Dragon boat racing has been a long standing tradition in Okinawa. It comes from the Chinese word "hari" or '"haari" which represents the action of oars hitting the water, hence - dragon boat races. These types of races date back to the 14th century where a Chinese war hero committed suicide after being falsely accused of betraying the Emperor. Upon hearing news of hero's death, the Emperor was sad and held a dragon boat race in his honor. The King of the Ryukyu islands at the time heard about this story and decided to hold the dragon boat races on Okinawa as well. Thus began the long standing tradition of dragon boat racing in the Ryukyus.
It is believed that boats would bring back fertility, wealth, and happiness from the sea and was a way for people to honor the god of the sea. The dragon boat race festivals are held to help pray for safe voyage, bountiful catches from the sea, and a way to thank the sea for its many blessings. The original boats used were made of lightweight wood and decorated with dragon heads and tails. Villages and fishermen throughout Okinawa would compete against one another in these festivals.
Today, the boats are made of fiberglass and range from 4-6 ft wide and 48 ft long. Teams consist of 8 - 32 rowers and represent different businesses and organizations in Okinawa, including the military. The main "Hari" boat racing or Dragon Boat Racing is held during the Japanese holiday week "Golden week" (around end of April to beginning of May). Teams also compete in dragon boat races held throughout the year around the island.Three teams race against one another from local ports, out to the open sea, and then back to port.
This year, Nate and I attended the Chatan Dragon Boat Festival located near American Village in Okinawa. A shot goes off and the race starts! From the distance, you can hear the leaders of the boat yell at their team to "Go!", "Paddle!", or "Up!" - encouraging their teams to paddle fast and in unison. People line up on the water to watch the race and cheer on their team. Skills of quick reaction, and maneuverability, speed, and agility are needed from each team to try and win the race - paddling fast out to sea and needing to make the boat make a U-turn around a pole out in the distance, and then back to port again. It was fun witnessing this Okinawan tradition and I look forward to watching more races in Naha during Golden Week this upcoming year.
On the way out of the Chatan Dragon Boat festival, Nate and I stumbled upon goat fighting (? is that a term). Two billy goats were put into a ring and would push on one another until one conceded. We stopped and watched for a bit - because hey, why not. And this leads me into another Okinawan tradition - bull fighting - read more below.
Bullfighting in Japan can be traced back almost 800 years, when it was held as entertainment for the deposed Emperor Gotoba following his exile to the western Okinawa islands, where it is still practiced today. In Okinawa, it is called ushi-orase (literally translating to "bullfight") and is also known as tōgyū (闘牛) or ushi-zumo or Bull sumo. Farmers would pit bulls against one another for sport. During the Showa period (prior to World War II), tōgyū reached new heights of popularity where a village is said to have banned it because villagers spent too much time watching bull fights instead of working in the fields. #funfact After WWII, it's popularity peaked in 1965, with one event bringing in as many as 10,000 spectators. Today, there are over 40 bullfighting tournaments throughout the year in Okinawa, held almost every Sunday at one of 10 bullrings on the island. The most important bullfights are the all-island bullfighting tournaments held in spring (second Sunday in May) and fall (second Sunday in November), which usually attract a crowd of approximately 4,500.
What IS bull sumo you ask? Don't worry, although the name 'Okinawan bullfighting' suggests it may be like the Spanish/Portugese style of bullfighting, it is nothing like that. It is a bloodless, spectator sport where the matches are bull vs. bull to see who has the greatest strength and stamina to win with both the winner and loser going home. The sport is steeped in Japanese culture, with purifying salt scattered and sake poured on the sandy ring to ward off evil spirits. During the matches, which range anywhere from 10 seconds to 30 minutes, the bulls lock horns and push against one another in an attempt to force each other to give up ground with the match ending when one bull tires and withdraws. Usually, the bull who runs away loses, but sometimes a bull will break free and run, only to gain enough momentum to turn around and charge his opponent to win the match. The unpredictability of the matches keeps the Okinawans on their toes. Matches may end up being 20-30 minutes, or sometimes a bull will be so intimidated when he first lays eyes on his opponent that he takes off running for the exit without ever starting the fight - which usually makes the hecklers in the crowd erupt in cheers! Coaches and teams take great care to prevent the bulls from harming each other and the fight is immediately over if one of them accidentally gores the other.
The bullfighting arenas are dome-shaped structures with an open top, and cement bleacher seats going up the sides. The circular 18 meter in diameter arena in the middle is a mixture of sand and clay, with tunnels under the bleachers, used as entrances and exits for the bulls and their teams entering the arena. The bullfights are attended by families, including lots of children. Each bull usually has a team of handlers, but only one handler, or seko, at a time is permitted to physically handle the bull, while the rest of the team stays at a distance, poised and ready to relieve the handler when needed. Many of the handlers for the bulls are often barefoot in the ring, and are right next to their bull during the fight - patting their shoulder, and shouting words of encouragement ("hi-ya!" (similar to the shouts at the tug-of-war contest in Naha)). Most of the bulls weigh over a ton; it takes 5 years for the bulls to prepare to fight, and then they fight for around 5-6 years. The bulls are treated as family pets and are doted on unashamedly. #bullpets #petbull Owners want their bulls to win so they spoil them with good food, and a loving, comfortable environment. Some even have secret 'tricks' such as giving their bull Okinawan tea before they fight, thinking the caffeine acts as a stimulant. #whateverworks
At the end of each fight, the loser is quickly escorted out by its team of handlers. The winner has a colorful cape placed on its back, and ribbons/towels tied to its horns and tail. It's then paraded around the ring by celebrating fans and team members, sometimes stopping to have a child or family member placed on its back for a victory photo. #okinawanbullriding
The bullfight Nate and I went to was in Uruma city at Ishikawa Dome (only about 15-20 mins away from where we live). I actually heard about Okinawan bullfighting from good ol' Anthony Bourdain #loveyou He recently did a Parts Unknown episode about Okinawa #gowatchit!! In the episode, he attended an Okinawan bullfight. Curious, we had to see for ourselves what all the fuss was about and if it really was like what we saw while watching his show.
And lucky for us - it was! Including all the old Okinawan men around us gambling and betting before each fight. #iwanttoplay The less experienced bulls were led on a line tethered through their nose into the arena by their handlers. The bulls with the more experience weren't tethered, and seemed to actually look forward to the fight. Judges, seated above the arena, determine the winner and loser of each bout when a decision needs to be made, but usually, the bulls decided for themselves. I found it enjoyable participating in this Okinawan pastime, surrounded by local islanders enjoying the fights. I won't lie, I was a bit tense most of the time thinking one of the bulls would accidentally gorge one of its handlers with their horns since they were SO CLOSE - but out of the 10 fights we watched that day, nothing happened to the handlers. #thankgod In fact, you could see how they did treat the bulls like family pets, which was quite cute :)
Wanting to keep our day going with Okinawan traditions, we found an Okinawan restaurant nearby that cooked seasonal, local food called Sakae Ryouri-ten 榮料理店.
This quaint restaurant has an intimate feel of an old-style Okinawan home with low ceilings and exposed timber beams creating an intimate feel. Nate and I were the only two in here at first and sampled around 5-6 dishes from the menu - thoroughly enjoying all of them including a sashimi plate, goya champuru (bitter melon (goya) stir fry with tofu, egg, garlic, and onions), beni imo (local Okinawan sweet potato) fritter, rice porridge, rice noodles and finished off with seasame pudding and Okinawan Sanpin (jasmine tea). #yum #getinmybelly
Until next time folks!
Follow in our Footsteps:
Chatan Boat Races
Ishikawa Multipurpose DomeAddress : 2298-1 Ishikawa, Uruma, Okinawa Prefecture 904-1106
Experience Kingdom: Murasaki Mura Bullring
Address : 1020-1 Takashiho, Yomitan, Okinawa Prefecture 904-0323
Sakae Ryouri-ten 榮料理店.
Address: 1 Chome-27-35 Ishikawa, Uruma
Google Maps Coordinates: 26.4288178, 127.82743679999999
Hours: 5pm - midnight (closed Tuesdays
Megan Bond - AUTHOR
Just a girl raised in California and loved exploring Southeast Asia with my husband! We're back in the States but still exploring the world as much as we can!