What wonderful fortune to get to be here in Okinawa for the annual 10,000 person Eisa Festival! I’d long thought about eventually getting to see such festivals in Okinawa – along with the Naha Tug-of-War and the Dragon Boat races – but, really, what luck that it should happen to land within the one week that I’m scheduled to be in Okinawa this summer.
Unlike the time I nearly missed Gion Matsuri by waking up “late” at 10 or 11am (in my defense, it was a weekend, and I was out until 4 or 5am doing karaoke ^_^), this festival didn’t start until quite later in the day, and I’d been in the habit of getting up at 7 or 8 anyway. So I had the whole morning to poke around Shuri in search of obscure historical sites. I had certain ones in mind, such as the home of this or that famous courtier, but in my attempts to find them, I got quite turned around, and spit out again just outside the castle, which is not where I was trying to be… But, then, with the kind help of a friendly local fellow who called out “Hello! Good morning!” to me as he washed his dogs in his garage, I was pointed down a little side street loaded with wonderful little historical sites, including some I’d been having some serious difficulty finding on my own.
Right: These sections of stone walls are all that survive of the residence of Sai On (1682-1761), one of the most celebrated, and arguably one of the most influential government officials in the history of the Ryûkyû Kingdom. But, that anything survives at all is, I think, pretty impressive. Whether the plot is a parking lot because people aren’t rebuilding on it out of respect (or ‘orphaned’ property ownership issues) or something, I don’t know, but it certainly does help one to clearly see the size of the plot.
Some, disappointingly, consisted of nothing more than a sign, plaque, or marker, meaning I have nothing really to show (e.g. on this blog, or on a Wiki article about the site) for it. But, even so, it was great to get a little bit more of a feel for the layout of Shuri as a town/city. After all, if you visit only the castle, only the big-name sites, and temples and such, it becomes easy to forget to think about basic questions, such as, where did the nobles/aristocrats live? And in what sort of homes? Even if nothing survives of the homes themselves, there’s still something pretty cool, pretty impressive, about being able to find/know, roughly, the historical location of a given aristocrat’s home. And while it’s very difficult to really get a good sense of the feel, the atmosphere, the patterns of aristocratic life at that time, given how much the streets have changed, even so, there is still something to be gained from seeing the size of the residential plots, the arrangements of the streets, how far even prominent officials’ homes were from the castle, and how they’re interspersed with natural springs1, shrines, temples, and the like.
My adventures in Shuri worked out wonderfully, ending just in time for me to grab a delicious lunch of Okinawa soba and then make my way back to Kokusai-dôri for the festival. I missed perhaps the most exciting and photogenic part, as all the different eisa groups parade down the street, looking like a just incredible crowd, all in brilliant colored costumes and such. Not because of time, so much as simply because I didn’t understand how this all worked, or where the best place to stand would be. But, so it goes. I’ll know better for next time.
This was followed by the main event of the festival, performances by a series of eisa groups, simultaneously in a number of locations, mostly along Kokusai-dôri. I was quite confused at first, as one group would perform, and then a whole bunch of other groups would pass right by, without performing for our particular space, leaving huge gaps of 10-20 minutes during which, if you just stayed in that one spot, it looked/felt like the whole parade, the whole event, had just dissipated, ended, fallen apart. So I walked up to another spot, and caught another performance, but then things would dissipate in that spot, and a whole bunch of other groups would walk right past, while yet another group would start performing where I had been to begin with. I had asked one of the staff how it all worked, and whether I should stay in one place or if I should walk up, or if there were any better or best place to try to watch from – he’d said to just stay in one place and I’d get to see everything. As it turns out, I finally figured out after a few hours, it is impossible to see all the groups, all the performances. If you stand at Spot 1 (just outside the Mitsukoshi, let’s say, at a certain point along the street), you’ll see groups A, C, D, and F, but not B or E. Groups B and E don’t perform at Spot 1 – they just walk right past, skipping it, to perform instead at Spot 2. And if you walk from Spot 1, to Spot 2, in order to catch them, well, now you’re missing Group C or D, back at your original spot.
As a result, I spent most of the day hearing really exciting-sounding performances from down the street, only to miss out on actually seeing them as they skipped over my spot and walked right on past. Of course, by the time I knew their performance sounded exciting, it was already begun, and too late to walk over there and check it out – and, by the time I saw them pass by my spot, rather than stopping, it was already crowded enough at the next spot that I couldn’t simply walk over there to see them. Oh well.
Somehow this post has gotten terribly negative and kvetchy. But in truth, it was a great time, a really incredible show, and a wonderful experience. As I first began walking up Kokusai-dôri, just as the festival was starting, and I heard & saw the last group in line performing, tens of them all in matching costumes and with (nearly) perfectly matching choreography, performing to a lively Okinawan song I liked (though, lol, I actually can’t remember what it was at all), I have to admit, I nearly cried, I was so excited to get to be there to see this. And, yeah, sure, most of the groups performing songs I know and love were the groups whose performances I missed, and yeah, the one group I’d actually heard of and would have gone out of my way to see – Ryûkyû-koku Matsuri Daiko – I didn’t realize that’s who it was until it was too late, and so I missed their performance too.
But, oh my god, were the kids cute, and the teens and grown-ups passionate and talented and clearly having a ton of fun. And I think the really key part that I enjoyed the most is that this is not a professional performance – it’s people being people, having fun, supporting one another, coming out to see their friends’ groups, cheering on groups from other towns who they don’t know, chatting with other groups and sort of connecting within that common bond of being eisa performers, and sometimes even joining in dancing with one another’s other groups. I saw parents cheering on their kids, a man spraying kids with a hose to help them cool off… In some groups, you could see those in their teens or 20s actively helping and guiding and encouraging the little ones, and while many of the groups were really quite excellent, well-practiced and well-prepared, there were a lot that were also just having fun and doing their best – a lot of groups from elementary or middle schools, and at least one from some kind of home for those with mental disabilities.
And the groups came from all over the island (some maybe from other islands? I’m not sure), all with different colors and costumes, and different styles. Some played relatively traditional eisa music, some danced to more popular songs – some even used mainland Japanese mainstream J-pop songs; some had more of a powerful, strong, martial arts element to their style; and some had live sanshin playing, though most had it piped in.
All in all, it was just wonderful to get to see eisa performed here in Okinawa, at the 10,000 Person Eisa Festival, along the Kokusai-dôri. I’ve been fortunate to see and enjoy many eisa-style performances at the Hawaii Okinawa Festival, which of course only whet my appetite for more, and made it all the more fun to recognize songs or dances… seeing this really added to my experience of yet another side of Okinawan life and culture. Not just the historical sites and museums, the restaurants (food, cuisine), and the very much aimed-at-tourists live performances at shimauta bars and the like, and most certainly not only the US military bases issue, but, this too. People practicing two or three times a week with their neighbors or their classmates, at middle schools and temples and community centers, and getting together to parade and dance and perform for one another, all together, in an annual, “traditional” festival celebrating Okinawan culture and identity.
PS I somehow suspected that, at such a big-deal event, I just might run into someone from East-West Center, or Akisamiyo! (the EWC/UHM Okinawan students group). I’d heard stories of EWC people running into one another, unexpectedly, halfway across the globe, and I figured just maybe it would happen to me. And what do you know, it did. Ran into one of the guys from the Akisamiyo! group, here for a term or two as an exchange student at Ryûdai. Small world. Or something.
(1) If you’re not just talking about the castle, and big sites like that, but are looking for smaller, backstreets sorts of historical sites like I was, about half the sites you’ll find on a map, or in wandering, are springs. Personally, with apologies, I find it difficult to get too interested about this. But, they clearly played a major role in both the practical lifestyle and spiritual geography of the city.
Once again, all photos and videos are my own. You can see all my Okinawa photos from this trip on Flickr.