Connecting the foreign community in Okinawa

The Ancient Grave of an Okinawan Queen (and other sites in Kitanakagusuku)

Mere steps from the road in Kitanakakusuku rests an Okinawan queen in her ancient grave. Walk this peaceful forest path and others nearby to discover a true Okinawan power spot.

Hidden within a tranquil forest mere steps from the roadway rests the ancient tomb of an Okinawan queen whose life dates back to a period before the Ryukyu Kingdom era. The path that takes you through the forest, thought to be 800 years old, is more than just a quiet place to go for an urban walk. It is a true Okinawan power spot and, along with another grave site in Kishaba Hamlet dating back to the 1700s, offers a place to be at peace as you commune with the islands rich past. 

Walk an 800-Year-Old Forest Path

There are two ways to enter the forest where the grave is located. The easiest to find is at the far end of the rear the parking lot of Kurashi No Hakko EM Lifestyle Resort (formerly Costa Vista Hotel). If you’re staying at the hotel, or even just eating lunch or dinner there, which I highly recommend, you can park in the hotel’s main parking lot west of the hotel. From there, walk around the back of the hotel along the driveway that separates the hotel and the parking lot and keep the building to your left as you walk all the way to the end of the staff parking lot. You’ll see a small break in the tree line, pictured below, where you can find the path that will take you to the grave.

Incidentally, the path through the forest will take you up over the top of the hill that runs parallel to the road. Descending the other side of the hill, you’ll descend down a long stone staircase and exit right by the road. If you want, you can walk the path in the opposite direction starting at the tiny stone staircase visible from the main road, but this will take you away from all the other sites you can find on this walk, so I recommend starting from the hotel lot.

The one thing I want to impress upon you is how peaceful and tranquil this little forest is. The second you go under the canopy of trees, you’ll feel as if you’ve been transported to a different world which is nothing like the urban jungle of central Okinawa. This area is worthy of being listed as one of the Okinawan power spots, literally on a par with world-class heritage sites like Seifa Utaki down south in Najo City.

As you ascend a little path through the trees, you’ll see an old tomb to the left. This is not the queen’s tomb. It’s not exactly clear who is buried there, but it’s likely not a royal figure, since the tomb is a lot more recent. It’s also a bit more makeshift than you’d expect of a tomb belonging to a dignitary, featuring an odd mixture of brickwork and nunozumi-style stonework. Regardless of who’s remains are inside, it’s clear that someone is maintaining the tomb, along with the forest paths around it.

An unknown grave near the tomb of King Gihon's queen

Grave of an Okinawan Queen

Turning right along the path, you’ll find a set of wide steps carved out of the stone (pictured at the top of this post). At the top of these steps is an ancient Okinawan grave said to belong to the consort of King Gihon who ascended to the throne in Chuzan (the central kingdom, prior to unification) in the year in 1248. The king is not buried here.

The “official” tomb of King Gihon is located all the way up in the northern part of the island very close to Cape Hedo, where legend has it he was last seen alive after his abdication and subsequent self-exile. I should note that some authorities in Kitanakakusuku believe Gihon’s body is interred at Nasu No Utaki, where the kings of the Shunten dynasty are worshiped.

Historians can debate where Gihon’s body rests, but they all agree that the story of Gion’s reign is a sad tale of a kingdom beset by disaster. It is believed half of Chuzan’s population died either from starvation or one of the plagues that swept the island in the wake of famine. King Gihon blamed himself and decided to take to the forest alone and adopt the life of a hermit. We can assume that his queen remained in Chuzan.

An Ancient Stone Staircase

If you go past the queen’s tomb and walk along the path to the right, you’ll come to yet another tomb, built with rough stone work into the side of the hill, which is overgrown with vegetation. Again, nobody knows who this belongs to, but it’s it’s an interesting artifact to behold while you’re there.

The path ends at this tomb so unless you want to trek through snake-infested tall grass, it is best to turn back along the trail. Returning to the queen’s grave, you’ll find a stone staircase that leads up beside it. If you follow that path, it will take you on a tranquil walk through outcroppings of weathered bare limestone adorned with humungous green leaves known as ‘elephant ears’.

An ancient stone staircase winding through the rocks

Fans of Studio Ghibli films may recognize this leaf as being very similar to the ‘fuki’ leaf often held by the famed character Totoro. That’s because Totoro’s fuki leaf is a member of the same family, namely Colocasia. Incidentally, while these leaves are edible if boiled well, they can be highly toxic since the sap of the plant contains high quantities of calcium oxalate, so it’s best not to touch them with bare skin (and absolutely don’t eat them.

More Historical Sites in Kitanakagusku

If you follow the path all the way to the top of the hill and descend the staircase to the street, turn right on the sidewalk. As you begin to descend the hill, you’ll see the east coast of the island in the distance. Keep walking until you find a small stone torii gate at the top of a staircase. This is Nasu No Utaki, linked above. Even though this site is dedicated to Okinawan kings who ruled 800 years ago, is lovingly maintained by an organization of locals that deeply revere Ryuku customs and continue to practice the Okinawan religion of ancestor worship. The offerings on the altar are evidence of a recent visit.

Once you’ve read the stone plaque that commemorates the building of the stone monument that marks the site, turn back up the hill and look for the top of a tall, steep staircase on your left side. This staircase will take you down the side of the hill to the streets below, where you’ll look for a narrow walking path to the right, just past the homes right at the bottom of the embankment. If you follow this path, you’ll come to Kishaba Park, where you’ll find a large monument erected to commemorate dozens of young men from the Kishaba Hamlet who died in the Battle of Okinawa. I was lucky enough to be there about an hour before sunset to get the best light.

The WW2 monument in Kishaba park

Behind the war monument is another staircase which leads up to the gravesite of Kishaba Kou, the founder of Kishaba Hamlet, who passed away in the year 1745. This, like the area surrounding the gravesite of the queen, is an incredibly peaceful spot that is known to Okinawans as a place of great spiritual significance.

The grave of Kou Kishaba, founder of Kishaba Hamlet

Looking around the gravesite, it’s clear that people care deeply about the place. There are fresh flowers laid in front of the tomb and, stacked unobtrusively in a far corner I noticed three brooms, left there so that volunteers could use them to keep the site tidy when they go there. It’s is truly impressive how well the graves at this site are maintained. Kudos to the volunteers who do the hard work that makes it possible for people like me to simply walk up the steps with my camera.

One thing I love about tiny, local, spiritual places like this is that they are not tourist traps. There are no gift shops, no brochures, not even a parking lot. While foreign visitors are not unwelcome, the gravesite is not maintained for our benefit. The people who care for the site are citizens who carry on the rich cultural traditions of the Uchinanchu, the indigenous people of Okinawa.

After paying your respects at the gravesite of Kou Kishaba and those nearby, you can descend the long staircase back to the park. At the bottom of the staircase, a stone torii (traditional Japanese gate) bestrides the path that leads from the steps at street level. Around the gate and up the steps are situated stone lanterns which serve a spiritual purpose in relation to assisting and revering the soul of the the deceased. These are found around temples and shrines and the rituals associated with their use seem to differ from place to place.

Once you exit the gravesite and end up back in the park, there is one last item you should look at. At the west end of the park, overlooking the East China Sea, is a stone shisa thought to be hundreds of years old, like the Tomori Stone Lion. Although this stone shisa is much smaller than its counterpart in Tomori, it speaks no less eloquently of the deep and textured history of the Okinawan archipelago and its gentle, devout inhabitants.

The stone lion in Kishaba Park

I’ll close this post with an exhortation to patronize the restaurant in the EM Lifestyle Resort hotel where I suggested you park. This is not only to earn the privilege of parking there. The food really is excellent and much of it is locally sourced. Some of it is even grown organically on a farm operated by the hotel’s sister company, Sunshine Farm, located deep in the valley nearby. You could also spend half a day at the hotel’s spa, Corazon, which is every bit as healing as the magical, spiritual forest just steps away.

There is no Google Maps entry for the Queen’s Grave, so I’ll give you the link to the EM Resort where you can park and have lunch. 

EM Wellness Resort

1478 Kishaba, Kitanakagusuku, Nakagami District, Okinawa 901-2311
EM Resort Website

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