Okinawa Dragon Boat Races
The dragon boat races (or haarii) are an age-old tradition in Okinawa. As with many things on this island, it finds its connection to the sea. Every spring they kick off during Golden Week, which begins April 29 and ends early May. (This is another fun cultural topic - it is the longest holiday in Japan and is a collection of four holidays in one week.) The races then continue through the summer on the weekends so if you haven't caught one yet you still have a chance!
Dragon boat races in Okinawa are always a family and kid-friendly event. Whole communities come out to support their family and friends and people set up tents to hang out for the whole day of racing. There is also more diversity in the teams than I realized there would be. There are some teams made up of just men and some teams that race just to have a good time. There are even teams made up of Army, Navy, Air Force, and military-affiliated people. So whichever race you go to watch you are guaranteed to see a wide variety of racing styles!
Some of my friends are on a team together and it was great to go and show support to them. Since I am new to this sport I asked my friend lots of questions! Christine isn't new when it comes to team sports so I was intrigued to know why this was the sport she chose while here in Okinawa. She loves a good challenge and she said this is one of the main reasons for choosing dragon boat racing. She loved that it was different than any other sport she's ever participated in. Just like any team sport, camaraderie plays a vital role, too. Christine said her group is "a team of driven and strong women who love and support each other not only on the boat but also in life." The team, Yasha Dragons, is one of the only all-American and all-female teams! Kudos to them for being the first team with those distinctions to enter the Ikei race (and take home awards!!)
Like many sports teams, there are different positions on the boat. There are usually about 11 or 12 crew members including the oarsmen (paddlers), helmsman, and drummer. And there is never a lack of spectators cheering the teams on. Whichever race you go to you are sure to have a different experience each time!
And I can't leave out that all the kids at the dragon boat races have a blast! There is always an area for kids to run around and play and sometimes there is a beach for them to play on. What kid doesn't love a day on the beach?! If you're going to check out a dragon boat race on Okinawa make sure you pack some towels, toys, sunblock, snacks, and plenty of water. (Maybe some life jackets, too, if your kids love the water.) And the races are so much fun to photograph so come prepared for some bright and vibrant pictures!
We have enjoyed many new experiences living here in Okinawa and dragon boat racing was definitely a fun one! I'm so glad we got to experience a traditional part of the Okinawan culture. It was incredible watching the races and imagining the Okinawans crossing the seas in their small boats in search of the fresh catch of the day.
If you travel to Okinawa during the summer months ask around for a dragon boat schedule or look it up on Facebook. The Yasha Dragons have a Facebook page with all the updates and I know they would love your support! Enjoy your time experiencing an Okinawan tradition!