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From North to South, a Focus on Okinawa’s Harvest Festivals!
post : 2019.09.07 23:00
September is a month of harvest festivals across Okinawa, and on or around August 15 according to the lunar calendar (which was on September 24 in 2018 when this article was originally posted in Japanese, and this year, it falls on September 13), numerous harvest festivals will be held at many communities in the prefecture. In this article, I will introduce these harvest festivals from the northern to southern regions on Okinawa Island, as well as some harvest festivals on the outer islands, too. I’ll also add important notices and information regarding very private and closed festivals in the Yaeyama Islands.
At harvest festivals in Okinawa, people mainly offer prayers asking for the safety of the family members, good health, to be blessed with many children and grandchildren, and of course, for rich harvests. On Okinawa Island, these festivals are held at various communities, but Yaese Town in the southern region is especially known for its many harvest festivals. Among the communities in Yaese, the festival in Kochinda is quite well-known, and at the Shitahaku community in Kochinda (which was an independent town before it merged with other municipalities to make up Yaese Town), their harvest festival features a Shishimai lion dance. The Shishi lion is believed to cast away evil spirits and purify the community with its intense movements, and is a major part of the festival. The local children nervously but eagerly await the Shishi in the front rows of the stage, and that alone is a heartwarming sight to see.
It’s the same in the Kochinda community in the former Kochinda Town. There’s something special to see things remain unchanged over the years, and it’s lovely to witness that. What I found there was the untouched beauty in the lives of the Okinawans.
One of the best performances to see at the Kochinda community is the Bojitsu performance. This spirited performance features Bojitsu, a martial art using a stick or a staff. How the performers call out in unison as they display their skills is really impressive to see.
Moving from the southern region to the central region on Okinawa Island, the Usudeku drums of Chibana in Okinawa City is also fantastic. The Usudeku drums are struck by the local women as they offer prayers in unison for the prosperity of the community. Such dances are also held in other parts of the central region, like in Uruma City and Onna Village.
The most well-known harvest festival performance in the northern region is the Hachigatsu Odori (August dance) in Yabu, Nago City. There is also a very rare and interesting Shishimai lion dance called Ayatsuri Shishi (Shishi lions manipulated by strings) which can be seen in Kawakami in Nago City, Jana in Nakijin Village, and in Izumi in Motobu Town.
Further up north in Okuma, Kunigami is the Okuma Great Tug-of-War. Before the tug-of-war, there is a lantern procession called the Chochin-no Sune, which is very unique and not seen in other areas.
A distinctive harvest festival on an outer island is that of Minami Daito Island. Although Minami Daito Island is one of Okinawa Prefecture’s islands, it was first developed and settled by people from Hachijojima Island. This is why you can see the influences from Hachijojima Island in their harvest festivals, like in the Japanese drums and portable Mikoshi shrines, as well as in the Japanese style of Sumo wrestling.
The floats in the parade in Minami Daito Island is also very unique. Tractors used for sugarcane farming, the island’s specialty product, are colorfully decorated and dazzle the crowds as they proceed one after another.
Among the harvest festivals held on the outer islands of Okinawa, there are some that are held in complete privacy where photographs are not permitted and people are not to speak of the ceremonies, like those held on Aragusukujima Island and Kohamajima Island in the Yaeyama Islands, and in the Miyara area of Ishigaki City. These ceremonies and rituals are for a particular group of people in the community who share the same lineage, and are extremely private. Those not associated cannot enter these harvest ceremonies as they are very sensitive, and photographing or even sketching is not permitted, so one needs to be careful.
Harvest festivals on the islands of Okinawa can be strict and solemn like those mentioned above, but many are heartwarming, interesting and delightful, peppered with a feeling of nostalgia somehow. Perhaps through such festivals held on these islands, we can rediscover something precious that we may have forgotten along the way.
*Harvest festivals (Honen Matsuri in Japanese) are often held on August 15 of the lunar calendar in Okinawa (which falls on September 13 this year, in 2019), but the date may differ according to region or community. Please check the dates beforehand through various travel information outlets or by calling the local community centers.
-Shitahaku Community Center, Yaese Town
-Kochinda Community Center, Yaese Town
-Chibana Community Center, Okinawa City
-Yabu Community Center, Nago City
-Okuma Ward Office, Kunigami Village
-Minami Daito Island Village Tourism Association
Okinawa CLIP photo writer, Hiroshi Kuwamura