Warming to Ryukyu culture

by Mandy Bartok

The air is stifling in the cement interior of the Ishikawa Dome, despite the sides being open to the weather. I shift my limbs, in danger of losing circulation on the unforgiving benches, while my right arm furiously works my paper program as a fan in a desperate effort to gain respite from the Okinawan humidity.

Then there’s a tap on my shoulder. “Look,” gestures my friend Mutsumi. “The bulls are coming.”

We’ve been waiting in this sweatbox in central Okinawa to witness some heavyweight fights of a bovine variety. The mainland may have its popular sumo tournaments, but here in the islands it’s bull-wrestling that rules.

Mention bullfighting to most people and it will likely conjure visions of a strutting matador in his “suit of lights,” bright crimson flags and raging animals that meet their gory end in a dusty ring. It’s man versus beast in such bloody contests, and the beast almost never wins.

Here in Japan’s most southerly prefecture, togyu (Okinawa-style bullfighting) casts man in a purely supporting, sideshow role, with the real point of the match being a bloodless display of animal prowess.

Though some die-hards may bemoan the lack of theatrics attached to these revels, togyu is a beloved pastime here, with 12 arenas dotting the main island and bull battles being staged in at least one of them most every weekend of the year.

Here in Ishikawa Dome, the first challenger bounds into the ring, a handler trailing behind him and hanging onto a thick guide rope. The bull paws the ground and kicks up sand for a few minutes before the gates open again and his competitor rushes in.

I lean forward, expecting a pitched battle to commence. What follows instead is decidedly low-key. We watch as the two musclebound hulks butt heads repeatedly, each pushing against the other to no discernible effect. Their horns, though lethal in appearance, play no role in the conflict’s outcome. After several long minutes, the handlers grunt with the effort it takes them to separate the giant beasts and I glance at Mutsumi in consternation.

“So . . . who won?”

She shrugs and we await the verdict from the panel of three judges seated above the action on the far side of the ring. Most winners are obvious, with the losing bull turning tail and running when he’s had enough. But the match we’ve just seen pitted two of the sport’s more determined challengers against each other — and neither was willing to give any ground. In such situations where the outcome is unclear, the judges determine which bull performed better. On this occasion, within a few minutes they hoist their scores in the air and the winner is declared.

The victor takes a celebratory lap of the ring before exiting, giving the spotlight over to a small crowd that pushes forward and fans out in front of the still cheering stadium. Sporting drums and banners and an exuberant spirit, their chants herald the start of the eisa dance, a pastime just as popular — if not more so — than the bullfighting itself.

Eisa dancing — an enthusiastic mixture of drum pounding, chanting and piercing whistles — is an entertainment form unique to these islands, most commonly seen during Okinawa’s long-lasting midsummer Bon celebrations which honor departed ancestors. However, performances can be organized at any time of year, and it’s not unusual to stumble across an evening eisa performance on a steamy summer night or warm winter weekend, crowds gathered around the impromptu celebration in the equivalent of a Western-style block party.

Inspired by the dance group headlining the Ishikawa bullfight, the next day I head for Ryukyu Mura, a village (mura) of traditional buildings that also boasts a daily folk performance, and which takes its name from the ancient Ryukyu Kingdom that ruled the Okinawan islands before they were annexed by Japan in 1879.

The drive there along the craggy coast is one of the most scenic the island has to offer, equal in beauty to the stunning yet difficult-to-access areas in the north of the island. In sheltered bays, kayaks from the seaside hotel resorts dot the waters, while scuba divers take in the underwater marvels off nearby Maeda Point whatever the season.

Tucked along a tiny lane away from the coast, Ryukyu Mura welcomes visitors to wander its shady environs and try their hand at some of Okinawa’s indigenous art and music forms. Workshops are held in numerous houses, many of which date back several centuries and were dismantled and moved here from sites around the island. The village even boasts a working sugarcane factory that uses water buffalo to power its aging press. For a small fee, village guests have the chance to get crafty — options include painting a small-sized guardian shisa, a lion-dog creature that protects local homes from spirits, or dyeing a square of colorful bingata cloth.

In the back of the grounds, the Habu House teaches curious tourists about the island’s most feared resident, the habu (Okinawa pit viper). Though known to hide underfoot in tangled areas of brush around the island, the habu here are in plain sight, allowing me my first glimpse of the venomous serpent inhabiting this tropical paradise. For an extra ¥420, I’m treated to the daily habu show, in which a very cautious handler gives an educational lesson that makes all too clear why any additional encounters with this reptile are to be avoided.

From there I head off for a sanshin lesson, hoping to learn how to strum the island’s popular three-stringed guitar, when drumbeats draw me to the center of the village. A procession of Ryukyu royalty is slowly crossing the open square, court members and retainers trailing behind the elaborately clothed king and queen. It’s the start of a folk performance in which the audience is treated to what is arguably the island’s best old-fashioned variety show. Dancers, musicians and a comic lion act liven up the crowd as the event descends into group revelry that sees us leaving our seats to spin circles around the mock court, encouraged by the enthusiasm of the village entertainers.

On my way out of Ryukyu Mura, I grab a bag of still-warm andagi (Okinawan donuts) and unfold my map, searching for a picnic spot. Not too far up the road, I pass a strand of beaches and pull into the lot at Cape Zampa. Paths lead from the parking area to the small peninsula’s lighthouse and fan out along the rocky coast. From these imposing cliffs, islanders once watched their trading ships sail north, following the currents to Peking, Korea and the cities of Honshu. Today’s sea is calm and the horizon clear, yet the turquoise waters are devoid of boats. No one seems in a hurry to head back to the mainland today — and truth be told, neither am I.

Bullfighting can be seen year-round on Okinawa, with major tournaments being held in May and November. Match tickets — available in advance or on the day — are priced from ¥1,000 to ¥2,000. The most popular arenas are located in Ishikawa and Uruma in the center of the island, about 80 km north of Naha. Ryukyu Mura is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. The entrance fee is ¥840 and a list of performance times is posted at the park entrance. Classes in folk arts cost from ¥400 to ¥3,200, including materials. For more information, call 098-965-1234.