Friday, October 16, 2009

Simply Luv-a-Bull

Higashi Onna is a largely quiet residential area of Ishikawa, situated high on a hilltop in Uruma City. Long ago the place was known for its “Artist’s Colony.” Today it’s dotted with small businesses that line the main roads with quiet residential houses along the back streets and small postage stamp sized farming plots scattered throughout. It’s also the home of the “Taka Hana” group, an Okinawan Moai group that has a passion for Okinawa style bull fighting.

Mr. Moriyaka Iha greets us on our arrival. He’s a proud looking barrel chested fellow with sinewy arms, a testament to all his years working in construction. His hair is raven black and combed straight back and his eyes are like steel. Though not tall in stature, he stands with his chest puffed out as though he’s ten feet tall. He looks to be not the kind of fellow you’d want to meet in a dark alley. Our camera man greets him with the traditional Okinawan Hogen “Hai-Sai” and immediately a Dr. Jeckle and Mr. Hyde transformation takes place. His eyes light up as he chuckles to himself, his expression softens and a broad smile is painted across his face.

He proudly leads us around their facility. The whole site is about two to three hundred tsubo in my estimation. The property is rented and has a large building for housing the animals, a store room, an office, a covered patio where everyone relaxes at the end of a hard day and a training yard for the bulls. Toward the back we can see two bulls are already in the yard. One has a rope through his nose and tethered to a line stretched in between two poles. It allows him to move back and forth somewhat freely. Another bull is being lead by hand up and over a huge earthen mound in the back corner of the property. They seem rather passive. Not at all like the fearsome beast that, one would expect to see when encountering a fighting bull.

In an opposite corner nearer to the office and patio area is another large wooden pole with four large tires looped over it. These are not just your run of the mill car or truck tires. Instead these tires come from heavy equipment like a farm tractor or perhaps even a construction earth mover. The bull walking the mounds is taken to his stall before the other is loosed from his tether and then he’s led to the pole with the tires on it, Instinctively he begins to assault them voraciously. He rams them head on and the whole pole vibrates. With a flick of a horn three tires are lifted clean off the ground.

After a few minutes of play time, the behemoth bull is lead from the truck tires to the mounds. Here he’s led up one side and down the other several times. Iha explains that the idea behind this part of the training regimen is to ready the bull for any type of fighting surface. Although a fight ring is relatively flat, the surface can get torn up quite a bit by the bulls that may fight before yours enters the ring. Also the bull may end up near the edge of the ring where the surface is built up in an earthen berm.

Once the training is complete, the grooming begins. The bull is led back toward the stalls but first they stop at a large steel cage like contraption. The bull is led in and his head is guided through an opening. The width of the device limits the animal’s movements. One man steady’s the bull by pulling on the rope as a few of the others brush it to keep it calm. Iha grabs a large rasp file like a carpenter would use. He begins to work at the bulls horns.

This bull’s horns are short and pointed forward. They’ve been shaped over the years to match his fighting style. Like a boxer, each bull has its own personality and fighting style. This bull happens to be a pusher meaning he’s a straight on fighter. Some are twisters and others like to push their opponent down. Trainers typically will watch a bull as they grow and shape the horns accordingly. To shape the horns they will use a heavy gauge steel pipe to shape the horn till it takes the desired contour. After the horns have been filed, they are rubbed with salt and sake. It’s a tradition and likened to the purification ritual that a Sumo wrestler does when he throws salt into the Dohyo before a match.

After the training and the grooming comes the feeding. Everything as it pertains to bull fighting and training is strictly regimented. Through this the bulls instinctively know when a fight is forthcoming and ready themselves accordingly. Similarly, training comes first before eating. The bulls learn that food is a reward for desired behavior. If they train hard, they will eat well. Similarly, train not so hard, eat not so well.

Iha and his group owns three bulls, one of which they are preparing for an upcoming fight. This bull eats 30 to 50 kg a day. Much of the bulk comes from fresh green bundles of satokibi or sugar cane. He’ll consume 15 bundles of this daily along with a variety of fresh cut grasses and a special mixture that he and his partners concoct. It’s a mixture of miso paste “like one would use to make soup,” rice, herbs, grasses and special nutrients. As the fight day approaches, they’ll feed them grasses that are less humid. This is designed to get the bull’s intestines right and ready for the fight.

Iha likens Okinawa style bull fighting to boxing, noting that each bull has his own style and personality and each trainer has their own preferred methods. Experience plays a big part in the training regimen too. Typically a bull starts to fight at four years of age and will hopefully have a career of four to five years. Older bulls need less training than young ones. Tradition can play a large part in the training as well. Some trainers run their training regimen according to the phases of the moon. Others will begin a week or two prior to a match and others still begin only a day or two prior.

For Iha and the men in the Taka-Hana Moai group, bull fighting is more than just an expensive hobby. To be truthful, it’s more like a passion. They live for this. Though he wouldn’t give us any figures to speak of, he did say that for anyone considering getting into the sport, if you have to think about how much it costs before you start, don’t even waste another thought on it. You really have to love it to do it. It’s obvious that they do!

Click (HERE) for some more photos (not taken by me) as well as scroll down for some videos of the training of the bulls

FYI if you follow the links and scroll down the extra pictures and look at the videos, the guy with the white beard who looks like either a civil war general or an anemic Santa is Mike from Mike's Ryukyu Gallery, I'm the good looking guy in the dark blue jacket and khaki colored ball cap.