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Tsunahiki pits east versus west

By: By Bill Charles

Date Posted: 2009-10-08

It’s an event with Guinness Book of World Records implications, and it’s coming to downtown Naha on Sunday.

Officially, it is the 39th annual Ryukyu Kingdom Festival Tsunahiki, but everyone on Okinawa knows it better as the great tug-of-war. The center of attraction Sunday afternoon is the 44-ton rope, which brought Okinawa to fame and a place in the Guinness Book of World Records in 1997. The challenge is to keep the world record, which has organizers making it bigger and better each year.

Some 300,000 spectators will crowd Kumoji Crossing in downtown Naha for the tug-of-war, with thousands of those—upwards of 25,000-- getting physically involved in the festivities. A massive parade takes place first, thousands lining Kokusai Street to watch the teams and followers, accompanied by musicians. Ceremonies get under way at 3 p.m., as representatives of four teams from the east and four teams from the west perform a series of martial arts demonstrations.

Then, the fun begins!

Two lengths of rope will be brought together at Kumoji Crossing on Highway 58, a massive undertaking to form a 596-foot-long work of art connected with a 10-foot wooden peg. Kings symbolizing the supremacy of two dynasties in Naha centuries ago then move forward atop the rope with their royal courts, issue challenges to each other, and command the tug-of-war to begin. Aboard and around the two-meter-wide rope, team leaders muster supporters, hundreds of pulling ropes are separated from the main rope, and everyone grabs on and waits for the signal.

The objective is for one of the teams to move the rope five meters to its side within 30 minutes. It’s not an easy feat. Leaders cry ‘yoishi’, O’Shoi’ and ‘Hai-ya’, meaning heave ho, or pull harder. For the winning team, it’s bragging rights for a year. Some years the half-hour battle ends in a draw.

There’s much more to the Naha Festival than just the great tug-of-war though. The festival kicks off Saturday afternoon at 4 p.m. at Highway 58, Kokusai Street and Onoyama Park. There’s a parade, entertainment and traditional folk dance running from 2 p.m. ~ 6:30 p.m.

Sunday starts at noon with the flag leaders parade, a 2½ hour event along Kokusai Street with thousands of participants from the eight teams that will participate in the great tug-of-war, as well as eisa groups, dancers and more. Traffic along Highway 58 through downtown is shut down beginning at 3 p.m. to get ready for the team flags to enter the Kumoji Intersection for the tug-of-war. Plenty of entertainment precedes the tug-of-war at 4 p.m., with the actual rope battle beginning at 5 pm.

Monday’s events feature school children and their drums and brass bands, citizens and dancing club group performances. There’s another flag leaders parade and final dancing by everyone. Fireworks are launched each of the festival’s three evenings.

Constructing the record-size rope is an undertaking itself. With support from the U.S. Army’s 835th Transportation Battalion, the rope is hand-crafted at the southern edge of Naha Military Port. More than 20 workers have been laboring for nearly two months to fabricate the rope from tons of straw. The straw is painstakingly hand woven into strands, which are then twisted into a thin rope. Nine thin ropes become a larger foundation rope used to form both of the main ropes, each about 100 meters long.

The tug-of-war itself 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 lives of seafarers, and io insure their safety.

The three-day festival runs Saturday through Monday, with most of the action centered at Onoyama Park near the Tsubogawa monorail station. Events each day run noon to 6 p.m.

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