Back in… what, August? I got to see and be a part of Obon. A ceremony/celebration honoring the dead, it was originally imported from mainland Japan, but apparently is now practiced with more commitment and belief in Okinawa—Hime-san said that on the mainland, it’s mostly just tradition, but in Okinawa, people truly believe the spirits of the dead return to the living world. It lasts a few days, and people put fruit on home altars to attract the spirits of their ancestors, have three (three in Oyakebaru, at least) nights of ceremonial drumming and dancing (and singing and sanshin playing) in the streets, and it culminates in a huge tsunahiki (tsuna=rope, hiku=pull; tsunahiki means tug-o-war) in the town center on the final night.
The first night, a really cheerful drunk former sniper in the JSDF who is now a chef gave me a bright plastic pinwheel (I tied it to a screen in the trailer house). A member of the procession offered me a drink from a big bottle of some kind of alcohol being passed around. A little kid recognized me from the farm and told a nearby adult I was a “jouba no sensei,” or horseriding teacher. I didn’t recognize the kid at the time, nor did I yet know what what jouba meant, so I thought maybe the kid was just saying I was weird-looking, but in fact no! Hmm, writing the word “jouba” for the first time, it seems to have a different character than speaking it back on the farm. I never really thought about what it’d look like in romaji (Japanese words written in English characters).
Night two, I was tired, so I stayed in.
Night three, Ma-kun took me to the tsunahiki. In the late afternoon, it was still the drumming and dancing goin’ around town, and I walked along with the other folks watchin’ for a while as the folks in the procession made their way to one spot—someone’s driveway, for instance—took their positions, and the two guys sitting in the back of a ketora with a speaker system mounted on top sang and played sanshin. The drummers dance in unison, turning, jumping twisting. They dress in purple bandanas, yellow vests over black t-shirts, and white pants. There are other folks in shortish yellow kimono, just dancing, and others in short tan kimono and facepaint (white over the whole face, with red and black facial features that remind me of kids’ drawings). The folks in facepaint carry the alcohol. The drums are loud and heavy, overwhelming the amplified sanshin if you’re at a distance, and their rhythm emphasizes beats I haven’t learned to expect. People do that really loud fingers-in-your-mouth whistle in patterns in time to the music, their pitch rising and falling like a hyped-up musical siren. After a while, I went back to the farm, and then as it got darker Ma-kun and I went to Oyakebaru’s old main street (the new main street is a couple blocks over, where a Lawson Station convenience store and a Coco! convenience store flank a major regional road). The town splits into teams, north-south, for the tsunahiki, and a group of procession drummers had gathered on either side, shouting and dancing and jumping and striking these incredibly loud gongs, getting people amped to pull. I guess since the farm’s to the north of the town center, Ma-kun said we’d pull for the north (kita) team. The rope is made of two halves, which get joined in the center of town. Each half is probably a little bigger around than my head (and I have a pretty big head), and they’re tied ‘round with smaller ropes that you can grab hold of to pull with. There’s a village nearby that apparently makes really good rope, and Oyakebaru buy theirs from that village. So… the two halves were linked (I’m not sure how, I couldn’t see from where I stood), and the flag went up… we waited… it dropped! Everybody was shouting, “Hai! Hai! Hai!” tugging in repeated pulses to drag the south side (minami) over the line. We dragged ‘em back—we were held still—we dragged ‘em back—we won! North side takes the first round! The rope was moved back into position and people rested a minute. Round two was much swifter, and south side was victorious, which is good—everybody won. It was fun. Apparently Naha (the biggest city in Okinawa)’s tsunahiki is the largest in the world, with around fifty thousand people pulling. The rope’s like three or four feet in diameter. I didn’t get to go to that, but I’d’ve liked to.
Afterward, people removed sections of the smaller pulling ropes to take home for good luck. Then we lifted the rope again and carried it to a waiting truck, to take out of town (I got some straw in my eye). The ropes aren’t reused year-to-year, but rather allowed to decay—one half was left by a field near the farm, where I’d see it some days, curled up like a big gold snake.