As the summer sun begins to warm up, the festivities of the season start to get as hot as the weather. All across the island, numerous local communities will be planning and holding festivals, many of which are rich in tradition and spectacle. Just such a spectacle is held each year during the Golden Week holiday at the Aja Wharf in the Capital city of Naha.
The biggest festival is the Naha Hari, better known to westerners as the “Dragon Boat” Races. Much like Naha’s world famous Tug-o-war which is held each October, the Naha Hari is a world famous event and a traditional rite of spring in Okinawa. If you ever get the chance, you not only want to see it but take part in it and as many as can, do.
Dragon Boat races called (Ha-ri or Ha-re) in the local dialect came to Okinawa from China. Their origin is not certain but locals believe they are responsible for bringing about good fishing and harvests. Hari usually happen in the spring and are held in fishing towns and villages all across the island.
The most famous is in Naha which is held annually each May to coincide with the Golden Week holiday. In this race, teams from across the island, to include teams from the four branches of the U.S. Forces stationed here are invited to compete. The largest competition on Okinawa is held in Itoman on the 5th day of the 5th month of the Chinese calendar which varies from late May till Late June.
The Dragon Boats are large and colorful and decorated with a large Chinese dragon’s face painted on the bow and a long brightly colored tail that rises out of the water at the stern. Teams usually consist of thirty-two oarsmen, a helmsman, and a drummer who pounds out a hectic paced rhythmic beat that the oarsmen try to keep pace with. There are also two or more cheerleaders whose main job seems to be to rally the team.
Crowds of spectators cheer on the participants with all their might as the boats swiftly but gracefully glide past. They are made with lightweight wood and traditional boat building techniques mean no nails or metal of any kind are used in their construction. They are brought out annually for three days of fierce competition and then like a precious family heirloom, carefully stored and preserved for the coming year.
As a sports competition, Hari have also become a very popular with local Corporations who compete against each other to for the coveted title. The races are recognized for the camaraderie and teamwork fostered amongst the teams who compete. Many of these teams have been together for years and the experience often shows. Anyone can put together a team and compete.
In addition to the team building aspects of the competition, one could even say that it offers the opportunity to build and foster a spirit of friendship between the local population and the many Americans stationed here too. Each branch of the American Armed Forces on Okinawa sports a team and each team represents their service well. Often they compete against their Japanese military counterparts.
Usually the weather cooperates, at least a little bit. Typically the Naha Hari coincides with the beginning of the rainy season which lasts about a month. If we’re lucky enough to get some sun, revelers can expect highs in the mid to upper seventies with minimal humidity, perfect for racing. If the rains come early, it can be anywhere from chilly and damp to Sultry.
Races are held rain or shine and competition runs in heats. The teams with the best times return to compete again and again until only three teams remain. The winners hold bragging rights for the year. But based on my experience, if the competition were judged by the smiles on people’s faces, then in reality, everyone who goes, either as a competitor or spectator, is a winner.