Many of the events which take place in Japan are based on the solar calendar, but in Okinawa, events and religious ceremonies also follow what is known as the old (lunar) calendar. Both of these calendars have become indispensable, and are now used alongside each other in everyday life.
The old calendar is a measure of time which is based on the lunar calendar, following the waxing and waning of the moon. It is believed to have been used in olden times to determine the changes in the natural environment, allowing locals to decide the appropriate time for fishing, planting, and harvesting. However, the four seasons do not align with the lunar calendar. This was solved by combining it with 24 solar terms which represent the seasonal changes that take place roughly every half month. This is the old calendar, also known as the “lunisolar” calendar.
This old calendar, which dates back to the time of the Ryukyu Kingdom, became the foundation for various events and festivals. Events continue to be based on this calendar due to both the influence of Chinese culture, and the fact that this country is on an island surrounded by the sea in every direction. The calendar became indispensable in the harsh weather conditions which vary from typhoons to extreme heat, as it helped decide on the appropriate time for fishing and farming. It allowed people to work out the ebb and flow of the tide as well as the best time to sow seeds and harvest. Also, because the island is separated from the rest of Japan, a unique culture of prayers for bountiful harvests and successful fishing trips, as well as for good health, developed and continue to live on in the present day.
The majority of celebrations relating to ancestry and Okinawan events that take place throughout the year are prayers and rituals that follow the old (lunisolar) calendar.
There are many customs and prayers to the gods that stem from a time when Okinawa was an agricultural society, and typhoons and droughts frequently plagued the island. The royal government of the Ryukyu Kingdom introduced the idea of solar terms, 24 terms used to denote the changing of the seasons, which they used in conjunction with the lunar calendar to choose the days for various events. Following this format, village rituals became annual events based on the old calendar and the seasonal milestones which affect the crops.
Although it is now popular to celebrate New Year on January 1st of the solar calendar, there are still families who also celebrate the Lunar New Year in relation to Buddha. When it approaches the end of the year according to the old calendar, there are items lined up in the shops which are not usually sold, such as decorations and specific food items. It is not as popular as the Solar New Year, but the supermarkets still become crowded with shoppers. At home, people pray for the health and prosperity of their families by offering New Year decorations and food to Buddha. It is a modest celebration of the New Year.
During this festival, which is also known as the Women’s Festival, women purify themselves by heading down to the beach and plunging their hands and feet into the sea. There are other events to enjoy such a clam digging. It is also customary to bring a variety of dishes in colorful boxes, including rice steamed with adzuki beans or other bean dishes, seafood, mugwort mochi and Sangwachi-gwashi, a type of confectionery traditionally eaten on this day.
Taking place around the same time as the beaches begin to open to the public, there are also many families who go rock pool fishing and seashell hunting in the shallow waters, in this way, even though the events were once centered on women, they are slowly changing to involve other seaside leisure activities.
This event was introduced to Okinawa through Chinese ancestors and is classed as one of Okinawa’s three major events, along with Obon and New Year. During this time, people visit the graves of their ancestors and family relatives. Here, they clean down the gravestones and make offerings, and it is common to eat in front of the graves after praying. It is believed that the ancestors can continue to sleep peacefully after watching a memorial service in their honor, and seeing how well their relatives are getting along with each other.
Dragon boat races, known as either “Hari” or “Hare,” are held throughout the prefecture on the national holiday which takes place either before or on May 4th of the old calendar. This is an event which is particularly important for fishermen as it is used to pray for bountiful fishing trips and safe voyages. The Hari are deeply connected to Shinto, and from the early morning, strict rituals take place to worship the sea gods.
The Yukkanuhi, which takes place during Hari, is observed to pray for the healthy growth of children and, as toys are often given as presents, a special “toy town” is set up near where the Hari takes place. This is a day to enjoy as a family, watching the Hari races and enjoying traditional baked Okinawan sweets such as “pawpaw” and “chinpin.”
The tug of war events that take place throughout Okinawa can be divided into two main categories, the June Umachi, which celebrates the rice harvest, and those on August 15th of the old calendar. The main tug of war events are in Yonabaru Town (Old calendar June), Itoman City (Old calendar August), and Naha City (around Solar calendar October 10th).
The tug of war is a traditional event which involves a male and female rope connected together, and has the role of being a harvest and thanksgiving festival, as well as a way of praying for a good harvest in the following year and for sound health. The outcome also tells the winner’s fortune for the following year, and you can see the determination in the faces of those who take part. Watch out for people trying to distract opponents during the match using unusual behavioral tactics and bojutsu, the art of using a stick as a weapon. There are also other highlights which include parades and people dressed in costumes.
In Okinawa, Obon takes place over 3 days from July 13th-15th of the lunar calendar.
During this period, people take gifts with them to their relatives and offer incense sticks at the family altar.
In order to do this, many people take vacation or leave work early, and there are many companies that grant time off as the the lunar Obon Festival has become a part of life and an important time of year in Okinawa.
The 13th is known as “Unke” and is the day when people greet their ancestral spirits from the other world.
The 14th is “Nakanuhi” and the 15th is the last day, which is called “Ukui.”
This is the most important day of Obon, and is the day when family and relatives gather around the altar to enjoy their time together.
On the evening of the 15th, the spirits are sent back to their world.
Many lively and traditional arts such as eisa dancing, bo-odori (bar dance), and shishimai (lion dance) are performed all over the prefecture in connection to the lunar Obon Festival.
Eisa dancing is a parade along the roads where a group of young men and women are led by a large flag while repeating prayers and chants for the spirits to the beat of drums and singing.
With the bravery of the dancers on display, eisa is one of Okinawa’s famous traditional arts.
Kajimaya is an event to celebrate elders turning 97 years old.
It is said that people at this age return to their youth, and the event is said to have started when these elders were given windmills, or “kajimaya,” that children play with.
The Kajimaya Parade is magnificent, and the elders ride in colorfully decorated cars to go around their communities.
Families and relatives also participate in the parade, and many people flood the streets asking for handshakes for good luck as the elders pass by.
Steamed rice cake sweets wrapped in ginger and palm leaves, known as muchi, are offered to both the god of fire, Hinokan, and Buddhist altars during the Muchi festival. The ones which are wrapped in ginger leaves are eaten, a custom which stems from a need to keep warm during the colder months. It is also believed that the strong aroma of the leaves wards off evil, and that those who eat it will be exorcised. According to legend, a young woman used muchi to return her older brother back into his human form after he was turned into a man-eating demon.
The first Muchi festival following the birth of a child is known as “hachi-muchi.” It is customary for neighbors and relatives to send muchi to the family, as the ginger leaves act as an insect repellent and an amulet, praying for the healthy growth of the child. Also, families with children use string to hang up muchi around the house as a way of praying that they will not go hungry.
On this day, the fire god Hinukan is said to return to the skies and report to the gods the events that have taken place in the homeland during the year. Families send their thanks for the past year, and also pray that any disasters or misfortunes which have taken place will never happen again. They also pray to Hinukan that he only reports to the gods the good things that have happened, and that he rests up ready for the new year ahead.