May and June are the months in which to visit Okinawa if your aim is to witness the spectacle of fiercely contested races between crews paddling dragon boats or the Ryukyu Islands’ small traditional fishing boats called sabani.

During Golden Week, from Friday, May 3 to Sunday, May 5, Naha Hari festival will feature dragon-boat races in the city’s Tomari fishing harbor between large haryusen powered by 30 paddlers each.

This year’s festival will be the 39th of the modern era, in which pop concerts, Ryukyu singing and dancing, a youth sumo competition and a fireworks display combine with the intensely competitive races to create a truly carnival atmosphere enjoyed by residents and visitors alike.

From morning to evening during the three-day event, crews representing schools, companies, civic organizations and military units compete using the three traditional Naha dragon boats. Symbolically representing the three ancient towns that make up modern Naha, these dragon-prowed vessels with trailing tails are Naha’s dark-green-painted boat, the yellow one of Kume and the black beast of Tomari.

Although dragon-boat racing can be traced back 2,500 years in China — to around the time of the first Olympic Games in Ancient Greece — local legend has it that the fearsome-looking craft first appeared on Okinawa about 600 years ago.

In 1393, Wan-ōso (aka O Oso), the lord of Tomigusuku Castle and nephew of the King of Nanzan — the southernmost of the three kingdoms on Okinawa Island at the time — was a student at the Imperial University in Nanking, China. Having become enamored of the dragon-boat races he saw there during his stay, he is said to have had one built upon his return home to use on the Manko River.

Soon afterward, impressed locals began building similar boats, and when Wan-ōso became King of Nanzan in 1403, he launched the Hari dragon-boat races to impress the gods and ensure good fishing, a bountiful harvest and peace in the kingdom.

Today’s trio of Naha dragon boats are each 15.25 meters long with two rows of 15 seats for the 30 paddlers who sit side by side. Crews also include a drummer (or caller), who sits in the bow, a steersman (or sweep) in the stern, and a flag-puller, who positions himself near the bow to grab the all-important pennant attached to a float and so signal that his boat has finished the race.

In Chinese tradition, the dragon’s eye is painted red prior to a race to bring the creature to life. So if a dragon boat is alive and the paddlers are its wings, the drummer is the dragon’s heart. Like the cox in Western rowing races, he directs the pace, frequency and rhythm of the paddlers’ strokes. Additionally, the steersman controls the course of the boat with a large “sweep oar” on one side of the stern — though Naha dragon boats often use two steersmen.

As for the crews, synchronizing their paddle strokes in time with the drummer’s “heartbeat” is just as important as the speed and power of their strokes.

Last year’s Naha Hari took place under mostly sunny skies and, as it’s held at the city’s fishing port, there was no shortage of food booths in front of the municipal fish market as well as inside the market itself. Typically, those attending can escape from the usual matsuri (festival) fare of yakisoba (fried noodles), corn dogs and okonomiyaki pancakes and indulge instead in island specialties such as maguro kama (grilled tuna “shoulder”), gurukun (bananafish), tempura bento (box lunches) and grilled tuna steaks or whole scallops.

As well, for those looking for a fishy treat to take home, some booths also sell fresh local seafood, including kihada maguro (yellowfin tuna), kajiki (marlin), mekajiki (swordfish), mambo (moonfish), mibai (Okinawan grouper), irabucha (parrotfish) and umi budoh (sea grapes).

Meanwhile, just as the Naha Hari festival happens during Golden Week in early May on the Western calendar, the Itoman Hare sea festival, focused on fishermen’s sabani races, is a one-day event held on the fourth day of the fifth month of the Chinese lunar calendar — on June 12 this year.

The Hare is Itoman’s sole sea festival, and given that the city is famous throughout the western Pacific Ocean region for its tough and innovative fishermen, this is a major date that normally attracts around 30,000 revelers and spectators from far and wide.

Like the Naha Hari, the Itoman Hare is held at the local fishing harbor to seek the gods’ favor for safe voyages and good catches. But unlike Naha Hari’s dragon-boat races, Itoman Hare’s are between sabani fishing canoes developed by Itoman fishermen more than 500 years ago.

In the 19th century, those fishermen — wearing then newfangled goggles — would dive down from these boats to drive schools of fish into nets set ahead of them. Then, at the end of the 20th century they started using so-called fish-aggregating devices, which are basically lengths of rope or old fishing gear left dangling from flagged and anchored buoys. In the natural way of things, this detritus soon becomes host to mussels, barnacles, seaweeds and the like, which attract small fish to feed on them. Then larger fish such as tuna, marlin and mahi mahi (dolphinfish) soon turn up to feed on them — and it’s these the fisherman hunt using nets or hooks and lines.

Sabani boats evolved from dugout canoes, to the sides of which strakes (flat boards) were added to raise the freeboard and prevent waves swamping them. Then, over time, the vessels evolved into the sabani’s now distinctive and streamlined fish-form shape. No iron or steel nails are used in building them, as their fastenings are wooden dovetail keys secured with bamboo nails.

In earlier times, sabani were sailed as well as paddled, and though their narrowness and shallow draft made them fast, they were prone to capsizing. Being buoyant, though, they were easy to right and then bail out. This has given rise to one of the Hare’s most popular events, its kunnukase (capsize) race, in which the three boats must be tipped over mid-race so their crews have to right them, bail them out and get back aboard to resume paddling. This is to demonstrate the courage and seamanship of Itoman’s fishermen, as well as their strength and power as paddlers.

At 6.8 meters long, the sabani are smaller than Naha’s dragon boats. They carry 10 paddlers, a drummer, a steersman and in some races a flag-bearer who stands amidship and chants and waves pennants to help synchronize the crew’s strokes.

Around 9 a.m. on the day of Itoman Hare, the Hare bell is rung to symbolically announce the end of the annual rainy season. Then the Nanzan and Itoman noro (priestesses) perform a ceremony and the races begin. The opening event, the Ugwan Bare, is over an 850-meter course, as are most of the other races between schools, organizations and companies. But then, at the climax of the competition, comes the 2,160-meter Agai Subu contested between fishermen from Nishimura, Nakamura and Mijima — the three ancient villages comprising today’s city of Itoman.

After the Agai Subu all the sabani crews go to the Nundunchu (House of the Itoman Noro) to sing the Hare song and receive awamori (Okinawan sake) from the priestess.

Finally, after the festival ends, local legend has it that the souls of those who have died at sea have a race called the Guso Bare. Consequently, whether hungover or not, the day after the Hare no one goes fishing to avoid contact with the ghost paddlers. After that, it’s back to work out on the turbulent ocean until the following year’s festival draws excited crowds to Itoman’s shores again.

In line with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is strongly requesting that residents and visitors exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, music venues and other public spaces.

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