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Sweet potato has a festival of its own

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2009-10-01

It was 404 years ago that a mid-level Ryukyu bureaucrat brought the humble sweet potato from China to Okinawa.

Far from forgotten, the tuberous root is an Okinawa staple, and this year becomes King Tuber at the 29th Noguni Soukan Festival in Kadena Town. The festivities begin with a pre-festival at 6 p.m. Friday at Kadena Circle Park with a free food give away, Eisa dances, live music by local high school students and a theater reading. The main festival gets on the way at 3 p.m. Saturday in the Kaneku seaside Park.

The annual festival, which features such unusual events as a potato digging contest to go along with theatrical plays, traditional performing arts, classical folk music and live concerts, all pay homage to the legendary figure who first brought the sweet potato to Okinawa.

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

Actually, mystery surrounds Noguni Soukan, whose real name isn’t known. Noguni is the first of two words describing the Noguni-Magiri, or district of the Kadena Town. The town of that era 400 years ago is now the location of Kadena Air Base. Soukan describes a rank of a person serving in the transportation management system in the 1600’s. Thus, Noguni Soukan was a created name.

Nonetheless, Noguni Soukan brought the tasty tuber, then shared the technology with Gima Shinjo in Kaki-no-hana, where Futenma Marine Corps Air Station is now in Ginowan. 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 in a big way throughout Saturday and Sunday. Admission is free. Saturday’s festivities begin at 3 p.m. Saturday with opening ceremonies, a Kadena children’s performance, a taiko drums performance and 15 other local performances. Saturday evening caps with fireworks at 8:55 p.m.
Sunday’s Noguni Soukan parade begins at 3 p.m., followed by Eisa dance with flags at 3:15 p.m. Live entertainment takes place on the stages at 4 p.m. and 5:15 p.m.
We weren’t kidding when we said Sir Sweet Potato is the star of the show at this festival. Aside from events on stage, there’s a sweet potato contest, a sweet potato singing contest, a tug of war, a dance contest, a boys baseball tournament, a sweet potato pick up, a tea ceremony, the Noguni Soukan sumo wrestling tournament, BMX and wakeboard tournaments, and….. sweet potatoes to eat.

Parking is limited at the Kaneku Kaihin Park, with organizers recommending visitors use the free buses shuttling around Kadena Town from 2 p.m. to 10 p.m. on Saturday, and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. on Sunday. East coast circulating bus stops are in front of Marunouchi Printing Company, the Central Bus Terminal and Yara bus stop, and the Kadena Road Station. A second route goes from Kadena High School South Gate, through Yara housing complex, in front of Korinza Building, Nosato Kyoshin Hall, Kadena bus stop and Marunouchi Printing.


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