When my husband and I lived in Okinawa, Katsuren Castle was a sanctuary. Amid the glowing chrysanthemum fields and the village-style neighborhoods that cling to the shores of the Pacific, the ruins of this 14th century castle crawl up and around the sides of a very tall hill. At the top, you’re 320 feet above the ground. 320 feet above the noise of 1.5 million people, looking down on grounds where the lush vegetation and flowering plants native to the island have been the only things allowed to develop in over seven hundred years. To complete the escape, Katsuren-Jo (Jo meaning castle in Japanese) sits in the middle of Yokatsu Peninsula, which juts out into the Pacific Ocean on the eastern coast. It’s nicknamed the “Ocean Castle” because of its majestic views.
I worked night shift at the time. On my nights off, we sought places like this, where we could escape the cramped, concrete-congested city and breathe. We’d roll the windows down and drive Highway 58, the island’s major artery, hearing the off-key, high-pitched echoes from the Karaoke bars and the constant hum of a thousand scooters as they weaved in and out of traffic and rode the painted white lines that defined the lanes. By the time we reached the narrow, two-lane road that leads to the castle, the only sound was the occasional wave rolling onto the rocky shore. This road is a backroad, wending through fields and housing districts of Uruma and over bridges where the scarcity of street lights makes it difficult to tell whether the seas of darkness on either side were of water or of land. The first time we went, the GPS took us to the front door of the visitor’s center and we strained our eyes trying to see the castle out back in the blinding light of a vending machine showing Tommy Lee Jones hawking a hot can of coffee before finally looking across the street and seeing it looming, silent and stoic, and bathed in the warm yellow glow of a gibbous moon.
We came for the sunrise. Okinawa is relatively flat, but the millions of multi-storied apartment buildings squeezed in like sardines along tiny streets make it virtually impossible to catch the sun’s first fruit – the pastel watermelons and blueberries and cantaloupes and tangerines of those very first rays that sneak in from the East. We reached the top hours before dawn, when you can still watch the glow of house lights creates a feeling of peace and security in the dark blue and purple hues of the last hours of night. The little enclave tucked into the arc of Nakagusuku Bay became my favorite view. We’d sit for hours, like guardians, and watch that village sleep, feeling like we were somehow stealing time. Then that moment when it begins to get exponentially lighter and we turned and watched the sun come up right over the bright red steeple of Henza Bridge and catch the flat, metal roofs on fire.
We made the crawl up that hill many times after that, gliding up the modern, wooden stairs that led half-way up and stumbling up the old, crumbling stairs that led the rest of the way to the top. We always marveled at those stairs and laughed at how difficult they were to climb. With their inconsistent rise heights, impossibly narrow or impossibly wide runs, and stones that were loose and slanted and deadly slippery when wet. I imagined ladies in fancy clothes and dainty shoes trying to tiptoe up those stairs while still looking elegant. I wondered if there were ever any raiders whose attacks were foiled by those stairs. But that’s the great thing about ruins, isn’t it? Walking in the footsteps of long-lost cultures and wondering about the people that lived there and the foreign, crazy ways they lived their lives. And, more to the point, realizing that people are really always the same. With the same interests and concerns and needs.
Katsuren-Jo saw its heyday under Lord Amawari in the 15th century. Some stories tell of him being so sickly as a kid that he was abandoned by his family in the jungle and left to die. But through some sheer will of determination, and maybe through some need for proof of worth, he survived to become one of the most powerful and influential lords on the island. The lord before him was apparently selfish and ruthless and hated. Lore has it that Amawari invited this lord for a stroll atop the castle and then threw him off the top. So, as a ruler known for his genuine concern for the people as well as for his leadership prowess, the area prospered and Amawari became a type of savior hero. But since power corrupts, he decided he wanted more, and in 1458 he attempted a coup of Shuri Castle, the home of the king of the district that sat about 15 miles east. Unfortunately, his wife was the daughter of the Shuri king and, in a legendary show of filial piety, hiked it over to Papa in the wee hours of the morning and warned him of her husband’s plan. This effectively ended the rule of Amawari and the golden era of Katsuren-Jo.
The castle is designed in the typical castle style of the pre-edo period, when Okinawa was still a separate kingdom from mainland Japan. It’s made of various flat enclosures within each other, like nesting dolls that move down the hill from the smallest, first enclosure up top, down to the largest enclosures at the bottom. The top enclosure would have been the most protected and would have housed the royal family along with their important stuff, including the central stone that served as a place of rituals. The bottom enclosures would have housed the army and workers and large plots of land for husbandry. Despite its size, it probably served as a small, “mountaintop castle”, strategically placed as a lookout for the larger Shuri Castle lord. Recent excavations have unearthed Roman coins and Chinese porcelain, indicating a wide interest in other cultures and an active trade.
A few stone walls and foundation blocks are all that remains of Katsuren-Jo today. But it’s enough to marvel at the construction. All along the old walls and in the design of the stairs you catch glimpses of how the local limestone was carved and pieced together like an architectural puzzle. I’m glad if I can balance a flat rock on the top of a hiking cairn without bringing down the whole thing. So I’m always astounded at the skill and patience and teamwork and resolve required to build things like Katsuren-Jo.
But I’m a nature girl. So what really fascinates me is the impact of the natural landscape on the design and development of places like this. Like most Okinawan castles of this period, Katsuren-Jo submits to the natural flow of the land as it bends and clings tightly to its curves. It’s made with the only materials the land could offer – stone and wood. And it takes advantage of the only elevation for miles and accepts Nature’s protective hint. Instead of changing the land to fit their needs, the builders of Katsuren-Jo adapted their design to work in harmony with the land. And I love that.
We stayed there for hours that first visit, what turned out to be a beautiful, crisp-clear sunny day, and reveled in the first dose of sunlight we’d had in months. We walked around the grounds and found ourselves falling in love with a man-made structure on a trip designed to submerge us in Nature. We watched the water of the Pacific Ocean pass by on its world tour, listened to the songs of waking birds, played with giant snails, breathed in the sweet smells of newly-opened Morning Glories, tried to make out the ground through the thick, green Okinawa foliage and tested our balance in the gusty winds atop the first enclosure. All the while, Katsuren-Jo seemed to be a part of it all. And I could imagine away all of the surrounding cities and concrete and think about to have lived at that castle back in the day, with 360 views of nothing but ocean and jungle. It must have been quite the site.
It still is quite the site.
We drove back home that morning, our windows down, hearing the hum of humanity starting a new day and the constant whine of a thousand scooters as they weaved in and out of traffic and rode the painted white lines that defined the lanes. Elderly men and women, in those pointed straw farmer’s hats, raked and hoed their dirt lawns and pruned ornamental bushes. Teens sat looking bored while they tended the family sweet potato stands. School kids in their uniforms and trendy hard plastic backpacks walked alone to class and held their hands up when crossing the street. Life rolls along at the base of that hill, in the shadows of and seemingly oblivious to the relic 320 feet above.
Have you seen places that live in harmony with the land? Tell us about them! Leave a comment below or give a link to a post!
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