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Tug of War pits east versus west

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2005-10-06

A world record stands in the balance Sunday as the Naha Matsuri plays out in downtown Naha.

Tens of thousands will join hands trying to move a 40-ton rope in the great Naha 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 at Kumoji Crossing in downtown Naha for the tug-of-war, which ceremonially begins Sunday at 3pm when representatives of four teams from east, and four 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 move forward atop the rope with their royal courts, issue challenges to one another, and command the tug-of-war to begin. Team leaders clamber 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 west, in a lightning fast struggle last year, hauled the rope the required distance in only six minutes-26 seconds, a new record. The 200,000+ spectators were thrilled, as were the west competitors. The demoralized east team has promised a spectacular rematch Sunday.

It’s the highlight of the Ryukyu Kingdom Festival, now in its 33rd year.

The three-day festival kicks off Saturday afternoon at 3pm with a Kokusai Street Parade attracting local and international street performers and eisa dancers to tout their skills in front of more than 30,000.

Three giant outdoor stages have been set for public concerts at nearby Onayama Park during the festival. The RBC stage is across the Kokuba River near the Tsubogawa monorail station, the Orion Beer Paradise is in the east central park area, and a third stage established by the Naha Chamber of Commerce is more to the southern fringe of the park.

Saturday’s RBC stage performances start at 4:15pm with Afro Mania, HeartGrow, Lamp and Bubblegum. The Orion Beer Stage lights up at 4:30pm with The Beatle Crushers, Marie and MAX. The Chamber stage kicks off at 6pm with the Miss Okinawa Pageant, backed by bands Levers and Kochi.

Sunday’s action begins attracting countless thousands along the Kokusai Street to observe the eight west teams and their eight east counterparts parade the 2.8 kilometer route in traditional Okinawa garb, and with their 25-foot high team symbols. The 90-minute parade begins at noon, moving from north to south, ending at the Ryubo Department Store. Once over, the performing teams and spectators both move two blocks to the Highway 58 intersection Kumoji Crossing.

The tug-of-war rivets spectators during the hour-plus event, after which knives come out for everyone to cut ceremonial pieces of the rope to take home. Okinawa’s premier oldies group, the Dynamites, join Kyogo Kawaguchi and Toru Yonaha on the Orion Beer Stage starting at 4:30pm. Climax is live on the RBC stage at 5pm, and Yumiko Inoue and Kaori Futenma belt out songs on the Chamber stage starting at 6pm.

Monday’s festivities continue, including eisa dances, food and beverage stands, and festival and tsunahiki souvenirs popping up everywhere. Onayama Park begins bustling with the Do-Nuts kicking off the show at the RBC stage at 4:30pm. The teen duo will be followed by The Huckers, Mag, Nettsu, Seven Ups and Plank Puppy. Mari Project highlights Orion Beer stage at 4:30pm,
followed by Taku Iakada & Yamapikaryaa, Kai Yoshihiro & the Butcher Shop Band. The Chamber stage will have Gomoku playing at 6pm, followed by Mama Doll and Bless4.

Festivities each of the three evenings caps with fireworks displays launched over the Naha skyline from barges positioned in the river.

The Cost

All events and activities are free along Kokusai Dori and the Sunday Tsunahiki on Highway 58. Costs for foods and souvenirs vary depending on taste and desires, while parking is anything but free. Parking is difficult, and expensive. Plan on spending several thousand yen to park in the area, depending on how long you cruise the downtown and Onayama Park festival areas. For those on a budget, consider tours offered by Marine Corps Community Services, including the Sngle Marine Program, 18th Services at Kadena Air Base, Navy MWR or Army MWR from Torii Station.

Getting There

From the military bases, head south to Naha City. As you pass Tomari Port and the Tomarine Hotel on the right, you’ll find the first opportunities for parking. Turn left or right off Highway 58 and look for the blue “P” signs. The alternative is to continue further into the city, crossing the bridge adjacent to Naha Military Port, and then looking for the parking signs. For those planning to make full day excursions, the more southerly parking is recommended; when tired, the shorter walk back to the car will save wear and tear on the ol’ body.

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