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Naha Otsunahiki Festival


Photo: TARUMI Kengo

People are suffering from the heat all over Japan, yet climate change doesn’t seem to affect the entire globe. 

I visited Bali for the first time in years. It was August, but the breeze felt cool and comfortable. Shortly before my visit, I was in Tokyo for business and it was unbearably hot. The temperature was the same as the human body; I felt like I was standing in front of an outdoor air conditioning unit. Just like the Victor dog often found in front of a record store, people in Tokyo were craving the cool air. The heat was experienced not only in Tokyo, but all over the country. Checking the weather forecast on television, I sometimes saw that the temperature in Okinawa was lower than in other parts of the country. Tour companies may soon start campaigns saying, “Go to Okinawa and escape the summer heat!”

Okinawa was cooler than Tokyo; Bali was even cooler. On Bali Island, I didn’t move around a lot, instead staying in the Sanur area that I had been wanting to visit. I wasn’t expecting to encounter any kind of event but I experienced an incredible ritual. It was the Odalan of the village temple. Odalan is the day for celebrating the founding of the temple. Temples have birthdays, just like us. Every household carries offerings called gabogan to the temple. They form a procession and walk around the village. There were more than 400 people in the procession, which was quite spectacular. 
 At the top and the end of the procession, people played portable gamelans called balaganjurs. Unlike regular gamelan-playing, it was meant to be done while walking, so the performance was much more rhythmical. 
 I’ve seen balaganjur performances several times before. The most exciting one was the performance I saw in the procession heading towards the sacred Besakih Temple, the most cherished temple in Bali. They chartered several pick-up trucks for the procession. Some people even played gamelans loaded onto the trucks. The cargo beds were naturally packed with people, but they seemed happy on their way to the destination.
 I’ve seen something similar before, but where was it?
 Well, it was actually in Naha.

Up until last year, the Naha Otsunahiki (great tug-of-war) Festival was held annually on October 10, the Health and Sports Day. The holiday has been held on the second Monday of October since 2000. As the event is held at a place relatively far away, participants from Oroku, Shuri and Mawashi, where I grew up, carry their flags and ornaments on the back of trucks. The flag leaders and musicians ride on the same trucks.
 After the festival, people go back to their homes. One time, I was offered a ride on the back of a truck heading towards Shuri. That feeling of excitement was just like what I saw in Bali.
 At Otsunahiki, most of the participants were young and many looked like high school students. They spent days training and preparing for the event. After the Otsunahiki held on National Route 58, the group of participants headed back to Shuri via Kokusai Street, the main shopping street in Naha. The northbound trucks caught the attention of passersby as the participants beat drums of various sizes. For the teenagers, it must have been a quite memorable and joyous experience, as the young ladies would be passionately looking at them. They shouted louder and louder as the trucks approached the hill of Shuri. I would love to join the ride again this year.

Editor’s Note:

  1. Health and Sports Day was renamed Sports day in 2020.