We could hear the festival coming from a distance, starting with the low, mournful sound of huge conch shells being blown, somewhere up the street. Booooooo-eeeee. Booooo-eeeeee. The road had been closed off to vehicles, and a smallish crowd of people were on the sidewalk, waiting, and watching. Then we heard the drums and percussion, and saw them coming; the two teams, red and purple, who would vie that day to become the winner of the Giant Tug-of-War.
This part of the festival, the procession up the road before the battle, is called michijyune. The street filled with people dancing in traditional Okinawan yukata (robes), their hands moving in the air. In the crowd I could also see a handful of men in very elaborate kimono, representing previous kings from when Okinawa was the Kingdom of the Ryukyus.
Once the michijyune was over, the crowds all headed towards the field where the battle would take place. We found the teams laying the rope out on the road — it was massive! Apparently it weighs five tons. No wonder it takes dozens of people to carry and pull it.
And then, BOOM. The rope fell to the ground, the kings standing on the rope almost tumbled off, and people exploded into action. The crowd swayed and moved to either join in or avoid the rope. The air filled with the sounds of people chanting hai-ya! hai-ya! But then, much to my surprise, the whole affair, the actual pulling, only lasted a minute and a half! The purple team took victory. Apparently the longest contest ever was only 15 minutes. But after such a lead up to the tug-of-war, it felt a bit…. anti-climatic!
However, the event was not done. The second tug-of-war, obviously designed to please the crowds, allowed families and small children to get in on the action. So we decided to join in too, from the very back of the rope, because with little kids it’s not so safe to get too close to where strong men are pulling with all their might. At the back of the rope, there are smaller sections to hold on to.
Boy did our hands hurt from all that pulling! The second tug-of-war took a bit longer, but the opposing team won. Afterwards we even took a bit of the rope home. Apparently it’s good luck to tie up a piece of the rope and take it with you after the event. I watched as the officiators took a mallet and break open a huge straw barrel of awamori (Okinawa liquor), so I guess it was party time.
The next tug-of-war takes place in Naha, but apparently attracts thousands and thousands of people. So if you are averse to crowds, then smaller events like the Yonabaru tug-of-war may be more your style!