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Japan’s Mother Of All Tug-Of-Wars

January 28th, 2010 by

Every October, tens of thousands of spectators gather in Naha City, Okinawa Prefecture for the largest tug-of-war in the world. It is the highlight of the annual Ryukyu Kingdom Festival Tsunahiki (rope-pulling ritual) and has even made it to the Guinness Book of World Records for its sizable feat of rope pulling.

Kokusai Street

The tug-of-war started in the 17th century, when eastern and western villages engage in mock battles to celebrate peace and goodwill as well as giving thanks for a bountiful harvest. After the centuries-old festival was stopped in 1935, the citizens of Naha City revived it in 1974, and has continued ever since, growing larger and larger with each passing year. The tug-of-war has made it to the Guinness Book of World Records twice in 1995 and 1997, and organizers are always eager to break their own records in future ceremonies.

The preparation starts with dozens of locals weaving rice straw together while being assisted by the US Army 835th Transportation Battalion. Tons of straw are handwoven into strands, which are then formed into thin ropes. 9 of these ropes form 1 foundation rope used in the final cord, each a hundred meters in length.

The day gets on its way at noon with a massive 2 1/2-hour flag leaders parade along a 2.8-kilometer route,  with thousands of team members walking down Kokusai Street, followed by eisa groups, dancers and others. Afterwards, delegates of 4 teams from the east and 4 teams from the west give a series of martial arts demonstrations. At this point, the streets are filled with food and souvenir vendors.

The enormous sections of rope and then brought together at Kumoji Crossing along Highway 58 and connected with a 10-foot wooden peg, creating a 44-ton megarope. Two ritual kings then stand atop the 596-foot long rope, hurl challenges to each other, then command the tugging to begin at 5pm. Each team has 15,000 members, all holding a length of rope that is threaded to the main section. The objective of the contest is for a team to move 5 meters towards their side within 30 minutes, and there is much chance the contest ends in a draw as there will be a winner. Team leaders stand on the 2-meter wide rope, yelling “hai-ya”, “yoshoi”, and “o’shoi”, meaning heave-ho or pull harder. A record was set in 2004, when a team pulled the 5 meters in 6 minutes 26 seconds.

After the competition, the giant rope is torn apart and the pieces given away to attendees as good luck charms for the coming year.

Makishi Market

While in Naha City, visitors can enjoy the other attractions offered by the capital of Okinawa. Shuri Castle is the former seat of the Ryukyu Kingdom, and constructed in the Okinawan gusuku style. The present building is a reconstruction of the former stronghold. There is also the Okinawa Peace Park, a memorial to the Battle of Okinawa. Finally, Okinawa World is a theme park which centers around Gyokusendo Cave, an 890-meter long natural wonder with stalagmite and stalactite formations. Shopping enthusiasts can visit Makishi Market, called “the kitchen of Okinawa”  where traditional ingredients like dried sea snake are available.

The 3-day event lasts from Saturday to Monday, with the main activities occuring in Onoyama Park, Kukoji Crossing and Kokusai Street. Each of the 3 days ends with fireworks display. You can get to Okinawa by air via Naha Airport or by ferry which connects the city to Kyushu and Honshu. Travel within Naha City is done by Okinawa Monorail; visitors can also travel around using rental cars, but parking near the rope-pulling event is difficult and costly.

One Response to “Japan’s Mother Of All Tug-Of-Wars”

  1. Kitci Wong Says:

    Those are lovely photos Alex… they make me want to visit Japan soon! :)

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