Think you have what it takes to pull 40 tonnes of rope down a street, surrounded by a quarter of a million people?
Welcome to the Great Tug-of-War, the highlight event of the Naha Matsuri, the biggest annual festival in Okinawa, Japan, which offers three days of fun activities and cultural events.
The festival dates back some 400 years, but today is so big that they shut down the largest road in Okinawa – Route 58 – in order to accommodate the crowds. The downtown area around Kokusai Dori becomes a huge pedestrian zone, with festivities, music, and entertainment.
Photo By: Cpl. Mark W. Stroud, via Marine Corps Installations Pacific WebsiteThe actual Tug-of-War begins with two ropes being carried down the center of the street. Period players dressed in traditional Ryukyu Kingdom ceremonial wear stand on top of the massive rope as it is carried through the crowds.
At the head of each rope is a loop, and the two ropes must be connected by a large wooden pole, which is wedged through the two loops.
Once this takes place, all hell breaks loose, with people pulling and tugging as hard as they can, usually with the youngest and strongest at the very front. Because the rope is so long, everyone can join in on the action – young kids, old grannies, tourists, locals, everyone.
When the fight is over, it is acceptable to take a small piece of the rope home with you for good luck. A new rope is produced every year!
Be aware that at the Naha Matsuri, because there are so many people, if you are serious about holding on to the rope, you need to get there early. Crowds have grown so big that you will likely be stuck on the sidewalk trying to catch a glimpse of the rope if you show up too late.
If big crowds aren't your thing, there are lots of other smaller tug-of-wars around the island too, which give you the opportunity to get a lot closer.
I also attended the Yonabaru Tug-of-War, and enjoyed it a lot more. Yonabaru is a small town in southern Okinawa, and I was lucky to be able to witness the entire festival, beginning with a very somber procession through the town of musicians, performers in fantastic costumes, and the carrying of the rope through town, into the square, before the battle.
Few tourists venture out to Yonabaru, so if you want to get a really authentic local experience, and be able to actually pull the rope, this is a great option.
The third major Tug-of-War takes place in Itoman, a fishing port just south of the airport. This event takes place every year on August 15th , and celebrates the rice harvest. This festival in particular has a lot of local touches, with people dressed up as characters from Itoman local legends.
Whichever tug-of-war you decide to go to, just have fun! And watch out for rope burn on your palms.
OKINAWA TUG-OF-WARS SCHEDULE 2018
Please note that on the day of the event, festivities run all day, typically with the actual tug-of-war happening in the afternoon. The Naha one takes place at 4pm. Links below are in Japanese only.