The World’s Largest Tug-O-War

11th Oct 2008
Photo of The World’s Largest Tug-O-War by Nicholas Rosen

If you’re like me, when you think of tug-o-war it takes you back to your youth. To the golden age of summer camps and coming of age stories. Where a rag-tag bunch come together to prove to not only themselves but everyone around them that anyone can be a winner in life. It’s a heartwarming tale that will melt even the coldest of hearts and teach some much needed life lessons.

The annual festival of Naha, Okinawa, Japan takes this to a whole other level.

How it started

An annual festival believed to be traced as far back as the 17th century. It is a staple of the Naha’s long standing traditions. This continues to be a bucket-list worthy item to any traveler and adventure seeker’s list.

I was stationed in Okinawa while serving in the military. I decided to make my way to Naha City once I heard about this festival. As this was a perfect opportunity to explore a side of the Okinawan culture I had never experienced.

Arriving to the festival

This is a 3 day event but the main attraction is on Saturday. You’ll be with hundreds if not at least a few thousand people along the city streets. From Japanese locals, American military, and numerous tourists as it is an international event. Be sure to get there early. This will allow you to have plenty of time to enjoy food from the local street vendors. Maybe check out the local art exhibits. But maker sure to get a good spot of participate.

It was so crowded I had no idea where the rope started and where it ended. I mean, this tug-o-war goes on for blocks throughout one of the main streets of the city. I was able to reach somewhere around the middle and found myself face to face with the biggest rope I had ever seen. The main rope was close to my height at 5’11 and I could barely see on the other side of it. Coming from it were smaller ropes that would we use to grab and pull for the honor of our side. The rope is actually made from rice straw. It can weighs up to 40-43 tons. East vs West, there isn’t any real intense rivalry. We were all there to enjoy this festival and participate in its annual tradition.

Photo of Naha City, Okinawa, Japan by Nicholas Rosen

Shall we begin!

The tug-o-war started to officially begin with a ceremony symbolizing the battle between East and West. Those who had been selected were dressed in traditional Okinawan garb. Bright colors of green and blue and orange with headbands and armed with staffs and swords. They were carried on wood platforms hoisted into the air by others on each side of the rope to the middle of the rope. I was beginning to feel super energized and ready to put all I had into pulling the rope.

Once the ceremony had been completed, the horn was blown and we all picked up the smaller ropes ready to pull. Now it is hard to coordinate so many people to pull the rope in unison so it was basically a free for all. Some were pulling in unison, others were pulling at their own pace, but we were all having a great time. With such a large rope and its weight, I couldn’t tell if my side was actually winning or not. It didn’t look like the rope was evening moving at all. You will only be able to tell when the tug-o-war is over when you hear the second horn announcing the winner.

Photo of The World’s Largest Tug-O-War by Nicholas Rosen
Photo of The World’s Largest Tug-O-War by Nicholas Rosen

What happens after

What caught me by surprise since this was my first time participating was what happened after.

I saw everyone starting to take out knives, axes, and hacksaws. You might even be lucky to see the occasional machete. Apparently it is custom for the participants to take part of the rope as a trophy and souvenir to show your participation. I didn’t know but managed to borrow another person’s small axe and chop myself off a decent size piece of rope. If you’re hoping to have your own souvenir from this adventure I suggest you keep a pocket knife or other sharp implement in your backpack.

The tug-o-war is a quick 30 min so after it is over you have the rest of the day for whatever you’d like to do. You can stay and explore what else Naha City has to offer. I found myself just walking the streets exploring all the little markets and stores before it was time for me to head back to base.