In 1995, the Guinness Book of World Records named it the largest rope in the world.
How large is Guinness-large? Try 200 meters long (656 feet) and 2.2 meters thick (7.2 feet), for a whopping 43 metric tons of rice straw (94,799 pounds)!
Now for a bit of background. It all began over 500 years ago, when the island of Okinawa was part of the Ryukyu Kingdom. While most Ryukyu tug-of-wars were meant to bring luck and a good harvest to the winners, the Conservation Society of the Naha Giant Tug of War (Naha Otsunahiki) claims that this particular bout between the East and West towns within the capital city of Naha has always served to bring prosperity and good health to ALL people.
Regardless, the winners celebrate as if they have a personal stake in the outcome, and most people on the street will tell you that it is meant to bring good luck to the winners. Even if you don’t participate in the actual pulling, but merely touch the rope afterwards, good luck is reportedly coming your way. (We’ll let you know next year!)
Ben and I had VIP seats for the event this year, where more than 25,000 people representing East and West pulled their hearts out in a grueling half-hour ordeal, and another 200,000 cheered them on. It is easily Okinawa’s most famous event, occurring every year in mid-October amidst a three-day festival. Come along with us for some front-row action….
Full disclosure: Although it maintained its Guinness title for many years, that distinction is now held by a worthy Korean contender. The title of this post is therefore figurative, not literal. Thanks in part to many tourists from around the world, many people still refer to this as the world’s largest tug of war.
Sunday, the day of the main event, begins with a parade down the famous Naha shopping street, Kokusai.
There are two important things to see here:
1) Each of 14 districts of Naha parades their “flags,” which are considered to be good luck charms. They are huge, decorated mast poles carried by a lone (but alternating) masochist using a special holster tied to his waist (the bearers practice continually throughout the year). Each one weighs roughly 60 – 80 kilos (130 – 175 lbs.).
If it looks like it’s about to go down, helpers rush in quickly with pronged poles. Listening to the gasps of the crowd is a big part of the fun.
2) The second attraction are the parade’s cultural performers, culminating in the eye candy provided by mini-Okinawans (the movie Happy calls them “future 100-year-olds,” referring to the famous longevity of the locals), arguably some of the cutest kids on Earth. Check out these little karate masters, and then I dare you to disagree:
Or watch them in motion, here:
Joining the male and female ends
(Warning: Your back muscles might begin to ache if you continue to read beyond this point.)
At about 2:45 p.m., the action moves a couple of blocks over to Highway 58, which stretches from the south to the north of the island and bisects the capital city of Naha. It is here that the two ends of the rope – one called the male end, and the other the female – will be joined into one.
After karate demonstrations by true masters (with specific steps that are only seen at the festival each year), a drum ceremony, and a “battle” of the flags (a circular parade in front of the VIP stand), the rope action begins – all under the commentary of Japanese, Chinese and English announcers.
It’s a laborious process. Small auxiliary ropes branch out from the main ropes, and this is where people line up to pull (often 50 deep). Both rope ends, featuring a large loop at their tips, are dragged down to meet the other, with everybody pulling in precise unison if they hope to make it budge.
Next, one is rotated 90 degrees before being hoisted on top of the other:
Finally, a log is placed through the center of the loops to secure them. Imagine the tension that’s about to be placed on that log, and you’ll know why it’s a solid piece of hardwood weighing 365 kilos (805 pounds).
Tug of War
There is one more important ceremony before the tug of war begins. Two “kings,” representing the East and West, are paraded down the length of each side of the rope until they meet in the middle. That’s when they begin a ceremonial show of force that karate aficionados will appreciate:
And then, shortly after 4:00 p.m., a giant gong sounds and the battle begins. It could easily be called an endurance sport. The aim is to pull one side past your own marker, effectively five meters or just over 16 feet. However, usually they inch back and forth slowly, and the determination of a draw (neither side pulls more than three meters) or a win (whichever side pulls the other more than three meters) is made after half an hour of intense pulling. To make things even more difficult, the rope stretches! If you’re at the end of one of the auxiliary ropes, each “heave” and “ho” will have you literally jogging forward and back.
One benefit to winning is that you can climb on top of your side of the rope and dance around. This year that glory went to the East, which tied the West in the number of total wins. It’s a funny thing, though, because within minutes it seemed like the easterners had spread throughout the length of the rope and into the hundreds of thousands of spectators, because everybody was celebrating and grabbing token pieces of rope.
The downtown took on a carnival atmosphere at this point, with celebrations continuing well into the night. Food and drink vendors keep the revelers well-nourished, popular musicians perform to adoring crowds, and fireworks cap the evening.
…Until the next day, we are told by a member of the conservation society. That’s when preparations begin for the next year’s festival. Another year of coordination, another year of practicing, and another year of meticulously knotting rope, all to continue Okinawa’s favorite tradition just one more year.
*Note: We were happy guests of the Naha Tourism Board for this event. To read about our commitment to fair and balanced reporting, please see our disclosures page.
Naha is located on the East China Sea on the eastern side of the tropical island of Okinawa, in the Okinawan Prefecture of Japan. It is approximately two-and-a-half hours by plane from Tokyo and one hour twenty minutes from Taipei, Taiwan.