In a previous post, I talked a little about Setsubun, the bean-scattering ceremony. This year, I went to the setsubun-sai (festival) at Naminoue Shrine, which is held on February 3rd. It was a grey and cloudy day, with a bit of a chill. My husband and I parked the car a few blocks away from the shrine and stopped at a conbini for coffee.
We walked up to the shrine a bit before 10am (the starting time), and with the overcast weather, it was busy but not as busy as New Years hatsumode. It started promptly at 10am, with some prayers and rites of various sorts. Next came the shishimai (lion dance), which is always a lot of fun. Finally it was time for the bean-throwing!
Now what surprised me about this festival was that they didn’t just throw beans… they threw oranges, candies, and little bags of snacks/toy as well! It was crazy, but entertaining. Again, like the Naritasan fukusenji festival, some people had bags and baskets, or used their hats, to help catch the flying prizes. After everything was thrown, the local news interviewed kids to see what all they caught. They also handed out hot zenzai (sweet red bean soup) at the shrine window~~ so as soon as the throwing is done, get in line before they run out of zenzai!
Overall, it was a lot of fun and not as crowded as I feared. So if you are in Okinawa during Setsubun, be sure to check out Naminoue Shrine’s festival!
You can also wait until Feb 11th (public holiday in Japan) for Naritasan Fukusenji’s bean-throwing festival. Since Naritasan fukusenji is my local temple, I typically attend the events there; this setsubun festival is a lot of fun too, though not as big as Naminoue shrine’s, and they only throw beans at this one. Plus at Naritasan, the sakura are usually blooming well, so the temple looks very pretty this time of year.
**in Okinawa language it is pronounced “toushinuyuruu” とぅしぬゆるー
New year’s eve in Okinawa is a bit different from the mainland. Overall, there are less temples and shrines in Okinawa than in the mainland (not only, this but historically there are some differences in religion), so visiting at the stroke of midnight is not nearly as common. Some people do it, but it is much less of a thing here than mainland Japan. Mostly only the big ones like Naminoue Shrine in Naha, or Futenma Shrine in Ginowan, are crowded. I have a list of some temples and shrines in Okinawa in a previous post, as well as a description of hatsumode. I described some of the Okinawa New Year’s customs in another post.
As far as countdown fireworks, there are some, mostly at the resort areas. Again, mostly for tourists rather than the common folk, these shows are only about 1 minute; typically the resorts also host live music shows or dance parties as well. Outside of the resorts, Itoman Peaceful illuminations by the Peace Memorial Park and the ChuraSun Beach illuminations in Tomigusuku have fireworks. There are also some fireworks by the Nakagusuku Port/Awase area (by the Comprehensive Park) that I can see from my lanai, and then some to the south in Nanjo at the Yuinchi Wellness resort that I can see as well. The Peace Memorial Park has some solemn ceremony as well, to pray for a peaceful New Year.
Many people stay at home for New Year’s eve. Young people, Americans, and tourists often go out to all-night events, so some areas around Naha, American bases and resorts hold various types of music and party events.
In terms of food, year-end (or year-crossing) soba 年越しそば (toshikoshi soba) takes the form of traditional Okinawa soba rather than mainland style buckwheat soba. Although toshikoshi soba is not that popular here, you will find that the Japanese soba and Okinawa suba places are very busy on New Year’s eve anyway. Rather, typical celebratory foods also used in other Ryukyu feast days are more common. So those feast boxes, usanmi ウサンミ, are the typical; you can buy them at any grocery store during this time, though it is better to pre-order. In addition to usanmi, hors d’oeuvres オードブル trays are commonly purchased (or pre-ordered) from grocery stores and restaurants. But don’t let the name fool you, it is not what many westerners may consider hors d’oeuvres… but rather lots of fried foods and meats. In Hawai’i it is similar to the idea of “heavy pupus.”
Red vs White (Kouhaku uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦) is one of the New Year’s eve TV programs that I am familiar with; there are others, but this is the tradition for my husband and I. Probably because Arashi 嵐 (boy band of my generation) has hosted it a few times, I insist on watching it. This year, Okinawa’s own Namie Amuro 安室奈美恵 will be singing.
Anyway, there are different options on how to spend the eve of the New Year in Okinawa… choose what you like best.
*I will try to add a little more info to this post with some more traditional customs over the next week or so.
In Japan, on November 3rd is “Culture Day,” a national public holiday.
In our village, there was a culture celebration held the following weekend. Various village products were promoted, and people did various types of performances at the local auditorium. Not just our village, many many surrounding towns and villages also held culture festivities similar to this one the same weekend, so if you live in Okinawa be sure to seek them out this time of year.
We did not go see all of them (the program was several hours long), but we did go see the final act, a kumiodori 組踊 (traditional Ryukyu musical play/dance) put on by the local village people. The piece they enacted was the age old story of Lord Gosamaru 護佐丸; Lord Amawari’s betrayal, Lord Gosamaru’s suicide, and his son’s revenge. The performance is in uchinaaguchi うちなーぐち (Okinawan language), so it is a little difficult to understand all the dialog/singing. But it was fun and interesting nonetheless. Another chance to immerse ourselves in local culture and get to know our neighbors.
We also ate little taiyaki たい焼き in the shape of Gosamaru before the performance, sold at one of the small stands as part of the culture celebration.
Recently, I was able to attend the Futenmanzan Jinguuji 普天間神宮寺 matsuri (festival) at the Futenma temple (next to Futenma shrine).
The fire-walking ritual 火渡り神事 (hiwatari shinji) is the main draw. Unfortunately some heavy rain showers led to the event ending early, so perhaps next year I can see it in the entirety and get some interesting pictures of the monks walking through the fire.
So, to explain the process: you buy a wood board and write your wish/prayer on it. The monks will start to chant and light a large sacred fire. When it is time, you throw your wooden prayer board into the fire!
First the monks will have some more ceremonial rituals, and walk through the fire; it is supposed to be a powerful cleansing and purifying experience. This portion was cut extremely short due to the heavy rain, and so the fire couldn’t exactly keep on.
Now it is time to walk through the fire…! Well, it isn’t too scary I think, since it at this point they stamp out the flames and it is mostly just hot ashes. Many people lined up and removed their shoes/socks in order to process through the “fire.” At the end of fire area was and altar and when you reach the altar, they gave you an orange.
Really it was quite interesting and not at all what I expected to see in Okinawa, as this is more of a mainland Japan ritual.
In a small neighborhood of Wauke 和宇慶, located in Nakagusuku town here in Okinawa, there is a Juugoya (15th night) celebration 十五夜祭 held the Saturday after Juugoya/Tsukimi (15th day of the 8th lunar month).
We rode our bicycles down to the Wauke community center where the festivities were just getting started at about 7pm. Like many small community events, we were welcomed kindly by the local Okinawans and given drinks (cans of beers and green tea), as well as a plate of local foods. We settled onto our mat and watched shishimai (lion dance), fan dance, karate demonstrations, Ryukyu dance, and more throughout the evening. All the performances were very fun and interesting.
At the end, there is what is known as “community dance” called カチャーシー Kachaashii… where basically everyone gathers by the stage of the celebration and dances. As you may guess, beers had been drunk and being the only foreigners (besides 1 guy who was of Okinawan descent from Hawaii on a local government exchange), we were of course shuffled to the stage to participate, as well as our new-found Hawaiian uchinanchu friend. And, well, I guess our elderly community friends here seem to really enjoy these 外国人 who come to and participate in local events, so we indulged them. Some were surprised that I knew “open the door, shut the door,” an integral part of local dance here (this probably sounds a bit strange, so I will need to explain perhaps in a post later about local dancing).
Anyway, a good time was had by all… if you happen to be in Okinawa, I recommend you seek out these small Juugoya festivities in your neighborhood and spend some time getting to know your neighbors. I find making memories such as these much more rewarding than the bigger, well-known events. I forged bonds with my neighbors, and got to understand little deeper about Ryukyu and Okinawan culture/traditions.
One of the most popular natsu matsuri (summer festival) 夏祭り is the All-island Okinawa Eisa and Orion beer festival held the weekend following obon— at least with Americans that is. Held at the Koza Sports Park, I have seen more Americans at this festival than any other. It is actually 2 festivals, coinciding with each other: the eisa festival itself and the Orion Beer Festival.
*In 2018, this will August 31-September 2.
To reach the festival, there are free shuttle buses, as there is no parking at the venue. You can park at Aeon Rycom Mall, as well as some other areas to catch the free shuttle buses. Otherwise, there are some paid parking areas near Koza.
On Friday evening, in the Koza area, there is the Eisa parade. The parade is actually pretty nice; bring a leisure sheet to sit on and some dinner to relax and watch. Next to us, there was a family with a kid (who could not have been more than 3 or so) and he played his pint size drum, dancing around in his eisa outfit as the groups played on the street. He was quite entertaining.
On Saturday and Sunday, is the actual eisa festival and beer festival; the festivals, though both are at the Koza Sports Park, is divided into 2 sections. On one side is the Orion Beer festival, with outdoor tables and chairs, music stage entertainment, Orion Beer girls, tents selling nothing but Orion draft beer, and of course, loud drunk Americans (well, and locals too, if we are being honest). When you enter, they give you a wristband if you are of drinking age and you MUST have it to buy alcohol. I usually don’t spend more than about 5 minutes there, as it really isn’t my scene. But I think the beer is usually cheaper on this side than the eisa festival side, so…
The other side where the eisa festival is, however, more family friendly. There are pay seats in the bleachers, but for free you can just bring a sheet and sit in the field to watch. It is all eisa performances, so it can get a bit repetitive, but can be a fun evening out, especially if you have never been to a natsu matsuri before. You will likely see many girls (both local and foreign) wearing summer yukata or jinbei.
Of course, lining the entire area is typical summer festival food tents. A lot of these are what I refer to as generic “yellow tent” food (due to a majority of them using a basic yellow tent), a company that comes in and sells mediocre food in large volume.. often times it is not really hot when you get it. I try to find the more local vendors, who are usually hawking piping-hot fresh food. Over here, you can still buy beer and are away from the drunk scene.
At the end of the night, there are fireworks to finish off the evening. While it is not my favorite festival on island it can still be fun, especially for new-comers, and you can experience a lot of eisa all in one place. Plus, I have to admit, all the lanterns strung up with happy festival goers in yukata, drums and fireworks gives a nice ambience on a hot summer evening.
夏祭り natsu matsuri means summer festival (I wrote a little about this before).
Of course, no summer matsuri is complete without the food tents, called 屋台 yatai. Most popular are probably the fried and grilled foods; some of the more “traditional” ones that I have seen in Okinawa are listed below. Just be careful not to stain your yukata…
**I will try and add some more pictures of all the foods as I have time.
Yakisoba 焼きそば : fried noodles. Usually at summer matsuri, I see Japanese sauce yakisoba rather than Okinawan salt yakisoba, but it depends on the festival.
Takoyaki たこ焼き: fried octopus balls. Round dough balls with bits of octopus mixed in and fried, then topped with sauce and usually katsuobushi.
Okonomiyaki お好み焼き: cabbage “pancakes,” topped with sauce, as well as usually mayo, nori, and katsuobushi.
Pote ポテ: potato fries.
Yakitori 焼き鳥: grilled chicken skewers.
Ika yaki イカ焼き: literally, squid grilled on a skewer. Squid-on-a-stick.
Jaga bataa じゃがバター: baked potato with butter.
(Yaki) toumorokoshi (焼き)とうもろこし: corn; in this case it will be grilled and slathered with butter.
Recently we went to a matsuri in Nago and split a mega-combo メガコンボ, which came with a mix of potato fries, yakisoba, takoyaki, and yakitori. It was a popular food tent, and everything was cooked piping hot on the spot. It was nice because it came with a small(ish) serving of a bunch of different foods for variety, and a good compromise for my husband and I to split.
Some food tents are starting to offer some more western choices, like “meat pies” which I think are kinda like empanadas. Often you also see アメリカンドッグ “American dog,” which just means a corn dog.
You might also see some “local specialties,” which in Okinawa typically means soba. Each festival has its own wide array of foods to try, and we enjoy trying as many as possible. On the mainland I have seen way more variety of matsuri food, and some really interesting looking ones. So keep in mind since this list is mostly applicable to Okinawa, I have only included the ones most common in Okinawa.
And of course, there is more than just savory foods… plenty of sweets as well.
Wataame わたあめ: cotton candy.
Choco banana チョコバナナ: chocolate covered banana on a stick.
毛遊び mou ashibi: the rough meaning is to gather in the fields or the seaside and play from early evening until late under the moon and the stars, eating while watching traditional dance and folk songs (and most like drinking alcohol). For those of you who read Japanese, this Okinawan pronunciation may seem strange… “ashibi” 遊び means “to play” in Okinawan language and “mou” 毛 actually has the same meaning as the kanji 野 for field/plains (毛 “ke” in Japanese it refers to fur or hair!).
Once upon a time in Okinawa, young adults used to gather around in a field from an early evening until midnight and enjoyed performances of traditional dances, songs, play sanshin while they were drinking awamori. It paints a very cheerful and nostalgic image for me.
In the old days, it was actually sort of like “marriage meetings”… an opportunity to meet a suitable partner for many young people; kind of like the modern gokon 合コン (“group date”) that go on today. These days the term “mou ashibi” is mostly used for family-friendly traditional song and dance events that happen in the evening. You may see many of these happening, particular in the summer/autumn time, usually near traditional or historical spots (such as at the gusuku sites). Families bring food and drinks, as well as mats/sheets to sit on (you can even buy these sheets at the Daiso, or sometimes they give them away at events). They enjoy music, dancing, and traditional entertainment under the moonlight.
I hope if you come to Okinawa you can make it to one of these special events, drinking and playing under the stars!
弥勒: Miroku (Japanese). In Okinawan language it is pronounced “Miruku.” It feels kind of strange, because ミルク miruku is one way to say “milk” in Japanese as well. But in this case, miruku ミルク is a deity 神様 (kami-sama), not the white beverage!
*神 kami means “god,” and -様 -sama is a very polite way to address people in Japanese.
Used as ミルク神, it should probably be pronounced miruku-shin, though I sometimes see variations such as miruku-gami and miruku-kami.
Miruku is actually one of the most commonly worshipped gods in the Ryukyu islands, especially the Yaeyama islands. Often someone will dress as Miruku in the island festivals, a long yellow robe with a large white mask carrying a fan. He is believed to have come from across the sea, nirai kanai ニライカナイ (this means sort of like “heaven” to Okinawan people), and comes bringing good fortune.
Hateruma 波照間島, the southern most island, is famous for “Mushaama,” a festival during the obon. The festival is designated as a National Important Intangible Folk Cultural Property, and held on July 14th of the lunar calendar. It combines obon festivities with harvest ceremonies like the Miruku fertility deity parade and shishimai (lion dance). Islanders offer prayers to their ancestors and pray for their happiness, bountiful crops and of course, a big catch at sea.
In Akata 赤田 of Shuri, a traditional ceremony called miruku unke みるくウンケー is held. A smiling maitreya (a bodhisattva) and his followers walk around the community and pray for the good health and prosperity of residents. The miruku unke ceremony was revived in 1994 after not being held for about sixty years! Since then it has become an annual event. Starting from the Akata Club Community Center, the miruku walks at the head of the parade, called suneei スネーイ. About 100 people follow, including a marching band and children carrying flags of the Ryukyu era (these particular flags are called ンカジ, nkaji, which means “centipede” in Okinawa language, due to their jagged edges), while the miruku waves his paper fan to drive off evil spirits from around the people waiting to watch the parade. Often babies cry (I guess he is a little scary) and elderly people wave from the second floor of their houses. The parade is called suneei スネーイ. It typically happens on the Sunday before Obon. In 2018 this will be August 19th; in previous years it has begun around 4:30pm. In some other villages, the miruku parades occur on different days.
If you live in Okinawa, you should definitely go watch one of these parades with Miruku-kamisama!
Youtube videos of Miruku in the town near me, Nishihara.
神輿 mikoshi: palanquin used to transport Shinto deities, a portable shrine.
なんみん祭: Nanmin Matsuri (Naminoue Shrine festival, Nanmin is the shrine’s name in Okinawan language)
Possibly the closest to a Japanese mainland-style mikoshi you will see in Okinawa is during the Nanmin Festival at the Naminoue shrine!
Every year the mikoshi procession is on the Sunday of the festival. It starts at 10am from Naminoue Shrine and winds it way to the open space in front of the Palette Kumoji (Ryubo) at the end of Kokusai-dori. There is also eisa, traditional Ryukyu dance, shishimai (lion dance), karate demonstrations, a beach tsunahiki (tug-of-war), bukubuku-cha/tea ceremony, and more during this weekend festival (Saturday & Sunday).
This is a must-see for anyone living in Okinawa who has not experienced this on the mainland of Japan. Obviously on mainland, this is a much more common site to see, and they are very exciting and exuberant events. This one is much smaller, and less crowded, which in some ways makes for a better experience!
**Bukubuku-cha event: started from 2pm on Saturday of the festival, Naminoue shrine. We watched as some skilled ladies made the foam for the tea. At 2pm, they had benches to sit down while they came around with individual trays containing a cup of tea topped with foam and 2 chinsukou (cookies). This event was free! Yum! On Saturday, there was also children’s sumo from 1pm, and some taiko performances from 6pm (we did not stay for taiko so I cannot comment on that experience).
**Mikoshi event: started at 10am on Sunday at the shrine, however we met up with them by the Ryubo Palette Kumoji around 11am. There was the parade into the square, then some ceremonies/rituals. Next came various performances, of which the shishimai was probably my favorite. As always they came thru the crowd to try to bite small children. While this was going on, the pole-dancing went on by Kokusai-dori. No, not like that… by pole-dancing I mean “Gaaee” ガーエー, which means something like “winner’s triumphant shout.” Basically it entails guys carrying a large, heavy bamboo pole decorated with flags and flowers and other decorations, called hatagashira 旗頭. Hatagashira are an example of the traditional Okinawan culture. They are symbols created to represent a the success of a village. After the various performances wrapped up, the parade returned to the shrine and beach for some more events. At this point my hubby was pretty done, so we headed home.
狩り kari: literal translation is “hunting,” but it used for picking fruit
so ichigo-gari イチゴ狩り is strawberry picking.
Strawberry picking is really popular in Japan.
Today we went to Chura Ichigo 美らイチゴ, a strawberry farm in Itoman. Here, you pick your own strawberries in their covered greenhouse. They just opened this year and they grow 5 different varieties of strawberries.
When you enter, you take off your shoes and put them in the cubby, then wear the rubber slippers provided for you. Next you will be handed a basket with a tray in it. You are instructed in the method of how to pluck the strawberries, by turning the tops downwards and pulling gently (look at the picture signs they have for you to understand what I mean).
What I like about this place is that there is no entrance fee (!) and you simply pay for as many as you pick (2yen per 1 gram). We enjoyed some time choosing from the different varieties of berries and ended up with about 950yen worth of strawberries. These berries were so sweet and delicious, it was such a good value. If you want, they also have some benches you can sit at and enjoy eating your berries after you have paid for them, or you can get a bag to carry them home in if you prefer. I highly recommend trying Chura Ichigo!
Some other places, such as some farms in Ginoza (up north) and Tomoyu Farm in Nakagusuku, have only a tabehoudai 食べ放題 (all-you-can-eat) plan where you pay a certain amount (usually 1300yen for adults) and you can eat as many strawberries as you want in 20 minutes. For me, I prefer to savor my berries since they are a rare treat; I don’t want to scarf them down in a certain amount of time. So while I appreciate the novelty of the tabehoudai idea, it is not how I wish to enjoy my strawberries.
Chura Ichigo Itoman branch is only open on Saturdays and Wednesdays, from about January until May, starting from 10am until they are out of berries for the day. Most strawberry picking places in Okinawa begin their season around January/February and close by May.
**UPDATE: Chura Ichigo has opened a second location in NANJO. This location is open on Sundays and Thursdays, starting at 10 am until they are out of berries. These 2 locations have become so popular it is important to check the website for the day to see if they have sold out or go at opening! The website is even in English now since many foreign people enjoy visiting! The fees have changed; there is now an entrance fee and berries are 3yen per gram. They have also added a tabehoudai plan 食べ放題 for those interested.
赤福餅 akafuku mochi is a famous type of mochi from Ise 伊勢 in Mie prefecture 三重県. It has a 300 year history.
赤 aka means “red” and 福 fuku means “luck.” 餅 mochi is rice cake.
At the Mie-Nagoya products fair, I got a tea set for only 210yen that included 2 pieces of akafuku mochi and tea.
Akafuku mochi is made with such smooth delicious bean paste, shaped in peaks to symbolize the ripples of the Isuzu river that flows through the Ise grand shrine region. Inside is mochi (rice cake) that represents the smooth white river pebbles.
The taste is amazing; they use no preservatives or artificial coloring and the azuki beans used are from Hokkaido, the mochi is made from all domestic mochi rice.
Today I went to a products fair for Nagoya and Mie held at the department store. There was this really tempting looking manjuu from Mie prefecture; it had a batter made with satsuma-imo (Japanese sweet potato). It was called hekoki manjuu へこきまんじゅう.
屁こき (へこき) hekoki: means “breaking wind” or “farting.”
饅頭 (まんじゅう) manjuu is just a type of Japanese steamed bun or cake. Some people romanize it as “manju” with only 1 u.
So these are “cakes” that make you pass gas. Hmmm. I read that sweet potatoes can make you more gassy.
There were many types to choose from but I got the one with cream cheese and cranberry in the middle and it was very delicious. The batter is made from sweet potato which made the texture and taste so yummy. I would really recommend trying these, but maybe not too many at one time…
I didn’t get a picture of the manjuu cake itself since I was too hungry to wait. At the time I was thinking of my stomach and hadn’t planned to write an entry about it. But then I thought that fart-inducing cakes seemed like a pretty interesting/unique food as well as being incredibly oishii 美味しい. I suppose whenever I make it to Mie prefecture, I will have to find their original shop!
We participated in the One Piece run in Chatan 北谷町; it is a 5.5 km “running” course set up through the American Village area with a One Piece (anime, manga) theme. The tickets were purchased through Lawson conbini and came with a T-shirt and wristband, as well as various other small things. We chose to do the first wave, but there are 4 times you could choose from.
Of course, on this day it decided to be rainy… but we did not let that deter us. We even got all the stamps for the stamp rally. Now admittedly, I have not read or seen much of One Piece… my husband wanted to participate in a beginner’s run, and since marathons are honestly a bit extreme for us, when this came up we decided to go for it. After all… it is Japan, and participating in an anime-themed run seems like something we should experience at least once.
There were some people dressed up as various characters or with One Piece gear, though you do not need to be so extreme to participate. The tent was selling some One Piece merchandise and souvenirs for the more serious fans. We were happy with our shirt and wristband.
As we jogged our way through the course, there were various fun station stops and picture opportunities. There was a sweets station (yes, I know… during a run, really? sweets? doesn’t that sort of feel contradictory?), the pirate ship, foam party, water gun battle, speakers playing OnePiece songs, character photos, and more. Despite being a little cold and soaked from the rain we had a pretty good time and my husband met his goal challenge. At the end they gave you a cute little certificate to say you completed and a pin. Maybe we will try again next year and have better weather.
For those who are more true fans, there was an “after-party” concert with some of the voice actors and one of the singing groups. We were chilly and wet, so we ended up to go home.
Somewhat recently in Okinawa, we have another type of sakura (cherry blossom) that blooms after the usual season here (usual season for Okinawa is late January through mid-February). It comes from Kume-jima, so it is called kume-no-sakura クメノサクラ. Someiyoshino 染井吉野 is a type of cherry blossom blooming in mainland Japan; Kume no sakura is a cherry blossom which looks similar to someiyoshino, with whitish, faintly pale pink petals. Typically in Okinawa, we have a type of sakura with bright pink petals called kanhi zakura 寒緋櫻 (cold scarlet sakura), which are actually from Taiwan and southern China.
So while many people think that the sakura season is over for Okinawa, it is in fact not! In Izumi ward of the Motobu peninsula (not far from Yaedake), you can see these beautiful kume-no-sakura blooms, usually during mid- to late March, or even into very early April. There are around 1,000 trees planted there.
Another difference you will notice with the kume-no-sakura petals is that they fall away one by one, instead of the whole flower dropping at once like the kanhizakura does. The feeling of the kume-no-sakura trees is very different from the more commonly found kanhizakura here in Okinawa.
So if you missed the sakura the first time around in Okinawa, just be patient… and you will be rewarded with a set of slightly different, but just as pretty, sakura! How lucky are we in Okinawa that we get to see sakura not once, but twice a year?
*Note: you may be able to see these trees around various locations, but not in large concentrations– one such place is in front of the Orion Beer Happy Park in Nago.
These are some pictures are of them just starting, taken with my iPhone:
The third day of the third month in the lunar calendar is Okinawa’s tradition that occurs on hinamatsuri in the lunar calendar (March 3rd). It is called 浜下り, pronounced hama uri ハマウリ (in Japanese these would be hama ori). 浜 hama means “beach,” and 下り uri is “to descend.” Some people may observe it on the western calendar date, but more often it is observed on lunar calendar date. **In 2017 this day will be on March 30th.
This is also associated with the event on Henza-jima, called Sangwacha (a fisherman festival). Sangwachi-gwashi (translation: March sweets) is commonly eaten by the beach.
On March 3rd of the lunar calendar, families take their girls down to the beach and get in the water to “purify” or “cleanse” them, and to pray for good health. The seawater is supposed to get rid of any bad spirits, curses, etc. Sometimes families will collect shells, harvest asa アーサー (type of seaweed) or small clams in the tidal areas, and often have a beach-side picnic. One of the ladies in my class reminisced about when she was a child, how on Hama uri her mother took her down to the beach, they would go digging for clams and then have a picnic. She explained that on this day, the tides are low, so it is easy to harvest the clams and asa.
The Legend behind Hamauri:
Long ago, a young man visited a young girl of marriageable age one evening. He was obviously a nobleman, but he didn’t speak much about himself. He spoke sweetly to the young woman and they were became lovers. When the parents found out their daughter had become pregnant, they decided to discover more about who the mysterious nobleman was since he never said where he was from. The parents told the girl to stick a needle with a long thread to the bottom of the nobleman’s kimono when he next visited.
That night as he slept, the girl did as her parents told her. The next morning they followed the thread deep into the woods, into a cave, and inside the cave a huge snake was coiled up that spoke to them. The snake said if the girl did not enter the sea to purify her body, she would bear his children– they realized he was not a man at all, but a magical snake.
When the parents returned home, they immediately took their daughter down to the ocean to purify her body in the salt water– dead baby snakes flowed out of her body! The evil snake’ magic spell was broken and the young nobleman was never to be seen again.
清明祭, シーミー or しーみー: shiimii (also Romanized as “shimi”) in Okinawan language. In Japanese it is pronounced Seimei-sai.
Shiimii season is will come to Okinawa around April (in the third lunar month). Even though I think you are supposed to hold the ritual around the 15th day after the Spring Equinox, most Okinawan people are on “island time” and just do it any time during the month that it is convenient for everybody to meet up or whenever the weather is good. I don’t know that there are many clear rules as to when, but generally these gathering start April 4th. I remember one of my students last year said that she was so busy during the month and was barely able to organize a small gathering at the family grave on the very last weekend of April.
It is an event to worship the ancestors, originating from China. The tombs are cleaned up and family members come together to kneel in front of the tomb, providing offerings to the ancestors and bringing along food dishes to have a small gathering/party in front of the tomb. This is one of the major observances in Ryukyuan customs, though it is mostly observed in the the central and southern areas.
Featured in the stores you will see lots of materials for packing family bento boxes, packages of mochi, fruits, items for the graves (including uchikabi, paper money, that is burned so ancestors have money in the afterlife), cleaning items, and other things necessary for a family picnic. The ads will be up soon to pre-order Okinawan-style hors d’oeuvre platters. They will look similar to the platters during New Years and Obon, with many of the same foods. These boxes are called usanmi ウサンミ.
During the month of April, you will see cars parked all along the road in Okinawa, and lots of people picnicking by the ancestor graves. I can usually tell when the season is in full swing, due to the slow traffic and the number of not-quite-legally-parked cars spilling into the main road. It is a time to remind yourself as an “outsider” to be patient, and to appreciate the preservation of culture. Usually weekends (Sundays) are the busiest days to hold these gatherings.
so add them together,, and you get 夜桜 yozakura: night-time illuminated blossoms!
Previously I have written about sakura in Okinawa here.
Recently I visited the Nakijin castle ruins 今帰仁城跡 for the annual night illumination sakura viewing. Nakijin has many sakura trees on the premises, and in previous years I have gone during the day time. This year I decided to try something different and go during the night– it was quite beautiful.
The admission fee is 400yen for adults. The castle ruins are lit up along the paths and walls, as well as near the sakura trees. The effect is enchanting and if you ever have the opportunity, it is well worth checking out.
As well as Nakijin, another site in Okinawa down south in Yaese also has a night-time sakura viewing.
祭り matsuri, フェスタ festa, フェスティバル festival, フェア fair, カーニバル carnival: all words used for a fair, festival or exhibition of some sort.
In Okinawa, each town or city has its own local industry product fair, usually occurring once a year or once every 2 years. This is an opportunity for local producers, farmers, and businesses to showcase their wares. Some of these are large events and some are a bit smaller, depending on the size of the town. Usually there are all sorts of free samples, demonstrations, entertainment and specialty food booths.
The Okinawa city industry fair is a really good fair and one of the largest, held at the Comprehensive Park (2017 date: January 28-29). Lots of vendors selling local foods, flower exhibits, farm produce, and more. Since it is once of the largest fairs, it is nice to enjoy all the different things it has to offer.
The Nishihara town (the town just south to my village) industry fair is much smaller, but it showcases sugarcane (サトウキビ satoukibi) and brown sugar (黒糖 kokutou)! The ojiisans set up early in their tents, press the sugarcane juice and then start boiling. At some point it turns into tasty brown sugar and they give out lots of samples. It is really interesting to be able to taste the subtle differences between each one.
If you live in Okinawa, check your community for these types of fun food events! I enjoy attending these and seeing what each town has to offer; I always end up bringing home all sorts of tasty treats.
初詣 Hatsumode: First visit to a shrine or temple in the New Year.
Every year on January 1st, I visit a temple or shrine. Here in Okinawa, I am lucky enough to have a temple within reasonable walking distance from my house, Naritasan Fukusen-ji 成田山福泉寺 (reminder, the “ji” 寺 means temple).
After a big shopping trip to pick up some fukubukuro 福袋 (lucky bags), we bundle up and climb the hill up to the temple. We walk rather than drive due to the extremely heavy amount of traffic around the temple. As we make our way up the hill, we pass a long line of cars idling on the hill, waiting to make it to the top and eventually park. We bring along old omamori お守り (amulets/protective charms) from the previous year; these are tied along the temple property (there will be be strings or ropes or posts to attach the omamori, then the monks will come through to collect them for the burning ritual). Some of the bigger shrines/temples may even have a large omamori collection bin to put them in.
Once we finally reach the top, there are a few tents selling food and drinks. We join the end of the line to pray at the temple and purchase new omamori for the year. The line is usually quite long. At most temples, when we get close enough, we cleans ourselves at the temizuya 手水舎 (water fountain); the ritual is like a type of misogi 禊 (cleansing before entering the shrine). Remember: hold the wooden dipper in your right hand and first pour over your left, then switch and pour over your right hand, then switch again pouring a little into your left hand and use it to rinse your mouth (please don’t spit back into the basin!), and finally turn the ladle upright so the remaining water rinses over the handle. At Naritasan Fukusen-ji, there is a sign at the basin: instead of the hand/mouth cleansing you are supposed to throw water at the statue’s face 3 times for luck, so don’t be surprised to see this strange act at the temizuya!
As we approach the main worship area, we toss offerings into the box and pray for a prosperous and healthy new year. Afterwards, we head to the omamori tables and choose some assortment for the house, the car, or maybe some personal ones.
Besides omamori, it is fun to draw a fortune, omikuji おみくじ. Most temples and shrines have some in English as well as Japanese. After reading our fortune to see if we have good luck, middle luck or terrible luck, we usually tie the omikuji to a tree. I have heard both versions of tie it to a tree to leave bad luck behind, or tie it to tree to make sure it comes true. Well, whichever it is, I almost always do it no matter what.
There are a few food tents set up, so often I like to grab a dango 団子 or daifuku mochi 大福餅, and an amazake 甘酒 or hot zenzai ぜんざい.
Many places will also offer a small cup of New Year’s sake, too. At this point, most of what we have come to do at the temple is finished, and it is time to head back down the hill to home. It is a small ritual that I enjoy every year, both here in Okinawa as well as in Hawai’i.
This year I donned kimono for hatsumode; some people stared, but everyone was complimentary about it. After all, how often do you see a westerner wearing a kimono that she put on by herself? As it is in Okinawa, very few people wear kimono for hatsumode, but I wanted to go at least once to the temple in kimono.
If you cannot make it on Jan 1st, many temples and shrines in Okinawa actually stay open 24 hours, for as long as the first week in January. So don’t sweat it if you do not feel like dealing with the crazy amount of traffic the first day (or the second or third days since traffic remains heavy around these areas)… wait until a few days later and you can still participate without the crowds! On the 15th of January, we gather up our shimenawa (and other decorations as necessary) and take to the temple for burning.
Futenma Shrine: extremely popular; many foreigners visit this one since it is close to the American military bases.
Naminoue Shrine: probably one of the most popular to visit! Tents with foods and goods line the street as you approach the main area. It is very crowded– but pretty spectacular to see! This shrine also draws a lot of tourists, both foreign and domestic.
Okinawa Gokoku Shrine: another extremely popular shrine to visit! Again, tents with foods, games, etc line the street… it is so crowded here, and you will have to wait a bit until you can get in. But again, it is an amazing site to see, and a lot of fun. This one offered nihonshu (sake); there will be a salt box, so grab a small pinch of salt, then a cup and go for it.
Awase Bijuru (shrine): This is rather small, but still crowded with locals! It is very cute, and you will probably need to wait in line a bit depending on when you go. Don’t expect much food or games here. It is a much smaller scale than the Naha shrines.
I will add a link with some uploaded pictures of all the different Okinawa shrines and temples at New Year’s… I visited quite a few!
**in Okinawan language it is pronounced “sougwachi” そーぐゎち
大晦日 oomisoka: New Year’s Eve
**in Okinawa language it is pronounced “toushinuyuruu” とぅしぬゆるー
There are many, many Japanese customs that come with the beginning of a New Year. In Okinawa, several of them are observed, and some are a little different. Okinawa usually observes most of its customs on the lunar calendar, so there is also a second, slightly different observance for lunar New Year celebrated later as well.
Before the New Year, houses go through major house-cleaning (osouji 大掃除) to prepare for the new year. It is a busy time for everyone. New Years is mostly a family event in Japan, and perhaps especially Okinawa, so they are not usually a lot of large countdowns or fireworks shows. The only fireworks tend to be at the resorts, mostly for tourists. There are some drinking/dancing parties for the younger people. The Itoman Peace Park has a special event with torches and sounding the bell for world peace, then ending with some fireworks. ChuraSun Beach in Tomigusuku keeps their illumination up through midnight and ends with countdown fireworks. There are usually some fireworks up in Awase by the Comprehensive park as well. Overall they are very short shows, nothing like the summer. Every year I see someone online saying there are fireworks in American Village, but then I never see any info on it and later people complain there were none; I am guessing some jerk thinks it is fun to troll new Americans for New Year’s eve.
As I was shopping in SanA (grocery store), they had a nice poster (shown above) of where to put all the New Years decoration (in Japanese, but nice nonetheless). Right now there are tons of different pieces that one can purchase to get the house ready for the New Year. Some of the common decor and traditions you will see in Okinawa:
shimekazari しめ飾り: a rice straw rope wreath しめ縄 (shimenawa) with white paper 紙垂 (shide). In Okinawa, it is common to have a fairly simple straw “wreath” with a piece of charcoal wrapped in konbu 昆布 (seaweed) and an orange (mikan みかん) attached, though plenty of people also buy the fancier ones. You can even buy ones with Rilakkuma and other characters on it. This kind of thing can be placed on your door, or above the entrance to your house. It is to purify/protect the house. A more simple shimenawa rope is often placed above the family butsudan 仏壇 (altar). Some people even buy small ones and put them on their cars. I buy new ones every year, but I have heard people admit they reuse them for a few years (instead of burning it on the ritual day) and just add a fresh orange/charcoal. So again, if you buy a nice one that is too pretty (or expensive) to burn… don’t feel guilty for not burning it according to tradition.
kadomatsu 門松: 3 pieces of bamboo with pine are arranged on a circular base. Also typically placed at the entranceway, to welcome the toshigami 年神 (year deity/god) to the house (they can land on the bamboo posts). I have a (plastic-y) set that I reuse. Sometimes it is nice to buy fresh new ones, but the New Year adds up quickly. Again… you can buy them and burn them in the ritual… but don’t let anyone make you feel bad for being a little frugal. Japanese people are like this too.
minori 稔り: this is rice straw tied in a bunch. Can be placed by the altar/butsudan, but I think some people in Okinawa use these instead of kadomatsu at the front entrance. Some people may even braid their own shimekazari from these.
kagami-mochi 鏡餅: this is “mirror” mochi. I cannot tell you the number of Americans who buy one, open it, and BITE into it raw! Then they wonder why Japanese eat wax. But no… you must heat up the dried mochi! Anyway, these are stacked pieces of dried mochi with a New Year decoration (like an orange or zodiac symbol on top). This is usually placed at the butsudan /altar or kamidana 神棚. You are not supposed to open it and “break” the mirror (crack the mochi into pieces) until on Jan 11th (some regions might do different days). Anyway, on kagami biraki 鏡開き (break the mirror ceremony), open up your dried mochi that you bought and break it into pieces (you should not use a knife but mallet or something instead, but I won’t judge you if you decide knife is easier). You can heat it up a number of ways. My favorite is toast it in the microwave or toaster oven or even a grill (just a little until you see it puff up and brown), then add it to hot zenzai ぜんざい (red bean soup, you can make yourself or just buy the prepared package at SanA). Yum! You could also check online for some ozoni soup recipes お雑煮.
charcoal wrapped inkelp: 炭= charcoal, so sumi-kazari 炭飾り is charcoal decoration. In Okinawa, charcoal is very important for purification, health, and for longevity (since it does not “decay”). Pieces of charcoal wrapped in kelp and with auspicious kanji/ribbon are placed not only on the shimekazari, but also on the butsudan (altar) or the hinukan 火の神.
figurine of New Year zodiac animal: This year is year of the rooster and last year was year of the monkey. In recent years I have started getting the cheap Hello Kitty zodiac figurine. It is cute although I suppose not so traditional. Only 500yen at Tokyu Hands.
Many New Years flower arrangements will have plum blossoms, pine, bamboo, cabbage and other plants that have special symbolism for spring or the beginning of a new year.
otoshidama お年玉: who doesn’t love to receive an envelope full of money? Usually this is for kids to receive. Even as a school teacher in Hawai’i I observed this custom on a small scale during the lunar New Year, and gave kids otoshidama envelopes (called pochi bukuro ポチ袋) with a chocolate coin it– no money, but a little piece of chocolate, so it was still appreciated.
osechi-ryouri 御節料理: Traditional New years food! The best part, amirite? In this modern day you will see stores bustling with pre-orders, not many people have so much time to prepare all this! Again, it usually falls on the wife of the oldest son to prepare these things (some of the ladies in my eikaiwa say it is best to marry a second son!), similar to Obon, so as you can imagine ordering a platter with all the required items from a restaurant or grocery store is much easier. There are a few traditional foods necessary for Okinawan osechi-ryouri, most of them are fried, some type of pork, or shrimps. Honestly in the stores, the fried foods and Okinawa hors d’oeuvres plates (オードブル) were flying off the shelves while the mainland-style foods were left somewhat untouched. I will try to take a few pictures this year; below are pictured more mainland Japanese types of food for New Years.
nakamijiru 中身汁 (also 中味汁): Nakami-jiru is intestines soup (pork). This is a very traditional dish for Okinawan people, but younger generations are (for perhaps obvious reasons) less inclined to eat it these days. Bags of pre-made soup (just heat and serve) and large bags of “chitlins” (pieces of intestines, pardon the American slang) are easily found in the center aisles of the store this time of year.
Winter gift, oseibo 御歳暮: just like summer gift (chuugen), all the groceries drag out the box gifts. You can buy the same types of item: spam, laundry detergent, beer, rice… and you can have them ship it to relatives afar or just have them wrap it and deliver yourself during the days leading up to the New Year.
On New Years Eve, we typically watch Kohaku Uta Gassen 紅白歌合戦 (red vs white singing competition) featuring popular music artists and enka singers. Basically it is women (red) vs men (white), and while it is sort of cheesy at times (people complain about the talentless AKB48 groups), it is actually fun to have on while waiting for the end of the year. At the end, the votes are tallied and the winning team determined. Hotaru no hikari 蛍の光 (to the tune of Auld Lang Syne) is sung at the end, and then the program flashes to celebrations at New Years temples and shrines around Japan.
On the first of January, the Japan Post delivers New Years Cards with lottery numbers printed on them; see a related post on New Years Cards 年賀状 called nengajo 年賀状.
During the first week of New Years, especially on January 1st is the custom of hatsumode 初詣, the first visit to a shrine or temple (click here for info on shrines and temples in Okinawa); at midnight on New years you can usually hear the bells tolling 108 times. This is the time to buy new omamori お守り (protective amulets) and leave the old ones at the shrine or temple for the ritual burning. The shrines and temples are open 24 hours for the first 3 days of the New Year, so you can really go any time!
One tradition that is also very popular here in Okinawa is watching the first sunrise of the New Year, called 初日の出 hatsuhinode. Many people gather on ridges overlooking the east side of the island, and some locations have special events, such as Nakagusuku-jo ruins site. The 東太陽橋 Agai-tidabashi (bridge) by the SanA in Nakagusuku is always very crowded (this is also a popular moon-viewing spot).
And of course, the biggest shopping day of the year to score some good deals and fukubukuro (lucky bags) 福袋.
Some words/phrases you may see (or hear) a lot of:
よいお年を(お迎え下さい) yoi otoshi wo (omukae kudasai): said only before the New Year in December, basically “have a a good New Year.”
明けましておめでとうございます akemashite omedetou gozaimasu: Happy New Year (said after the New Year has begun)
今年もよろしくお願いします kotoshi mo yoroshiku onegaishimasu: Please take care of me (again) this year. Said after the New Year begins.
今年もいろいろお世話になりました kotoshi mo iroiro osewani narimashita: Thank you for everything you have done for me this year. Said before the New Year begins.
また来年も宜しくお願い致します mata rainen mo yoroshiku onegai itashimasu: Next year please also take care of me. Said before the New Year begins.
謹賀新年 kinga shinen: Happy New Year (written, not usually said) 賀正 gashou: Happy New Year (written, not usually said)
迎春 geishun: welcoming spring (again, written not said)
元日 ganjitsu: January 1st
元旦 gantan: The morning of January 1st.
あけおめ ake ome: slang (shortened version) of akemashite omedetou (Happy New Year).
Okinawa has its own style of sumo, which is actually different from Japanese sumo. This post focuses on Japanese sumo. I should add a post for Okinawa-style sumo sometime.
This year, for the second time, the national sumo association is doing an exposition in Okinawa at the Convention Center in Ginowan. It was my first time to see mainland sumo in person, so it was pretty exciting. Obviously my experience is nothing like the real tournaments and arenas in the mainland, but it was fun nonetheless. I can’t talk much about rules or certain wrestlers, just my experience as a regular person watching sumo for the first time.
I purchased the tickets at FamilyMart in advance, like with any other concert, event, or sports ticket here in Okinawa. My husband also decided he wanted to get the pre-order omiyage set with the bento, cushion, and other goods. The tickets and omiyage set were not cheap, but I figure it might be the only chance we have to go to sumo, so might as well enjoy it to the fullest.
When we arrived on Saturday, all of the flags were lining the path and there were some food/drink and souvenir vendors outside. When we showed the tickets we got wristbands so we could leave and re-renter the venue; very convenient! Shoes were removed as soon as you stepped inside and put into a little bag. We also picked up our omiyage set just inside the door. Although the arena is small, it was filled with excitement.
We were escorted to our “box” which in this case was taped out on the floor; in a real arena it would be an actual tiered areas and separated from your neighbor by some bars. When I bought tickets, I bought the ペアマス Pair masu (mat), which is admission for 2 people where you sit in 1 “box” containing enough space for people to sit on cushions. Since we only got 1 omiyage set with 1 cushion, I brought along my zabuton 座布団 (Japanese flat seat cushion) that I purchased from the Daiso. You could purchase the souvenir sumo cushion for 1000yen at the venue, but I figure I saved myself 900yen.
When we settled into our seats, we checked out the omiyage set お土産セット. It came with quite a bit; the sumo cushion, a calendar, 2 rice bowls, a souvenir poster of all the sumo wrestlers, a bottle of tea, and a deluxe bento all in a nice bag that could be reused. We removed the cushion and food/drink, then my husband ran the bag back to the car so it wouldn’t take up space in our box (because honestly, the boxes were not the big).
We did not arrive at opening time since there were several hours of practice and such going on; I just couldn’t imagine hanging out for a total of 7 hours. We arrived during the last portion of the practices, so it was closer to a total of 4.5 hours in the arena for us.
After the practices ended, the kids sumo started; this where the very small kids in training come out and play with the wrestlers. It is actually a bit hilarious. Next was some more practice, and then the shokkiri 初切 (comic sumo performance). They also brought out the guy that demonstrated how to tie the wrestler’s hair, and some of the wrestlers demonstrated how to tie the yokozuna’s belt.
Finally it was time for some of the ceremonial stuff; there were processions in, introduction of wrestlers, singing, drumming, etc. The yokozuna were brought in separately and postured for the audience.
The tournament now began; wrestlers came down the aisle, were introduced, threw salt, etc. The bouts were fairly short, though we did get quite a few exciting ones that lasted longer, much to the hoots and hollers of the audience. Some were pushed out of the ring, others tossed. One almost landed in the audience. At the end of each bout the referee recognized the winner. At the end of the tournament, the tournament winner performed a bow-twirling and afterwards was rewarded with cash, a barrel of nihonshu 日本酒 (Japanese sake), and a slab of pork.
The nice part about the set up in the arena is that you can get up and walk around, get refreshment, use the restroom, stretch your legs at pretty much any point. At any time, only about 60-70% of people were actually seated, and it was common to mill about.
Every year in my neighborhood after Obon, near the village office a Tug-of-war 綱引き (tsunahiki) is held. The idea is similar to the larger Tug-of-Wars held in Naha, Itoman, and Yonabaru, except on an obviously much smaller scale. The name of the event in this town is called Marujina マールジナ.
The village starts makes the two ends of the rope, and sets up a small area with free shave ice and drinks (including beer). Around 6 pm, everyone starts to assemble, and eisa music plays on the loudspeakers (which no joke, are definitely left over sound equipment from the 60s, crackly speakers and all). We were lucky this year with no rain– the previous 2 years festivities were cut short due to rain.
We dressed in jinbei 甚平, although almost no one except the very small children dress up for this event, because I feel that I might as well enjoy it properly. So wearing my jinbei, I grabbed a tenugui (towel), uchiwa (fan), and a beer, and walked down the street to the event. Of course, being foreigners we stick out, and wearing jinbei even more so, but that’s okay, probably people see the effort to appreciate local culture/traditions and feel more comfortable talking us. Of course the minute we arrive, shave ice and drinks are thrust upon us (not that I minded). Kids were frolicking about, getting excited, while the adults were catching up on chatting. Throughout the festival we spoke to a few of our neighbors who are always a bit interested in the foreign couple living in this rural area (all of our neighbors are Japanese/Okinawan… the only few other foreigners in the village live a few neighborhoods down from us or up the hill by the university).
Around 6:30 the Gaaee ガーエー starts. Gaaee means something like “winner’s triumphant shout.” Basically it entails guys carry a large, heavy bamboo pole decorated with flags and flowers and other decorations, called hatagashira 旗頭. Hatagashira are an example of the traditional Okinawan culture. They are symbols created to represent a the success of a village. Supposedly, during the pole competition, the gods land on the top of the hatagashira and assist in the tugging of the rope during the tug-of-war. Some of the guys grabbed my husband and helped him try; my husband commented how incredibly top-heavy it is and that it definitely takes more skill than you might imagine.
In our village we have the adults gaaee, as well as a children’s gaaee. The children are given much smaller hatagashira, and are assisted by adults. The children’s symbols are a sunflower and a hibiscus. It is sort of cute, like they are in training for later when they are older.
Sometime around 7 or so, the rope was set up and the procession of uniting the two ends began. Once the ropes were close enough, fires were lit, the pin was inserted, and of course, the tugging began! After the first round, the gaaee started back up again for awhile until round 2 for the children. Many of the adults helped the children during their round (the rope is so heavy!). After this round, again, the gaaee finished off the ceremony. Some adults stuck around, as they were having karaoke in the community center, but since we had work in the morning (and plus no one wants to hear me sing) we headed off home.
It was a particularly exciting and energetic event this year, probably since it is the first time in awhile we had good weather for this event! Besides the pictures, there is a video link here of the Tug of War and here for a preview of Gaaee.
You may also see the kanji written as 大綱曳 or 大綱挽 for the Great Tug-of-War events here in Okinawa. It became a tradition for every village in Okinawa to hold these tug-of-war events at the end of summer, beginning of autumn. In the lunar calendar, it is traditional to hold tug-of-war in the 6th or 8th month, although that is not always the case today. Originally it started as a way to pray to keep away the insects from damaging the crops, for rain, and for a good harvest.
Enormous ropes woven from straw are created for each team. Preceding the event are processions on each side with large banners on decorated poles (called hatagashira 旗頭), people in colorful costumes, and eisa dance/music or chanting, known as gaaee ガーエー, meaning something like “winner’s triumphant shout.” Basically it entails guys carry a large, heavy bamboo pole decorated with flags and flowers and other decorations, called hatagashira 旗頭. Hatagashira are an example of the traditional Okinawan culture. They are symbols created to represent a the success of a village. Supposedly, during the pole competition, the gods land on the top of the hatagashira and assist in the tugging of the rope during the tug-of-war.
To start the event, each team (divided into “East” and “West”) will bring their ropes together and a “pin” is inserted to keep the two looped ends together. Then the tugging will begin, with cheers and shouts on each end, the leaders of each team encouraging their side. After the time is up, they will determine who pulled the furthest and declare a side the winner. Afterwards, it is good luck to take pieces of the rope home with you and turn them into decorative charms to protect the household. You see a lot of people bringing their own scissors or pocket knives to cut of pieces as soon as the tug of war ends. Officially, only authorized people are supposed to have knives for rope-cutting, but… I don’t that stops most people.
There is the largest event in Naha every year, the Sunday before Sports Day (a national holiday in October). I went once and found this one to be really too crowded; now I much prefer the tsunahiki in Yonabaru town, usually occuring before Obon at the very end of July or beginning of August. It is still a large event, but less tourists and more locals. There is also a large event in Itoman every year on the 15th day of the 8th lunar month, a day known as Juugoya/Tsukimi (again mostly locals, not so many tourists). There are even several small tsunahiki events, one is held in my village every year (related post here). It is still a rather large rope but not nearly the size of the larger events. These events are great fun, so if you are in Okinawa be sure to participate in one of them!
七夕 Tanabata is known as the “star festival” in Japan.
In Okinawa, it is observed during the lunar calendar (like many other holidays…) instead of the solar calendar (more typical in mainland Japan). It occurs on July 7th in many parts of mainland Japan, and the 7th day of the 7th lunar month in Okinawa, usually around August, just before Obon begins. It is the precursor to Obon; mostly it is the day to clean the ancestors’ grave, put flowers, beverages and incense in front of the grave to guide the ancestors’ spirits to come to one’s house. It is a time to ask ancestors to come visit during Obon season; it is believed that the ancestors protect their descendants in the real world, so it is important to take of them in their afterlife.
In present day, Tanabata in Japan is typically celebrated as a school event; students decorate bamboo branches with ornaments and hang strips of colorful paper with their wishes written on them, called tanzaku 短冊. Ornaments made of origami paper are made into shapes such as windsock, stars, lanterns and nets. They all have a meaning; for instance, the net-shaped paper represents a river. Several retail stores and community centers will put up Tanabata trees with decorations, and leave blank slips of paper for you to write your wishes on to hang on the tree.
The story of Tanabata, based on a Chinese legend of the “weaver star” (known as Vega in English) and the “cowherd star” (Altair): There once was a young woman named Orihime (Vega), who was good at weaving cloth and worked very hard to the please her father. But, as she worked very hard she became afraid that she would never fall in love and marry. Her father, Tentei (Sky King), who was a god, arranged for her to meet a hard working cattleman Hikoboshi (Altair) who lived across Amanogawa River 天の川 (literally, heavenly river, the Milky way) on the eastern side, while Orihime and her father lived on the western side.
The two fell instantly in love and married, but subsequently she forgot about weaving and he let his cattle wander all over on both sides; this made Tentei angry. He ordered the two to separate and each to live on a separate side of the river. His daughter wept and pleaded, however, so Tentei relented a little, and allowed the two to meet once a year, on the night of the seventh day of the seventh month.
So, if you look up into the evening sky on July 7 and it is clear, you can see the two stars reunited. But if it is rainy or cloudy, know that they will try to meet again next year. Some children will even make teru teru bozu てるてる坊主 to wish for good weather such that the lovers will meet again!
In Okinawa, the Tanabata story is usually a little different, and actually refers to the Celestial Maiden Legend (Hagoromo), which is believed to have occurred at Mori-no-kawa in Ginowan. The Ginowan summer matsuri is themed around the celestial maiden legend; even the city mascot is the celestial maiden! So, to conclude, Japanese tanabata is celebrated quite differently from Okinawa tanabata. While you may see a few wishing trees up at department stores or community centers and cute tanabata-themed packaged snacks, there really is not much public tanabata celebration in Okinawa like there is in mainland Japan. One day I hope to make the Sendai Tanabata festival held August 6-8 (not quite using the lunar calendar, but close…).
Typically in Okinawa, the only 2 places with “events” around July 7th Tanabata are Okinawa city 1st street shopping arcade in Koza, and the Itoman Peace Memorial Park.
御盆 Obon in Okinawa is often referred to as “kyuubon” 旧盆, which means “old Bon” because it is celebrated according to the lunar calendar (7th lunar month, 13th through 15th days 旧暦7月13日-15日). Some other areas in Japan celebrate it either in July or August 13-15th. It is also called “Shichiguachi” しちぐぁち, meaning 7th month in Okinawan language. It should also be noted that different areas of the Ryukyu islands actually have their own names and traditions for Obon (for instance, Ishigaki-jima and the Yaeyama islands have something interesting called “Angama”); the ones I write about are the most common for Okinawa main island. Many Obon traditions and customs observed in Okinawa are quite different from the ones typically seen on mainland Japan. Something important to note: the Japanese custom of toro nagashi 灯籠流し is not a common practice in Okinawa, so you will not see candle-lit lanterns released afloat on the water during Obon like you might in parts of mainland Japan.
Obon is a custom to commemorate one’s ancestors; the spirits return to this world for 3 days to visit family. It is sometimes referred to as “ghost festival,” “lantern festival,” or “festival of souls” in English.
In 2018, Obon will be on Aug 23-25th and Tanabata will be Aug 17th.
There are 3 days of Obon in Okinawa:
ウンケー unke/unkeh (お迎え): 1st day, welcoming day, when the sun sets. This is the day where families usually visit graves and welcome the ancestors home. Families will gather at the eldest son’s residence (where the family altar, a butsudan 仏壇, is kept). The family altar is set up, and offerings of fruit, mochi, sweets, sake/awamori, beer, and stalks of sugarcane are placed. The sugarcane is left as walking sticks for the spirits walking from the heavens. Obviously the ancestors favorite foods are also usually placed. Lanterns are set up to guide ancestors home.
ナカビ or ナカヌヒ nakabi or nakanuhi (中日): 2nd day, the middle day. On this evening, all my neighbors leave their doors and windows open, and have a large family dinner. The doors and windows are open to allow the ancestors to enter the home. Also, I see a lot of people distributing “gifts” (known as 御中元 ochuugen) on this day (mostly these are random food and household item gift sets sold in department and grocery stores all over), but any day leading up to or during Obon seems to be okay for distributing summer gifts. The eldest son’s family is in charge of the altar, so they must stay at home to receive other family members and visitors; so while the eldest son’s wife has to prepare many foods and the altar for Obon, they also receive many “gifts” in return, usually in the form of rice, beer, laundry soap, etc. For those family that are not the eldest child, instead they must prepare gifts and visit everyone else’s home where the altars are kept. So either way, it is sort of an expensive endeavor.
ウークイ uukui/ukui (御送り or 精霊送り): 3rd day, farewell day. This last day of Obon is filled with music and eisa (Okinawan bon dance), to say farewell to the ancestor spirits and escort them back to the heavens. There is usually a big feast late into the night, with various foods that are offered and special paper money called uchikabi ウチカビ is burned as for the ancestors so that they can use it in the spirit world. Some offerings and sugar cane is left out by the gate/fence/side of the road for the spirits to take home. This day, on the hillside by my village, you can see a large kanji lit up (they use electric lights, not actually burning into a mountain like Japanese tradition). Maybe this year I can get a decent picture of it; it represents some sort of farewell to the dead.
Before Obon, is Tanabata 七夕. In Okinawa, rather than celebrate star festival, it is more common that this is a grave-cleaning day to prepare for Obon and to ask ancestors to come visit during Obon season. It is believed that the ancestors protect their descendants in the real world, so it is important to take of them in their afterlife.
For the butsudan 仏壇 (altar) set up, many things are included. I will explain what is common in Okinawa… probably places in the mainland are a bit different, though some things will be the same or similar.
rakugan 落雁: this is dried “sweets” pressed into a mold (very water soluble so it lasts a long time). Despite the colorful appearance, the taste is very subtle, just a little sugar; since this is for altar offerings it is usually more “starchy” than sugary (made from mizuame 水飴, a glutinous rice starch syrup). These tend to be dry and a bit starchy-sweet in flavor. It is a type of Japanese confection (wagashi 和菓子) called higashi 干菓子, which is dried and has low moisture content. Often these will also be called bongashi 盆菓子 (Obon sweets) or kyo-kashi 供菓子 (or お供え菓子).
sugarcane, uuji ウージ (さとうきび satou kibi in Japanese): set out as walking sticks for the spirits. It can also be used to help ancestors carry souvenirs back to the spirit world. There are 2 types set out: long, guusanuuji グーサンウージ to use as a walking stick and as a balancing pole to carry souvenirs, and short, chitu uuji チトゥウージ also used to help carry back souvenirs. Sometimes the short sugarcane is also used as minnuku ミンヌク (水の子 in Japanese, set out as small offerings to Buddhist gods or to keep out bad spirits).
medohagi メドハギ or soromeshi ソーローメーシ (精霊箸): a type of weedy plant. Chopsticks for the ancestors use. I also read somewhere that this can be set out for purification purposes as well.
ganshina ガンシナー: circular ropes so your ancestors can take souvenirs (foods) back to the spirit world; they are used to balance foods or gifts on your head. On the altar they are typically displayed by balancing watermelon, pineapple, oranges, etc. on them.
ukui kasa ウークイカーサ:Alocasia leaves. This is apparently used so your ancestors can wrap souvenirs to take back to the heavens.
uchikabi ウチカビ (打紙): Afterlife money! It is a Japanese paper with the design of coins on it. It is burnt on the last day (ukui) so that your ancestors have money in the afterlife.
eggplant cow (nasu no ushi ナスの牛) & cucumber horse (kyuuri no uma キュウリの馬): placed outside the home so the ancestors can ride on them from the spirit world home, then placed on the altar on the first day of Obon. This is actually more of a mainland thing than Okinawa, instead here uses the sugarcane since it seems Okinawa ancestors come on foot. In Okinawa, you may even see a variation using a goya ゴーヤー. With them is placed mizunoko 水の子, washed rice with diced cucumber and eggplant; although this is optional, it is supposed refresh returning spirits after their journey.
somen そうめん: somen (noodles) are usually place on the altar as well. I don’t know why exactly, but the theory seems to be because somen is easily used in summer cooking, so it is convenient. I also hear it is to use as reins for the ancestors to ride the animals back to the spirit world.
houzuki ほうずき, ホオズキ, or 鬼灯: Chinese lantern plant. It helps light the way for ancestors. These are really quite pretty, and really do look like tiny red lanterns.
senkou 線香 (ukou ウコウ in Okinawan): incense sticks (for purification). Often in Okinawa flat incense is used, called hiraukou ヒラウコウ (平線香).
bon-chouchin 盆提灯: lanterns; these are placed at the altar and the front of the house, so spirits don’t lose their way.
makomo まこも: mat woven from straw of wild rice, used in rituals.
Of course, flowers, seasonal fruits/vegetables, and your ancestors favorite foods (and drinks, usually beer or awamori) are also included on the altar. Typically UNRIPE fruit is used since it sits on the altar for 3 days… so sometimes it is not always so good to eat raw, but instead cooked. Also keep this in mind if you are fruit shopping at the markets during Obon, since many of these fruits will not ripen properly because they are picked so early! Look for signs that indicate 供え物 or 供え用 (translation: for offering/altar use); as well as signs like 青切り (translation: fruit picked early before becoming ripe) and 生食用ではありません (translation: do not eat raw). The 2 you must be MOST careful of are: sticks of sugarcane (it is not for eating and will not be tasty) and pineapple (can only be eaten cooked, do not eat raw). The bananas should be able to ripen somewhat but are also delicious cooked. Mikan (oranges) will be very sour, so maybe this is okay for some people. Unfortunately for many foreigners, the signs are always in Japanese explaining these things!
Below is a sweets offering set for the altar (お供え: offering, 菓子: sweets), easy to find in the grocery stores; unlike rakugan described above, these are in fact very tasty.
On unkeh, there is the custom of eating unkeh juushii ウンケージューシー, which is a type of Okinawa cooked rice with various things mixed into it. It is a simple, but popular dish.
There is usually a box of specific foods during the feast day (ukui) called “usanmi” 御三味 (ウサンミ) that contains: fried tofu 揚げ豆腐, burdock root (gobou ごぼう), kelp (usually tied in knots), fish cake (kamaboko かまぼこ), konnyaku こんにゃく, tempura 天ぷら, fried taro (田芋 taimo) and of course, pork. There also usually a second box of white mochi (rice cakes) set out as well.
Not on the altar, but commonly served for during Obon are your typical trays of sushi, sashimi, fried things, chilled zenzai (sweetened red beans and mochi), cold somen noodles, nakami-jiru 中味汁 (intestines soup).
The local grocery stores in Okinawa have ads for all your Obon needs… this is an example of an advertisement from SanA. Anymore, many people just order trays of オードブル (pronounced ohh-do-bu-ru), which comes from the word hors d’oeuvres, instead of making it all themselves.
While most “events” are private in peoples homes, there are a few goings on, mostly in the form of eisa dance. Traveling groups of eisa often visit various spots throughout the community; by our house, one group comes to the FamilyMart and performs for a nice little show before moving on to the next location. If you live near Okinawa city and the middle part of the island, eisa typically goes on for all 3 nights of Obon, and sometimes another night after that, so be prepared for the continuous sounds of drums and sanshin (click here for Where to see eisa during Obon…). Another fun/interesting event is the Miruku-kami ミルク神 “parade” in Shuri.
I often walk through my neighborhood in the evenings; during obon time, all the doors and windows are left open to the houses. Drums and eisa dance chants ring through the air. I see neighbors burning or wrapping up offerings and leaving them outside on the walkways. It is somehow a nostalgic summer feeling.
In addition, people do not go into the sea during Obon, lest they be dragged to the underworld by deceased souls in the water (typically those who died by drowning or water accidents).
This is the sound of eisa. Anyone who has lived in Okinawa will recognize it immediately.
As summer approaches, so does matsuri season. Eisa is a synonymous with the summer matsuri season here in Okinawa. Eisa エイサー is a type of “bon dance,” 盆踊り (bon odori). Bon, or Obon, (written in kanji as 御盆 or お盆) is an important time of year for Japanese people; it is a time to honor and commemorate their ancestors. They believe that each year during Obon, the ancestor spirits return to our world to visit relatives. Bon occurs the 13th through the 15th day of the 7th month of the year; for many places this is July (according to the solar calendar), however in Okinawa, it is celebrated according to the lunar calendar, so it occurs sometime in August or September. I will leave the details of customs and traditions related to Okinawan Obon holiday for another blog post, and for now focus on eisa. During Obon in Okinawa, many eisa troupes will perform all around the island to bid farewell as their ancestors leave to Earth to return again to the heavens. There is a local group that travels down our neighborhood and town, stopping at various points to perform; we are sure to watch them as they dance, chant, whistle, and play drums in front of the convenience store across the street.
Due to the large Japanese population in Hawai’i, Obon is also commonly celebrated all over Hawai’i throughout the summer months– so this holiday and bon dance in general is not really new to me, but I have learned about some of the more Okinawan traditions and especially eisa dance.
Although eisa originates as a bon dance, it is performed throughout the year and is considered an important aspect of Okinawan/Ryukuan culture. There are several eisa clubs around the island, and they are especially busy during the summer matsuri season. Already at my university they are practicing for summer during lunch and early afternoon, so I have some entertainment these days while I eat.
There are guys (and sometimes girls) playing larger (taiko) drums, as well as those with smaller hand drums. Usually the females are dressed in simple yukata with Ryukyuan designs. At least one of the guys will be dresses as “Chondara” (Okinawan clowns).
The role of the chondara is to cheer the dancers on and entertaining the audience, as well as guiding the group in the right direction. Sometimes also to scare the small children a bit.
The sounds of eisa wafting through the evening air, while sitting outside and drinking a beer sometimes feels a bit nostalgic as strange as that seems. It has that feeling, that summer has indeed arrived, and will soon be gone so be sure to enjoy the (hot and humid) weather now and the carefree feeling of lazy summer days, because soon it will be replaced by chilly fall and winter winds.
Natsu-matsuri. Matsuri 祭り (or just 祭) means festival, and natsu 夏 means “summer.”
In Japan, summer seems to start around July 15th, and so does the matsuri season. In Okinawa, there are usually multiple matsuri every weekend through September and even into October. Almost every Saturday and Sunday night the sky will be illuminated by fireworks (hanabi 花火) and the sounds of Okinawan eisa dance (エイサー) echo in the night air. In Okinawa, you will see the strings of Orion lanterns illuminating the paths and and smells will waft from the tents hawking foods.
Every town and village will host their own matsuri; men and women, from children to older folks will wear yukata 浴衣 and jinbei 甚平. Even I own a very classy black jinbei with Hello Kitty x OnePiece on it. Err, well, it is sort of tomboyish, but I find it cute and comfortable… I am pretty sure I would feel weird in a girly yukata. As a note, many westerners do not seem to realize the difference between kimono 着物 and yukata 浴衣. Kimono is very formal and layered, it would be odd to see kimono outside of formal events like weddings, graduations, or New Years Day. Yukata are light and thin, perfect for summer! They are more casual and are easier to put on. And wayyyy cheaper! Formal kimono are usually thousands of dollars (and therefore many people simply rent them instead of buying).
There are performances, games, food, and of course drinks of the alcoholic variety! Oh and they always hand out fans (うちわ uchiwa) as a means of advertising.
If you are in Okinawa or Japan during the summer season, you must attend one.