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Sweet potato has a festival of its own

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2006-09-29

It was 401 years ago that a mid-level Ryukyu bureaucrat brought the humble sweet potato from China to Okinawa.

Noguni Soukan, a government manager involved in trade relations with China during the Sho-nei era, discovered the sweet potato while in Fuzhou City in Fujian prefecture. He brought the tasty sweet potato back to Okinawaıs Noguni district in Kadena Town, his birthplace, and the rest is history.

Actually, mystery surrounds Noguni Soukan, whose real name isnıt known.

Noguni is the first of two words describing the Noguni-Magiri, or district of Kadena Town. The town of that era 400 years ago is now the location of Kadena Air Base. Soukan describes a person serving in the transportation management system in the 1600ıs. Thus, Noguni Soukan was a created name.

Nonetheless, Soukan brought the tasty tuber, where he shared the technology with Gima Shinjo in Kaki-no-hana, where Futenma Marine Corps Air Station is now in Ginowan City. Shinjo learned to grow the sweet potatoes, then tended the fields for more than a dozen years across the Ryukyu islands.

Noguni Soukan is a loved, respected and revered figure in Okinawa history, carrying the title Umu-Ufushu, or Sir Sweet Potato. His efforts are credited with saving countless thousands of lives of people who experienced famine and other disasters across Japan.

The Noguni Soukan Festival honors Sir Sweet Potato on Saturday and Sunday at Kaneku Seaside Park in Kadena Town. Admission is free. Saturdayıs festivities get under way with opening ceremonies at 3pm, followed by the Kadena Town Childrenıs group dance and a brass band concert. Kachimba 1551 and Shino Irei appear live at 6pm, followed by fireworks shortly before 9pm.

On Sunday afternoon at 3pm, a parade kicks off at the festival site, followed by a big snake and drum dance and traditional Okinawa dance, karate and eisa. A giant 1,200 piece fireworks performance capts the festival at 8:50pm.

Throughout the festival, there will be a Soukan Noguni Sumo Tournament, sweet potato pick ups and a potato digging contest, 3 on 3 basketball, a dance contest, a BMX race and a wakeboarding race.

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