Rub & Tug in Naha, Japan

“Why are all the hotels in Naha fully-booked?” Nori asked, scowling at the search results on Agoda.

“I don’t know. What dates are we going to be there again?” I replied.

“On the way in, September 30th through October 1st. Two nights. On the way out, Oct 7th. Just one night and then we fly out on the 8th.”

I opened up my Evernote folder for Okinawa. I had done extensive research: short histories, travel articles, blogs by US military wives, maps, Pinterest “Best Of” posts, restaurant guides – all cut-and-pasted into a messy but searchable digital scrapbook in the ‘cloud’. It took just a few moments to find what I was looking for. 

“No way!” I shouted. “It’s the annual Great Naha Tug-of-War! This is the biggest event in Okinawa!”

It was another example of festival-related serendipity: like being in Madrid for La Noche en Blanca or Grossarl for their first annual Wine Festival. We are big planners and we’ve got books like “Around the World in 500 Festivals”, but the truth is you usually can’t schedule trips around festivals. Although in Japan, perhaps you should, as they have some of the world’s oldest and craziest.

The Great Naha Tug-of-War started in 1450 – just 20 years after the Sanzan (“three kingdoms”) of Okinawa were unified and the Ryukyu Kingdom established. The event was stopped in 1935 but revived in 1971. Today, over 300,000 people participate in the three-day festival.


But this is nothing like any tug-of-war you’ve seen before: the rope is made of rice straw, has a diameter of 1.5 meters, is 200 meters long and weighs 43 tons. A convoy of truck cranes is needed to hoist it into place. And when the contest begins, there are over 30,000 people pulling on smaller ropes that are braided into the giant rope.

In fact, there are two loop-ended ropes – a ‘male’ rope that goes through the ‘female’ rope’s loop. The two ropes are then held together by a stout wooden beam known as a kanuchibo.

Originally, the main purpose of the festival was to pray for health and a good harvest. Now, it’s mostly just to have a good time. When we arrived in Naha on the eve of the tug-of-war, Kokusai Dori (International Street) was already heaving with tourists and a parade of dancers, drummers, dragon boats and martial artists was making its way through the city.


Early the next morning, we took the boys and Unma (Grandma Joan) to the Kumoji intersection of Route 58 to see the rope and take family photos. Everything was fine until Logan climbed to the top of the loop and a security guard chased us away.

The tug-of-war was scheduled for 3:00 p.m. After lunch, we left Unma and the boys at the hotel and took the train back downtown. We had been warned that the event wasn’t safe for young kids – accurate advice, as it turned out. Thousands of people were already packed in tight around the rope. Perhaps 30% were Japanese; the majority of participants were foreign military, expats or tourists. And quite a few of these were drunk; a guy near us was only standing because there wasn’t any room to fall.


Following some speeches and a few performances, the “Kings” of the East and West (plus their drummer and standard-bearer) were carried forward on platforms raised just above the rope by twenty men. Once they reached the knot in the center of the intersection, they taunted each other and did some karate moves to unnerve their opponent. After the royal carriages returned back along the rope, the coxswain/referees that stood atop the rope started blowing whistles, waving and shouting. We were about to get started.

Then the Japanese organizers began unfurling the tow ropes, which stretched at 30 degree angles to the main rope, like the oars of a Viking ship. Huge excitement. Everybody wanted to grab on. Each tow rope now had 20-30 people on it. More shouting from the referees. But since few in the scrum could understand Japanese, we didn’t know what was going on. Until a starter’s pistol went off and all hell broke loose. We heaved on the tow ropes, we pulled on each other, we got squeezed and released like the folds of an accordion. I smelled 20 nationalities of sweat, elbowed boobs and grabbed the hands of the guy in front of me like I was teaching him how to putt. Thank God we hadn’t brought the boys!


The same thing was happening on the other side, of course. So the big rope wasn’t moving. Our collective hands were raw. But tug-of-wars are won with legs – not arms – which our side figured out earlier. Now we were crouching, leaning way back and pulling with quads and glutes. When the big rope moved a few inches in our direction, we went crazy, grunting and screaming and trying to keep the momentum going. A few minutes later, it was all over: we (the East) had won!

Most people stick around to cut a chunk of the rope out as a souvenir. But we had to rush back to the hotel as our flight was leaving in four hours!





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