Haarii - Okinawa's Sea-God Festival|
The haarii, or dragon boat races, is one of Okinawa’s traditional events and is held on May 4 of the lunar calendar. This is a festival for fishermen, who live with danger, to pray for a safe voyage and a good catch and to thank the sea for its blessings. Fishermen compete against each other in sabani (small dragon-shaped fishing boats). The haarii, which has been held by fishermen in Itoman City and Naha City for hundreds of years, is a traditional event celebrated by people who live with the sea. Viewing the haarii of today is like watching the ancient fishermen who used to cross the seas of Asia in their small craft.|
Only the Naha Haarii is held between May 3 and May 5 of the modern calendar; many haarii in other places, from Itoman to the northern part of the main island, Amami, Miyako and Yaeyama, are held on May 4 of the lunar calendar, The haarii in each area is held by dividing fishing villages into three teams; the winning team will be assured a good catch during the year.
The haarii was introduced to Okinawa in the 14th century, when the Ryukyu Kingdom enjoyed a flourishing trade relationship with other Asian countries. One theory holds that the haarii was staged to pray for rain since dragons bring clouds and rain with their fighting; however, it is also said that the haarii was primarily intended as a show when it was introduced into Okinawa. Later, this event became part of a tradition to pray for a good catch and a safe voyage. The haarii was spread throughout the Ryukyu Islands by the fishermen of Itoman, who were highly skilled at their trade.
The haarii is impressive and exciting because the spirit of the ancient Okinawans, who once maneuvered sabani with their skill and bravery and crossed the mighty ocean, can be felt once again.
The Naha Haarii is held in May of every year, earlier than other races in Okinawa. This event disappeared at the beginning of the Meiji era in 1879 but was revived in 1974 to become the largest and most famous of all haarii in the prefecture. Compared with sabani used in other areas, the Naha Haarii sabani are bigger and brighter, with a dynastic symbol at the dragon’s head and tail. This event is held during Golden Week, a major travel period in Japan and thus an important time of year for Okinawa. The races are accompanied by a summer festival featuring open-air stalls, various attractions and live music all day long on the Naminoue waterfront.
Date: Beginning of May
Place: Naha New Port
Directions: Take Highway 58 towards Naha City. After passing Hotel Ekka, turn right at the light. Go straight and bear to the right at Tomari High School. After passing the Naha fishing port, you’ll see Naha New Port on your left.
Information: Naha Tourism Association 098-862-1442
The haarii in Itoman, a town of fishermen, has a long, proud history that spans 500 years. This is a special festival with ancient traditions unlike any other in Okinawa. One week before the haarii a drum at Santinmo, located in the center of town, is beaten to announce the coming of the races. Each team practices for 40 days before the day of the race, and the rowers are distinguished by their bravery and passion. Numerous different groups compete in the races.
The Naha Haarii is a traditional event that was attended by the king during the days of the Ryukyu Kingdom. This event disappeared at the beginning of the Meiji era in 1879 but was revived in 1974 to become the largest and most famous of all haarii in the prefecture. Compared with sabani used in other areas, the Naha Haarii sabani are bigger and brighter, with a dynastic symbol at the dragon’s head and tail. This event is held during Golden Week, a major travel period in Japan and thus an important time of year for Okinawa.
Although the waterfront is normally quiet, it becomes a lively place during the haarii. The handcrafted “Happy Sea-god Festival” sign is raised, and numerous temporary tents are set up. There is also a stage where dancing, singing and sanshin performances are presented all day long. The entertainers, from children to adults, enhance the mood of the festival. This is an event that can’t be missed!
Although it looks flimsy at first glance, the sabani is said to be well suited for the ocean, which is full of treacherous currents and dangerous coral, and is durable and highly maneuverable in heavy ocean swells. It is surprising to know that the fishermen of Itoman used this boat over a large area from the Pacific to the Indian Ocean, from the middle of the Meiji era until the beginning of World War II. There are two types of sabani: kuribune, which is fashioned from a hollowed-out log; and haginni, which is built by joining wood boards without the use of nails.