Clear sea water, sandy beaches, and unique island culture. Okinawa is a world of its own!Okinawa is Japan’s very own little island getaway, far from Japan’s main islands, with white sandy beaches (and some unique sand), waters that gleam a brilliant blue, and relaxing beach resorts. But Okinawa also has a long history reaching back to the island chain’s own Ryukyu Kingdom, and the resulting Ryukyu culture. To get a better idea of this island culture, check out a few of Okinawa’s own unique festivals!
One of Okinawa’s biggest and most famous festivals is their Okinawa-wide Eisa Festival, which celebrates eisa dance, an island tradition. Every year, on the first weekend after the Japanese holiday of Obon, groups of dancers gather to perform together, starting with the Michijune (道ジュネ―) procession.
Almost a dozen different dance groups perform, with some dancers keeping the beat with large taiko drums, and others waving banners. The festivities draw around 300,000 people every year, but if you’re visiting Okinawa during a different time of year, you can always drop into the Eisa Museum instead.
This festival is put on every year as a ritual to ask the gods of the sea for their blessings, praying for a plentiful catch and safety at sea. Over a three-day weekend in May (during Japanese Golden Week), locals and visitors alike hop into the colorful dragon boats (called hari or hare) and speed through the warm sea waters.
The largest of Okinawa’s hari races is the one at Naha’s Shinko Wharf, but the festival has roots in Chinese boat races of the 14th century! These days, along with the races, there are also musical performances and comedy shows, sumo matches, and even fireworks displays.
This game of tug-of-war is like nothing you’ve seen before, and might even be as old as the 17th century. With hundreds of thousands of attendees every year, the Naha Tug-of-War even made it into the Guinness Book of World Records. The centerpiece of the yearly festival is two giant rope braids, held together at the center with an enormous wooden peg and topped with platforms made for participants dressed up as Ryukyu royalty. The tug-of-war battle hearkens back to real conflicts of old, but in the modern day it’s actually fought out by participants who hold onto a number of smaller ropes to pull each other in one direction or the other―if one team manages to pull the other over 5 meters within the allotted 30 minutes, they win!