Monday, September 14, 2009

The Great Tsunahiki

It's a great source of pride here on tiny Okinawa. It's listed in the Guinness Book of World Records as the largest Tug-O-War in the world and each year they seem to find a way to make it bigger than the year before. It's undoubtedly the biggest party of the year and it happens every October. You could even call it Oktoberfest Okinawa style. What is it? It's the "Great Naha Tsunahiki" or great tug-o-war! It's a party like no other and everyone is invited!

Okinawa Japan is the southernmost and smallest of Japan's forty-seven prefectures. It accounts for less than 1% of the total land mass and roughly 1% of the total population. The capital city of Naha sits at roughly the same latitude as Miami Florida. The city's population accounts for roughly 10% of the prefectures total population yet for this one short half-an-hour event, the population of the city more than doubles. Adding insult to injury, they cram them all into a six block long section along one of the city's main streets. Last year the officials from the Guinness Book made the estimate at 280,000 plus people and the rope they pulled at just over 43 tons.

The big day typically starts at 12 noon with a big parade down the main business and shopping district along Kokusai (international) street. Here entertainers and civic groups all dressed in traditional Okinawan costumes perform and wow the crowd in preparation for the big event. Several community groups are represented and many of the groups were international in that they have foreign members in their groups. Each of the groups participating in the parade carries a Hattagashira (not quite sure on the spelling). That's a bamboo pole about 30 feet high and decorated with flags ornaments and gold designs. They're quite heavy, very susceptible to a gust of wind and some are not very well balanced.

Members of the group take turns carrying this giant pole upright the length of Kokusai Street, about a mile and a half. The big deal isn't just to carry it but to rhythmically bounce it up and down. It's a show of not only strength but balance and skill. The more wildly they carry it, without tipping it over, the greater the prestige they receive from the masses and the judges. Of course at certain intersections and where they have to worry about power lines they carefully take it down and once carried past the obstruction, it's raised back up and the fun begins again.

You might say that these are the Okinawan equivalent to the Omikoshi or neighborhood God. Anyone who's seen Japanese festivals on the Discovery or National Geographic channel has probably seen a bunch of half naked men dancing, chanting and carrying a little wooden house around the streets. Inside the little houses are the local God's or Kami-sama's. They're brought out for festivals and important community events. Though there are a few, these are not common on Okinawa. The Hattagashira would be the closest thing to a Omikoshi they have.

Each civic group in the parade is preceded by an entourage of musicians and performers. The musicians blow on Conch shells and bang brass gongs. The performers put on karate demonstrations and there are lots of firecrackers going off. One group dances the streets carrying a colorful Chinese Dragon. It's a smorgasbord of sights, sounds and smells for all the senses. Several groups represent the East and an equal number represent the west for the big pull at the end of the day.

By 2:30 the parade is finished and the crowds as well as the participating groups make their way down Kokusai Street and past the Prefectural Capital building to the Kumoji crossroads where the big tug-o-war takes place. The rope is divided in to two sections, one on each side of the intersection. They are looped at the ends facing each other. One represents the male and is on the east side of the street and the other female is on the west side. Each section is made from rice straw that has been carefully woven together and each side weighs over 20 tons. It takes almost two full months to weave it together.

At 3pm the main road is closed off to traffic and the civic groups, along with their entourage's carry their Hattagashira's and make their way to the center of the intersection. Then for the next hour or so, speeches are given, Eisa groups perform musical and dance routines and each group puts on a karate demonstration. Once all the pomp and circumstance finishes, the regular folks make their way to the rope and get ready to pull.

The two ends of the rope must first be joined. It takes quite a bit of effort and coordination to move such a massive beast. The East or male side moves to the center and then waits while the west or female side is brought out to meet it. In a very symbolic yet public display of the sex act, (emphasis on the symbolic) the female side is looped around the male end and they are locked into place with a ten foot long wooden peg.

Once everything is set, the challenge of the kings is made. Everyone must now back away from the rope and famous two kings from Okinawa's past, one from the east and the other from the west are carried on platforms the entire length of the rope. Of course they're actors in period dress but the demonstration that follows is quite a show. They meet in the center and issue challenges at each other. They thrust pikes and swing axes at each other in a choreographed dance that takes but a few minutes. Once the challenges are issued, they are carried out the way they came in and wave to the cheering crowds.

With the challenges made, everyone (roughly 280,000 of your closest friends and neighbors) grabs onto the rope and with the drop of a flag, the great Tsunahiki is on. The goal is to move the rope a total of 5 meters, around 15 feet within 30 minutes. If by the end of 30 minutes, no group is a clear winner, the match is declared a tie. Last year the east side (representing the males) won in grand fashion, easily defeating the west in about ten minutes time. The significance is that for the next year, men will rule the household and will not have to take out the trash or do other menial household shores for the next year. Okay, that part isn't really true but since that is the norm for Okinawa anyway, I thought I'd just add it for good measure.

But the fun isn't over just yet. To the victors as well as the losers go the spoils. Tradition says that you should take a portion of the rope with you for good luck for the rest of the year. Everyone from little children to grandmothers and grandfathers will take a piece of the great Tsunahiki home with them. For the victors, it's the rights to be able to brag that you won. To the vanquished, it's the dreams of next year and revenge. To everyone, it's the opportunity to say that you were part of something extraordinary and the memories that will last for a lifetime.