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"If you happen to be on Ishigaki island during the hounensai week we highly recommend that check out one of these traditional festivals. There's so much to see - traditional dances, the carrying of the hatagashira, the 'tsunanumin' battle, and lets not forget the huge tug-of-war that takes place at the end of every festival which is open to all. Yaeyama culture at its best!"
While haarii is the fisherman's festival, hounensai is a harvest festival which starts at the beginning of August. During the hounensai season multiple festivals take place throughout Ishigaki, with individual festivals ranging in length from a few hours to entire days. While most are very public, attracting the media and thousands of spectators, others are more private affairs which tend to be attended by locals.
If you're lucky enough to be on Ishigaki island during the hounensai season then I'd highly recommend that you take the time to check out one of these festivals as they are highly entertaining and steeped in Okinawan culture.
The theme of the festival which continues throughout the day is the carrying of the hatagashira. This involves groups of men taking it in turns to individually carry large flag poles, the tops of which are intricately decorated.
The poles are extremely heavy, hence, the entire team lifts the pole into place before waiting for an indication from the bearer that he is ready to start carrying it alone.
The strain on the carrier is obvious as he struggles with the tasks of both maintaining the pole's perfect vertical alignment while also enduring its weight. Needless to say, any loss of balance could lead to the pole crashing into the crowds which line the streets. To reduce the chance of such accidents two other team members hold ropes that are attached to the top of the pole which can be used to counter any loss of balance.
The reality however is that on some occasions the oscillations of the pole become simply too difficult to control. The measured strides of the bearer turn into hurried steps as he tries to prevent the inevitable while the team rush to steady the pole. However, once the hatagashira reaches a certain point its tipping is difficult to hault. The expressions on the faces of the men as they desperately try to steady the hatagashira as it sails over the heads of onlookers is really something to be seen.
In addition to the carrying of the hatagashira there are many traditional dance processions which take place throughout the day. Groups of local dancers follow each other down a road which typically ends at a temple.
Dances range from the light-hearted to the extremely traditional and all members of the community, from the very young to senior are involved.
The highlight of the festival is the 'Tsunanumin', takes place just after darkness has fallen and is something not to be missed. Wooden stages are placed at each end of the road and these are mounted by figures dressed in traditional outfits which depict the image of traditional warriors.
Those who are close enough will notice that the warriors are carried out to the stages rather than walking themselves. This is to prevent them from having to touch the floor, as doing so would signify a loss of the battle.
Torches are lit and the stages are lifted from the ground, firmly supported by a couple of dozen men below. As the two stages are slowly carried towards each other down the street the warriors strike menacing poses and glare at the crowd. An eerie whistling fills the air as the gap between warriors narrows and when the two stages finally meet they engage in an impressively choreographed battle. The combat ends in a stale mate and the two stages are pulled apart by their carriers who charge back up the street in opposite directions (at which point you really need to make sure that you're standing well clear).
Those who stick it out right to the very end of the festival will have the chance to participate in a public tug-of-war contest between two local teams (or a 'tsunahiki' as it's known in Japanese).
A huge rope is laid down the centre of the road and people are free to join which ever team they choose, although officials will endeavour to keep the match as fair as possible.
Although it's just a bit of fun to most visitors, there is a strong rivalry between the locals with the losing team being subject to a fair degree of name calling for the rest of the year. Once the battle is over it is considered lucky to take some of the rope's bindings.
Hounensai festivals provide an unmissable opportunity to witness some traditional Okinawan culture. At times the festival has a certain raw intensity which is hard to describe, particularly during the last hour when the tsunanumin takes place. Speaking as an Englishmen it's impossible to imagine such an event taking place back home due to public safety fears. Despite the numbers who turn out to witness the spectacle there are no police to be seen and no barriers to safely confine the audience while the hatagashira carrying is taking place. The result is a very special experience which you won't forget in a hurry.
The full day events can be a little long and the mid-summer Yaeyama sun can be particularly unforgiving, consequently I'd recommend arriving some time around mid afternoon as most festivals will continue on until around 8.30pm.