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Pull your weight at Naha Festival

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2010-10-07

Finally, a chance to be part of a Guiness Book of World Records record!
Absolutely; It’s really true.

The Naha Matsuri, also called the 40th annual Naha Festival, is this weekend, and a headline event is the world’s largest tug-of-war, all properly documented by the Guinness Book of World Records. What’s more, you can help keep the historical event alive and Okinawa on top when the 30-minute rope pull takes place Sunday afternoon.

Tens of thousands will join hands trying to move a 45-ton rope in the Great Naha Tsunahiki (tug-of-war), an event that first made its way into the Guinness Book of World Records in 1997. The rules are simple; an estimated 25,000 men, women, boys and girls will team up with either the east or west side to shift the behemoth five meters during a half-hour competition.

An estimated 300,000 spectators will gather on Route 58 at Kumoji Crossing in downtown Naha for the tug-of-war, which ceremonially begins Sunday at 3 p.m. when representatives of eight teams from east, and eight from the west, perform a series of martial arts demonstrations. After speeches and praise for the 16 tug-of-war teams making up the two sides, the fun begins. The two lengths of rope, each measuring some 300 feet long, are pulled together and coupled with a 10-foot wooden peg.

Kings symbolizing the supremacy of two dynasties in Naha centuries ago approach each other atop the rope with their royal courts, issue challenges to one another, and then command the tug-of-war begin. Team leaders clamor aboard the nearly two-meters wide rope and begin mustering their supporters into place.

Hundreds of pulling ropes are separated from the main rope, and all hands grab on, waiting for the signal. Once given, the pulling begins to cries of ‘yoishi’, ‘O-Shoi’ and ‘Hai-ya’, meaning heave ho, or pull harder. The battle lines are formed, with east and west each trying to move the rope five meters within 30 minutes.

The tug-of-war dates back to 1600, when it served a dual purpose. Villagers from east and west did honorific battle for victory as a sign to shamans who predicted the future. The prayers were for a good rice harvest. The second motive was to instill peace and stability into the lives of seafarers of this island nation, and to insure their safety. The tug-of-war rivets spectators during the hour-plus event, after which scissors come out for everyone to cut ceremonial pieces of the rope to take home. Modern day festivities began in 1935, then died out for a few years, only to be resurrected in 1969.

Thousands flock to the street to be a part of Okinawa’s largest rope event. There are others across the island, but none compares to the Naha event. Dozens of small ropes extend from the main rope, which has been constructed over the past several months at Naha Military Port.

The three-day Naha Festival begins at 2 p.m. Saturday on Kokusai Dori, running until 6:30 p.m., with combinations of entertainment by 50 groups, a parade, children’s drum bands, dance and Eisa all performing. The entertainment continues all afternoon and until 8:30 p.m. at nearby Onoyama Park. Live music and foods all lead up to evening-ending fireworks.

Sunday the festivities get under way shortly after noon, with a massive parade down Kokusai Dori beginning at 12 p.m. The eight representatives of the East team, and eight representatives of the West team, march the full length of Kokusai Street, ending at Ryubo Department Store. Great photo opportunities as you and the family can be within a few feet of the dancers demonstrating their skills with tall decorative poles and, of course, drums.

The Tsunahiki ceremonies leading up to the tug of war begin at Kumoji intersection at 3 p.m. It’s crowded, so you’ll want to get there early to get a good position. There are martial arts demonstrations, music, and of course the queuing for the tug of war itself.
The ceremonial release of thousands of balloons and confetti high above the gathered crowds signal the start of the battle for rope pull bragging rights.

After the tug of war, the festivities shift to Onoyama Athletic Park until 8:30 p.m. just to the south, for a karaoke contest, live music including a free Diamantes concert, and fireworks ending the evening at 9:45pm.

The final day of the festival is all on the grounds of Onoyama Park, where Muscle Musical promotion show, and a high school sound competition fills the afternoon and early evening, followed by a live concert by D-51. Fireworks cap the festival at 8:45 p.m.

The Cost
The Sunday parade on Kokusai Dori and the Tsunahiki on Highway 58 are free. Parking in the area is not, and can wind up costing a couple of thousands yen, depending on how long you linger in the festival areas. Many military families take advantage of tour and bus services offered by Marine Corps Community Services, including the Single Marine Program, 18th Services at Kadena Air Base, and Navy MWR.

The costs for foods and souvenirs vary, depending on individual tastes. Of course, the pleas of little ones appealing for more stuff must also be factored in.

Getting There
From the military bases, head south to Naha City. As you pass Tomari Port and Tomarin Hotel on the right, first opportunities to find parking are offered. Turn left or right off Highway 58 and look for the blue “P” signs. The alternative is to continue through the City, crossing the bridge adjacent to Naha Military Port, and then look for the parking signs. For those planning to make a day of it, the more southerly parking is recommended; when tired, the shorter walk back to the car will seem wonderful.

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