The Kingdom of Ryukyu was made up of the Ryukyu Islands and was ruled by the Ryukyuan monarchy as a tributary state of imperial China in the years 1429 to 1879. During their rule, they managed to extend the kingdom to include the Amami Islands and Sakishima Islands.
The Ryukyu Kingdom was ruled by the Sho kings from the 15th century up until 1879. They strived on trade and diplomacy alone without an army. They established strong trade routes from Siberia to Siam. Ryukyuan ships traded Japanese materials like silver, swords and fans, Chinese materials like medicinal herbs and textiles, Southeast Asian materials like rhino horn and iron. These trade achievements built the Ryukyu Kingdom’s reputation as an honest broker. Known as the ‘country of courtesy’ to China, the Ryukyu Kingdom was peaceful and boasted a lively culture.
Due to Ryukyu being a tributary state of China, and Japan having no diplomatic relations with China, Japan’s considerable influence on the Ryukyu Kingdom was kept under wraps. The Japanese continued to respect the Ryukyu Kingdom’s autonomy for the most part, leaving China unaware of their relationship for some time.
Eventually though in 1875, Japan ordered for the Ryukyu Kingdom to stop paying tribute to China and the Chinese terminated their relationship with the dynasty after 1879.
Why Should You Visit?
If you’re someone wanting to explore Japan beyond the technologically advanced cities of Tokyo and Kyoto, the Ryukyu Islands combine unique adventures with centuries of culture and history. The islands are divided into three groups: Amami, Okinawa and Sakishima. The Ryukyu Islands’ long history of being an independent kingdom is eminent in its architecture, music and food.
These islands also boast some of the world’s best beaches and diving locations. Here are some must visit locations on your trip:
Kabira Bay, Ishigaki
Kabira Bay is one of only two places (the other being Iriomote island) in Japan where black pearls are cultivated. Visit the pearl jewelry shop along the right side of the bay (facing the sea) to find out about how black pearls are cultivated and to get some information in English.
Swimming is not allowed but you can enjoy walking barefoot on the sand while admiring the gorgeous view the bay offers. There are also glass bottom boats that allow visitors to look beneath the surface of the water without getting wet. Tickets for this can be purchased in the shops by the huge car park.
On a hill near the observation point lies the Kabira Kannon Temple. This tiny temple is definitely worth a visit for a little dose of history. It was built in the 17th century when the bay was one of the main ports for Okinawa’s main island.
Taketomi Island is just off the coast of Ishigaki Island and offers an impressively preserved and traditional insight into Ryukyu’s traditional lifestyle. Since it’s a very small island, a day trip from Ishigaki would be more than enough to explore it fully.
The entire village features traditional one-storied houses, surrounded by stone walls and roofed with red tiles. Some of these traditional homes are also used as restaurants and shops. Car rentals aren’t a thing on Taketomi Island, so you can either explore on foot or rent bicycles!
Diving the Yonaguni ruins
Yonaguni is a popular scuba diving destination to spot hammerhead sharks weaving through enchanting underwater ruins. In 1986, Kihachiro Aratake discovered an underwater monolith that became the source of much wonder and speculation as to its origins. Nicknamed the “underwater Machu Picchu,” the dive site is more formally known as ‘Kaitei Iseki’ — the monument on the bottom of the sea. There are many theories for what the Yonaguni monument could be. It is said to resemble the Shuri Castle in Naha, Okinawa’s main island. This was the 14th century palace of the kings of the Ryukyu Kingdom. The Yonaguni Monument dive site is on the south coast of Yonaguni Island, halfway between Tategami Rock and Higawa settlement. It takes about 20 minutes to arrive at the site from Irizaki harbour.
Shuri Castle, Naha
Shuri Castle, as part of the Gusuku sites, has been a Unesco world heritage site since the year 2000. The entrance to these buildings feature some beautiful gates, most notable being the Shureimon Gate and being located on a hilltop offers spectacular views of Naha.
It was originally built in the 1300s, but the current buildings are reconstructions that were completed in 1992. The castle has been destroyed in wars and fires multiple times over the centuries, more recently the Battle of Okinawa in 1945. Unfortunately, some parts were burned again in 2019. Although it is being repaired, the work won’t be complete until 2026.
You can get to Shuri Castle via a 15-20 minute walk or a 5 minute bus from Shuri Station on the Okinawa Monorail line. Hop on bus number 7 or 8 and alight at Shurijō-mae.
Amami Oshima is the largest island of the Satsunan islands running between Kryushu and Okinawa. The beaches on this island are less crowded than those on the Okinawa Islands and also offer great snorkeling activities.
This island is particularly known for its Oshima Tsumugi silk used to make high-quality kimonos for centuries. Similarly to Okinawa, the weather on this island is best from late June through to August.
Overall, the Ryukyu islands are an enticing destination for the curious and adventurous traveler and offer something quite different to other places in Japan. With a rich indigenous history that also embraced multiculturalism as a result of good-natured trade practices, the cities and seaside communities here are steeped in tradition…
Whether you want to know more about the Land of the Rising Sun’s ancient traditions or modern developments, our Japan Travel Guide will tell you all you need to know.
This content was created in partnership with the Japan National Tourism Organization and Japan Airlines.