Naha served western food for breakfast, like soup, bread, pastries and pasta. We took some bread each and shared a plate of pasta. Although there wasn’t a big selection, the food was quite tasty.

At 10 am, we left the hotel and took the monorail to Shuri Station. There were a lot of cabs parked outside Shuri station. Some of the cab drivers tried to find out where we were heading to and said they would drive us to where we were heading. We shook our heads and continued on walking. Shuri Castle wasn’t that far away and there were signs to guide us in the right direction. We saw other people ahead of us and deduced that they were heading to the same destination. We followed behind a Japanese couple for a short while before we realized that they were also not sure of the way. They stopped to look at a map of the area. So we overtook them and hoped that they would not end up following us instead. It would be a case of the blind leading the blind.

The way to Shuri Castle lead us past 沖縄県立芸術大学 (Okinawa Prefectural University of Arts). The architecture style looked really old. It was gray and blocky which gave it an imposing air, like a fortress. Bell spotted a sign introducing the school and commented that it might really be a historical building.

We walked up a slope, passing by a pond called 弁財天堂 (Bezaitendo) which we would visit later. We continued up a slope until we arrived at a castle gate. There were a few people gathered at the gate taking photos so we thought that was the entrance. It turned out to be the exit instead and the actual entrance was a few meters further up the slope.

We had to pass through three gates before we reached the interior grounds. The first gate was called Kankaimon which was named to express welcome to  investiture envoys who visited Shuri Castle as representatives of the Chinese Emperor.

Unlike the first gate, the second and third gate were both painted red. I found it interesting that the top part of the gate was made of wood instead of stone like the rest of the wall.

Click on the image above for the wallpaper version (1920 x 1080 px)

There was an open area after the third gate where visitors could have a good view of the surrounding district. Bell and I stopped for a while to admire the view. We could see the beautiful blue sea far away on the horizon. The castle walls were very thick. I stretched out my arm, but am unable to touch the outer edge. Bell commented that the walls looked formidable enough to repel attackers.

After the third gate, we reached the palace. It seemed a rather roundabout way to get to the palace. This prompted Bell to say that if there was a messenger who had to deliver a message to the king, he would have to run a long way to reach his destination. I had a sudden image of the messenger dying from tiredness at the king’s feet.

The exterior grounds of the palace were free to roam. In the middle of the courtyard was a small enclosed area. The wall surrounded a tree and the area was not open for viewing. A photo on a nearby sign showed how it looked like in the past. It looked exactly the same except that it was more overgrown in the present. The sign explained that this was the most sacred part of the castle and only the king could enter. The area looked pretty tiny and the tree looked as if it took up the whole area. There seemed to be little space left for a person to stand comfortably inside. Of course it was less overgrown in the past, so perhaps it was more spacious then. The next question then was, if the king was the only person allowed inside this area, who then trimmed the plants and weeds? Somehow I could not see the king doing gardening.

While the exterior grounds were free, there was a fee of ¥800 to enter the interior courtyard and the buildings. That’s about S$10. Perhaps because Okinawa was situated close to China, the architectural style had a lot of Chinese influences. The red buildings reminded me of the Forbidden City in Beijing.

Click on the image above to get the wallpaper version (2000 x 1500 px)

We paid for the tickets and entered the courtyard. The courtyard was brightly colored, from vivid red of the king’s palace to the orange tiles covering the courtyard. I was surprised that there were lines running along the courtyard, forming some kind of pattern. I was also puzzled that the lines were not symmetrical, but were at an angle to the palace.

Shuri Castle was the palace of the 琉球王国 (Ryūkyū Kingdom) which lasted from 1429 to around 1872. It had been burnt down several times in the past, but was rebuilt each time. I had noticed that several companies in Okinawa still used the old name 琉球 in their company name or merchandise.

We started the tour in a wooden building on the right. The building contained photographs and items of the Ryūkyū Kingdom as well as some old rooms used by the nobles. No photography was allowed and there were staff along the way to guide us and make sure that we did not damage the artifacts. We also had to take off our shoes and carry them with us in white plastic bags handed out by the staff. Bell said that it was a good thing that she did not wear any holey socks today.

From the wooden building, we went to the main palace where the king and queen lived. The interior of the palace was as red as the exterior. The style and decorations on the pillars reminded me strongly of Chinese palaces and temples.

Through a hole in the floor, we could see the old foundation. It seemed that the later generations just build on top of the old ruins.

Click on the image above to get the wallpaper version (2000 x 1500 px)

On the second floor was the throne room. It was more decorated than the first floor and there were plaques with Chinese words. Opposite the throne was a small balcony where the king could address his subjects. The room certainly looked grand and majestic but all the red and gold felt overwhelming. I wondered what it was like to live among such bold colors, but perhaps the throne room was only used on special occasions and most of the time was spent in more neutral, soothing colors?

From the palace, we moved on to the last building which turned out unsurprisingly to be the gift shop. The only exit was through the gift shop. Whoever planned the visitors’ route really planned it well.

There were two models displayed in the gift shop, showing what the courtyard would look like on different occasions.

I thought the models were quite well-made and pretty detailed.

We exited the castle and found a bird perched on the wall, facing us.

“Look, it’s the kamikaze bird! Quick, take a photo before it flies off!” Bell exclaimed. So I did. I was concentrating so much on the bird and trying not to scare it that I didn’t notice the striped traffic cone in the background. It was positioned perfectly behind the bird’s head, making it looked as if the bird was wearing a party hat.

It was lunchtime so we decided to eat in the area. There were a restaurant and a cafe at the visitor center in Shurijo Park. We ate at the restaurant which had a greater variety of dishes. I had the taco rice and soki soba set. Since this was a restaurant at a tourist attraction, I didn’t have high expectations. So I was pleasantly surprised that the food was actually quite tasty.

The taco rice was a dish which sounded like a bad idea. It was based on the Tex-Mex taco and given a Japanese twist. Instead of a tortilla, the ingredients were placed on top of rice. It was actually pretty tasty. I mixed everything up and took a bite. The crunchy lettuce, the tangy tomato, spicy salsa and savory minced beef mixed well with the rice.

The soki soba had a meaty flavor from the pork ribs. Despite the name of the dish, the noodles were not soba noodles and were flat like linguine. The soupy noodles were tasty, but I think I preferred the taco rice more.

We also shared one order of jimami tofu which was a type of tofu made from peanuts instead of soy beans. It came with some grated ginger on top and a dark, salty sauce. The jimami tofu was very soft and thick, like a pudding. There was an intense peanut flavor at first, but it quickly disappeared, leaving behind a cool and bland taste in the mouth. Bell liked it a lot. I’m not so sure about it though. Even though I took many bites and found it inoffensive, I still did not know how I felt about it at the end of the meal. It’s not often that I ate a dish that left me feeling so perplexed.

It was sunny and hot when we finished lunch. We browsed the gift shops located near the visitors center but there was nothing which attracted us. I decided to buy a soft ice-cream because it was so hot. I also felt like having a dessert after the meal. I picked a combination with three flavors. The bright red-colored flavor on top was hibiscus which was tangy and sorbet-like in texture. It also melted very fast. The orange-colored flavor was mango and tasted like mango pudding. The purple-colored flavor at the bottom was the purple sweet potato which seemed very popular in Okinawa. It was milky and sweet and both Bell and I were surprised that we liked it so much.

On our way back, we passed by Bezaitendo and this time we stopped for a closer look. For a pond with such an auspicious name, it looked quite unimpressive. Perhaps it was the dry season so that was why the water level was low. We saw a few ducks sunning themselves on a ledge high above the water. I was a bit surprised that the ducks decided to rest at a spot far from the water. The ducks were quite unafraid of humans and waddled slowly away when they tire of our attention.

Bell remembered something. “Isn’t there bird flu now? Let’s go then.”

So we left.

We went back to the Shuri Station to wait for the shuttle bus to イオン南風原店 (AEON Haebaru shopping mall). I wanted to go there as it had the biggest Uniqlo outlet in Okinawa.

We went to both sides of the road, but we could not see any signs showing where should we wait for the shuttle bus. So Bell asked the staff at the monorail station. A lady kindly came with us and pointed out where we should wait for the shuttle bus. In the direction she pointed were a bus stop and a drop-off point. We decided to check out the bus stop to see if there was any notice about the shuttle bus. While we were looking at the bus schedules, a kindly old lady sitting at the bus stop spoke to us (in Japanese) and tried to help us. However, with our limited Japanese, we could not understand each other. Of course, when I said “we”, I really meant Bell because my Japanese is totally non-existent. In the end, we thanked the old lady and went to stand at the drop-off point. We figured that since there was no sign at the bus stop, it was likely that the station lady was pointing at the drop-off point instead.

After a while, the old lady came up to us and asked us again where we were going. We tried to tell her the name of the shopping mall, but either she did not find the name familiar or we pronounced it wrongly. She tried to ask us more questions, but it was quite stressful as it was difficult for us to understand what she was asking. Even when we understood her, it was difficult to find the correct words to reply her. Most of the time, we just lapsed into an awkward silence at the end of each sentence and smiled apologetically at each other.

When the old lady asked for the umpteenth time what was our bus number, Bell lost her patience and replied forcefully, “No, there’s no bus number.” Then she quickly collected herself and tried to make up for her outburst by speaking softly again. Finally, we managed to convey that we were waiting for a shuttle bus and the old lady went back to the bus stop. Both of us still felt rather tensed and only really relaxed after the old lady got on her bus and left. The thing was, the old lady really nice. I liked her and thought that she looked like an adorable, kindly granny. But the more she tried to help us, the more stressed we became. We both gave a big sign of relief when she left.

We debated whether we should ask one of the nearby shops. Bell picked a shop and went to ask while I stood at the drop-off point and watched out for the shuttle bus. A while later, Bell returned and said that we were at the correct stop. The lady in the shop said that it was a blue bus. The shuttle bus had changed its timing, but the new timing was not updated on the website. It explained why there was still no sign of the shuttle bus after so long. We waited for almost an hour before we saw the shuttle bus. At this moment, the lady came out from the shop to tell us that it was the shuttle bus we were waiting for. It was very nice of her to do so.

AEON Haebaru was a very big shopping mall, but there were surprisingly few people. We went to Uniqlo, which took up a big area on the second floor. We spent a long time in the shop and in the end Bell bought quite a few clothes. I, on the other hand, could not see anything that I really liked. It was quite ironic as I was the one who wanted to go to Uniqlo, but I ended up buying nothing.

Bell paid for her new clothes and we left the shop. After walking a few meters, Bell suddenly realized that her jacket was missing. So we hurried back to the shop to search for it. Bell thought she might have taken her jacket off when she was trying on clothes so she went back to the dressing room. But it wasn’t there. We retraced our route in the Uniqlo shop. Eventually we found it in a corner where Bell tried on some down jackets. Bell was really relieved as she liked the jacket a lot. Although if she had lost it, it would give her an excuse to buy a new one.

The supermarket at AEON Haebaru was humongous. We headed to the food section to buy dinner to eat back at our hotel. We bought a platter of sushi which was fresh and tasty. The sushi had shifted while in transit so they all ended up on one side of the platter.

Fearing that the sushi might not be enough, we also bought a small plate of salmon sashimi.

We also bought fried chicken with mayo and chicken drumlets. Both were quite tasty even though they were cold by the time we returned to our hotel room.

For dessert, we opened the box of swiss roll we had bought yesterday at the airport. It looked like a normal swiss roll except the cream filling was made of tofu. It made the filling light and there was a subtle soy bean flavor.

Since there was no need to wake up early tomorrow, we spent the night watching entertaining drama serials and variety shows. Even though we had difficulty understanding the language, it was still entertaining to watch. We ended up going to bed at around midnight.

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