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Shuri Castle, Historic Tourist Draw in Japan, Is Destroyed by Fire

A devastating fire on Thursday destroyed most of Shuri Castle, a top tourist destination on the Japanese island of Okinawa and a World Heritage site that was once the seat of a kingdom that spanned 450 years.

No one was injured in the blaze, which was first reported at 2:40 a.m. and was extinguished by 11 a.m., according to local officials and news reports. But the fire burned seven buildings to the ground, including the austere main hall, according to NHK, the national broadcaster.

Television images showed flames engulfing the skeleton of the main hall, a symbol of Okinawa that sat on a hill overlooking the city of Naha. Officials have not yet determined the cause of the fire.

The wooden castle, first built more than 500 years ago, served as the palace of the Ryukyu Kingdom, which ruled from 1429 to 1879, when the Ryukyu Islands were annexed by Japan. It has been destroyed several times in its history, most recently in 1945 during the Battle of Okinawa in World War II. The site was reopened as a national park in 1992, and the castle was restored to its original appearance.

Tourists flocked to it, and the United Nations Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization declared it a World Heritage site in 2000.

“The exact replica of the lost structure is now a great monument symbolizing the pride of the Ryukyu people,” the indigenous inhabitants of the islands, the Unesco website says. The Ryukyu Islands are southwest of the four main islands of Japan.

Inside its red tiled exterior, the castle offered visitors modern museum exhibits showcasing ancient artifacts.

Kurayoshi Takara, a professor at the University of the Ryukyus, told NHK that the fire took not just the building and its history, but also many of the priceless artifacts, like tools used in the kingdom. “I cannot accept the reality,” he said.

Mikiko Shiroma, the mayor of Naha, the capital of Okinawa Prefecture, said the local government would consult with the central government on reconstruction, according to Ryukyu Shimpo, a local newspaper.

City officials said that no sprinklers had been installed inside the castle, but that there were some under the roof of the main building to prevent fire from entering from outside, the newspaper reported. Inspections are conducted twice a year, and fire drills occur at least once per year, the officials said.

In April, after the devastating fire at Notre-Dame cathedral in Paris, cultural officials in Japan said they would conduct emergency inspections of national treasures and take new precautions to prevent fires.

“I have no words as a former minister in charge of cultural heritage,” Masahiko Shibayama, a former education minister, said on Twitter. “After the Notre-Dame cathedral fire, we’ve just started reviewing fire countermeasures at cultural assets.”

Makiko Inoue and Hisako Ueno contributed reporting.

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