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Great tug-of-war challenges east vs west

By: Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2008-10-10

Take a 44-ton rope and wrap 25,000 pair of hands around it, and what happens?

Answer: A tug-of-war Sunday afternoon that will attract tens of thousands of spectators wanting to see of the Guinness Book of World Records feat can be topped. The event takes place at Kumoji Crossing in downtown Naha, the centerpiece of the 38th annual Ryukyu Kingdom Festival Tsunahiki. For many who make the annual trek to the tug-of-war, the event is simply the Naha Festival tug-of-war.

This tug-of-war has been ongoing since 1600, when the Ryukyu Kingdom was in its prime, a festival for farmers in the countryside to give thanks for plentiful harvests, and for city dwellers to do likewise for successful international trade. After nearly four centuries of festivities, the tug-of-war was stopped in 1935, then revived by Naha City in 1971 to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Since then, it’s never stopped.

The great tug-of-war grew each year, with the city in 1995 putting together a huge rope that qualified for the Guinness Book of World Records. Festival organizers made it bigger in 1997, and the record jumped. This weekend, they hope to do it again, as eight teams representing Okinawa’s east and another eight standing for the west will lead the tug-of-war.

More than 30,000 spectators are expected to pour into Kumoji Crossing to witness the spectacle, with at least 25,000 actually becoming part of the tug-of-war. The fun begins long before the tug-of-war itself, with the three-day festival beginning on Saturday.

Activities center both at Onoyama Park near the Tsubogawa monorail station, and along Kokusai Street in downtown Naha City. Parades and dancing are a large part of the festival, along with dozens of food and souvenir vendors, with crowds of more than 30,000 gathering to watch local and international street performers and eisa dancers.

Giant entertainment stages are set up in Onoyama Park, with local media and Orion Beer hosting two, while the Naha Chamber of Commerce has yet another.

The Sunday activities start at noon on Kokusai Street, when the eight east and eight west teams gather at the northern end for a two-hour parade down the 2.8 kilometer route. Great photo opportunities abound, as everyone’s dressed in traditional Okinawan garb, and teams are carrying their 25-foot high team symbols.. Following the parade, everything moves to Kumoji Crossing, where entertainment, martial arts demonstrations and speeches pump up the crowd for the 3:45 p.m. preparations for the tug-of-war.

The tug-of-war pits the east against the west, the two 300-foot-long sections of rope being brought together and pinned with a massive 10-foot wooden peg. Kings symbolizing the supremacy of the two dynasties in Naha centuries ago approach each other atop the rope, each with their royal courts, and issue challenges to one another.

The order given by the kings, team leaders will hop aboard the ropes and encourage supporters to take hold of the dozens of pulling ropes affixed to the massive main rope. That’s when the fun begins. Battle lines are formed as the signal to begin is given, and each side begins hauling on the straw rope, each side trying to move the rope five meters within 30 minutes.

Cries of ‘yoishi’, ‘O Shoi’ and ‘Hai-ya’, meaning heave ho or pull harder, fill the air, motivating stronger efforts from participants. Once the tug-of-war is ended, with or without a winner, it’s all friendship. The best record was in 2004, when the west, in a lightning fast move, hauled the rope the five meters in only six minutes-26 seconds, a new record. Knives come out as everybody begins to relax, cutting away pieces of the tug ropes for souvenirs.

The Cost

All events and activities are free along Kokusai Street and the Sunday Tsunahiki on Highway 58. Likewise, witnessing entertainment at Onoyama Park is free. Costs for foods and souvenirs vary depending on taste and desires. Parking is anything but free; it is difficult and expensive. Plan on spending at least ¥3,000 for parking anywhere in the downtown area, depending on how long you’ll cruise the downtown and Onoyama Park festival areas. For those on a budget, check out tours offered by Marine Corps Community Services, including the Single 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 to Tomarine Hotel on the right, you’ll find 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 full-day excursions, the more southerly parking is recommended because when you’re tired, the shorter walk back to the car will be easier.

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