In the late afternoon I came back to central Naha and got off the monorail near the west end of Kokusaidori Street. Little did I know, I was about to walk straight into one of Naha’s major cultural events.
As I started moving eastwards I noticed that a lot of people were walking with me in the same direction and soon I heard music playing in the distance. Just past Naha’s city government buildings I came across a group of people in colorful outfits that were standing around guys who would take turns holding up a long pole that was decorated with banners and a larger ornament at the top. The street beyond them had been closed to traffic so I knew something important was going on. With all the cars gone I walked down the middle of Kokusaidori Street and looked online to figure out what event I had just stumbled upon. As it turned out, I was in Naha on the first day of the city’s annual Tug-of-War Festival. The actual tug-of-war event would be happening the next day, and I’d unfortunately not be in Naha to see it, but on this first day of the festival there’s always a cultural parade that marches through this part of the city. I had done a lot of research prior to my journey across Japan and Korea but somehow I had missed this festival when planning the Okinawa phase of the trip.
The Naha Tug-of-War Festival goes back possible as early as the 1400s and it used to be an annual competition between people from the western and eastern parts of Okinawa. In 1935 the annual tug-of-war was discontinued but it was resumed in 1971 and today it is recognized as the world’s largest tug-of-war event. The rope used in the tug-of-war is about 200 meters long, 1.5 meters thick, and weighs about 43 tons. 280 smaller ropes are attached to the big one and these are pulled on by thousands of people. Each side has 30 minutes to pull the big rope 5 meters in their direction but if after 30 minutes neither side has moved it 5 meters then whichever side moved the rope the furthest is declared the winner.
On the day before the tug-of-war event there’s a parade that marches along Kokusaidori Street and I watched the whole thing. It seemed like people from all over Naha and across Okinawa were in town for the festival and the sidewalk got crowded at times. Since I can’t read Japanese I wasn’t able to identify the various groups that were marching in the parade but I still had a good time while I was there. A few of the parade groups had song and dance routines that they performed as they marched down the street.
When the parade was over I continued walking down towards the east end of Kokusaidori. Traffic was still being blocked off so lots of people were strolling in the middle of the street as the sun was starting to get low in the sky. Attending this parade hadn’t been in my original plans for the day but I was feeling pretty fortuitous for having shown up at the right place at the right time.