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Japan: Okinawa (Shuri castle / Shinshun no utage)

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Shuri-jo or Shuri Castle was once the center of the Ryukyuan Empire (1429–1879) and has played a significant role in shaping Okinawan culture. Today, even though Okinawa has been assimilated into the nation of Japan, the spirit of the Ryukyus is still very much alive and reflected in the music, arts and crafts, language and lifestyles of the locals.

Not only is the castle of great historical importance, it is also quite magnificent and beautiful. The original structure was destroyed in the final days of World War II during the Battle of Okinawa, however it was rebuilt and reopened to the public in 1992.

The castle grounds come alive from January 1 to 3, during New Year’s ceremonies called Shinshun no Utage. (http://oki-park.jp.e.ms.hp.transer.com/shurijo/event/180). Primarily, this is a costumed reenactment of the New Year’s day rituals held at the castle during the Ryukyu Dynasty. The king and the queen emerge from behind castle walls on January 1 and 2 to pray for peace and prosperity. On January 3, the Ryukyu no Utage or Banquet of the Ryukyus is held.

The festivities begin at 8:30 AM and last through 5:00 PM on days 1-2. The celebrations begin with an uzagaku (live musical performance), which lasts from 8:30 AM to 8:50 AM. The actual ceremony or the chohaigokishiki follows afterwards and consists of three parts. The first part, known as the kokorehogohai, runs from 10:00 AM to 10:25 AM. It is during this time that the king prays and asks for peace. The second part is called the chonuunufe. The king prays for prosperity as his various subjects swear their loyalty to the king. The second part of the ceremony takes place from 10:50 AM to         11:00 AM. The third part, known as otori, takes place from 11:25 AM to 11:50 AM and involves drinking awamori, a distilled beverage native to Okinawa. The custom involves one person, the oya (master of ceremonies), making a short speech related to the celebration or ceremony being observed. He then drinks and pours awamori for the next person. The oya usually moves counterclockwise around in a circle, repeating the ritual for each individual.

Following the rituals there is Ryukyu dancing and entertainment. A booth is set up offering visitors their choice of tea or a sweet alcoholic drink made from sake kasu (the lees left over from sake production).

On January 3, the final day of the ceremony, the king and queen appear to the public twice. Once at 10:00 AM to 10:20 AM and again at 11:00 AM to 11:20 AM. There are traditional musical performances on this day and visitors have an opportunity to have a souvenir photo taken with the king and queen.

If you want to participate in the celebrations, you must pay an admission fee. The charges are ¥820 for adults and ¥620 for high school students. Elementary and junior high students are admitted for ¥310 while kids six years old or under can get in for free.

The castle is easily accessible from Naha airport via National Highway No. 331, or you can take Yui Rail from Naha Airport Station to Shuri Station. The castle is just 15-minutes on foot from this point.

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