Last week I caught this post over at Ryukyu Mike’s blog and was reminded of my time on Kitadaito Island. Kitadaito’s biggest industry is sugar production, but during my time there (2008-2011) they created a factory to harness the many uses of the getto plant, aka Alpinia zerumbet.
So what is a getto? It’s a tall stalk based plant with broad, tapering leaves and white cone-shaped flowers. The stalks grow slowly but prodigiously, and regrow after being cut down. They are sometimes used as windshields for gardens and field or as decorations.
Even before the factory on Kitadaito was made, the plant was well utilized by locals. One of my first memories on the island was being handed a small greenish cookie. Chinsuko are popular cookies in Okinawa that are only slightly sweet. The getto chinsko I was given had a unique spice flavor that was both bitter and salty at the same time and quickly grew on me.
The other item I had was getto tea. As with the cookie, tea made from the getto leaves had a subtle spice flavor and delicious taste. Every time I gave it as a present it went over very well.
After the factory was completed, they began harvesting getto plants from around the island. The leaves were removed, boiled, dried and turned to various food and health uses while the stalks were compressed, their juices extracted and fibers separated.
The fibers in the stalk were washed, separated, dried, and then sent to Osaka to become kariyushi shirts, traditional Okinawan dress. The getto juice is utilized in fragrance sprays, cosmetics, and health treatments. The getto plant juice is a natural insect repellent which is useful as it doesn’t contain the harmful and corrosive chemicals in modern insect sprays.The island also produces an insect repelling incense coil based on the getto extract.
In addition to the taste, getto has a pleasant smell so it’s used in soaps and other items to add natural fragrance. Finally, it is traditional to serve New Year’s mochi on getto leaves in Okinawa. Its amazing all the things that can be done with one plant.
Check out the getto segment from my video on Kitadaito for a look at the processing of getto on Kitadaito.
Skip ahead to 8 minutes 18 seconds for the start of the section on Getto.
The 2012 Kitadaito Festival was a two-day event in September marking an important time of community inclusion and tradition. The second day of the Festival was on the 23rd and, as in years past, featured sumo competitions as a traditional Japanese offering to the kami and ancestors of the village. If you haven’t already, be sure to check out my post on day one. Below is a video showing excerpts from the day, with more information and photos farther down. Enjoy!
The second day began in the morning on Sunday around 9:00. Villagers gathered again before the Daito-gu shrine. There, a Shinto priest led a ceremony blessing both the sumo ground and the people. New babies were also brought before the shrine by their parents so that the adults could ask for safe and prosperous lives for their children.
After the ceremonies were complete, the villagers settled in to watch Edo and Okinawan Sumo competitions. Although Kitadaito is in Okinawan Prefecture, it was originally settled by people from Hachijo Island, which means the traditions of the island are a unique mix of mainland Japan and Okinawa. At the Daitogusai festival, both types of sumo take place. Pre-school through junior high students take part in edo style sumo.
Edo Sumo is the kind famous throughout the world, and its practitioners generally wear mawashi, a long single piece of fabric that is folded and wrapped into a type of loin cloth. The children make do with belts so that there is something to grab. The point of Edo sumo is to toss your opponent out of the ring or onto the ground. If any body part other than feet touch the ground, you lose.
Edo sumo is highly ritualized since it originated as a Shinto offering. Local villagers still participate in sumo for the health and safety of their village, as well as for the opportunity to win great prizes. Students all compete in set matches within their age group, then compete in 3 or 5 round matches for a chance at a trophy and prizes including everything from laundry soap to new bikes, fish, and more. The winner has to defeat 5 challengers in a row to claim the prize.
Tazuki wins the 5 person jr high edo sumo competition
After the last junior high school competition is the adult competition since Kitadaito has no high school. Matches are chosen by random in a ladder tournament with the winner receiving a champions cup, kilograms of rice, money and other prizes.
Finally, the Okinawan sumo competition takes place, often with a few of the best junior high schoolers jumping in as well. Several places receive prizes. All together the sumo matches generally last into the dusk. Aside from locals, other sumo practitioners are often invited to compete. This year, 10 sumo-ka from Kumejima participated in both days activities.
Performances and Entertainment
When I lived on Kitadaito, just a few years ago, there were many performances and lots of entertainment during the stop at city all on the first day of the festival. In fact the experience even became a part of my novel Samurai Awakening. This year, however, the schedule was changed up a bit. The first day started later, and there was no stage, food stalls, or entertainment at the city hall. Instead, everyone was welcomed to the local kaizen center (community hall) at 7:00.
There were many performances, including local students performing taiko drumming, traditional Okinawan dancers, local dance offerings, live music, and dance. Food and drink were also available, and everyone was able to enjoy the fun without having to worry about bad weather or rain.
The sumo club from Kumejima also performed a short comedy routine as way of thank you for the hospitality they received during the events. Check out the pictures or the video for a better idea of the performances!
Every year on September 22 and 23 Kitadaito Village celebrates its largest Festival. These dates mark the beginning of autumn. Kitadaito also known as north Borodino island is a place of 12sq kilometers 320 kilometers east of the Okinawan mainland. It is unique in that it was settled by residents of Hachijo Island (near Tokyo) but is part of Okinawa Prefecture. Over the past 100 years the island has become a unique chanpuru (mix) of both cultures.
After graduating from the University of Arizona, I spent three years living and teaching on Kitadaito, and returned this year after more than a year on Kumejima. It was great to re-experience old memories and make new ones as the festival has changed since my time there. Watch the accompanying video for a chance to experience a few bits from this truly unique day.
3:00 Gather at the shrine in Happi (blue jackets- can be other colors)
Shinto ceremony praying to the local kami (gods) and ancestors
Blessing of babies born since the last festival
Mikoshi (portable shrine) parade
Stop at local power station/sugar cane factory
Stop at School/largest store
Stop at town hall
Return to the Shrine
Light show, food, and fireworks
More on the Festival
The main part of the Kitadaito Festival is the parade of the portable shines. The Kitadaito people believe that kami reside in the Daito-gu shrine, and visit on important days such as New Years. For the festival, they invite the kami to reside in the portable shrines for a short time, and then carry them throughout the village so that the kami can bestow good fortune and a healthy prosperous year. The portable shrines are heavy and require many people to carry, thus making the act an offering of time, energy, and strength. The villagers push the shrines into the air in tempo to whistles and calls, making the shrines seem as if they are running on angry rapids. The extra effort and difficulty of the task makes the offering all the more potent at each rest stop.
In thanks for bringing the shrines, and as a way of making offerings of their own, each destination provides food and drink for the procession. After flinging about their charges, the shrines are set down for a time while participants recover and enjoy themselves. The shrines are then often taken up by representatives of the store, company, or school so that they too can make an energetic offering. On Kitadaito, three shrines are used. One carried by elementary students, one by junior high students, and the last by adults.
The procession is led by the village mayor and vice mayor and the shinto priest, and followed by a wagon with taiko drummers. As night falls, a group of lanterns is added as the shrines make their way back to the Daito-gu shrine at the top of the mountain. At the torii gates the shrine is met by the local sumo club which turns against the shrine, making it even more difficult. The shrine carriers must battle all the way to the top of the hill to return the shrines. The process can take hours as piles of people bar the way and others are flung off. Though it may seem violent at times, the idea is to make the final ascent the best offering they can.
When the shrines finally make it to the top, everyone joins together as one community to celebrate. The mikoshi are placed before the Daito-gu shrine for the night, and the villagers return to an open park area nearby to enjoy refreshments, food, and entertainment in the form of a light show and fireworks.
Though the first day is full of cultural significance and unique local tradition, the festival does not end there. Keep an eye out for a post on the second day coming soon! Don’t forget to checkout the scene in my novel Samurai Awakening that was inspired by Kitadaito’s Festival as well.
Three hundred and twenty kilometers from the Okinawa mainland, two small islands sit alone in the South Pacific. The Daito Islands, one time the Borodinos, have a short history, having been settled only 100 years ago. Still they made it in time for both world wars. Kitadaito is the smaller of the two islands, and boasts one of the most unique blendings of culture in Japan. During the war, Kitadaito was settled mainly to harvest phosphorous. It never became a major producer, and eventually the mine was shut down. Now Kitadaito Island is known for sugarcane, unbelievably delicious kabocha (like pumpkin), potatoes, and products from the getto plant. Still, among the island’s beauty lies a look back into another age. The ruins of the mine still stand today near the West Port.
Okinawan Sumo, also known as kakuyukai, is a form of the famous Japanese martial art practiced in the southern islands. A cross between Edo Sumo wrestling and judo, the goal of Okinawan Sumo is to toss your opponent on their back. Unlike Edo Sumo wrestlers, Okinawan Sumo-ka generally wear a heavy gi (a martial arts outfit) tied with a simple white or red cloth belt.
How to Sumo, Okinawan Style
Okinawan Sumo takes place on a sandy patch of ground. Originally it was practiced on beaches. The participants start out by looping their hands into their opponents belts. The right hand goes first inside from below, then the forearm wraps around and the belt is grasped for a secure grip. The left hand simply holds the opponent’s right side belt from the outside. Intertwining the hands ensures the arms are protected from flying free and getting broken during falls.
After the arms are secure, both opponents will lean into each other, with a balanced stance and strive for a lower, more stable position. The referee will call a start to the first round and each will try to throw the other on his or her back. There are many ways to do this, including a combination of throws, trips, and falls. Usually competitions are the best 2 out of 3 with an overall 4 minute time limit. If time expires without a clear winner the back up judges and referee will vote on a winner by raising a white or red flag to match the winner’s belt.
Unlike Edo sumo, there are no boundaries, though the match will be stopped if either of the participants are in danger of running into something or off the sand. Since many of the techniques involve lifting an opponent to change their center of gravity, it can be a dangerous sport, but all care is usually taken.
Here is one of the classic Okinawan Sumo moves called takanushi. This is a third grade junior high student on Kume Island during last week’s inter-high sumo competition. Look intimidating? That’s what the other students thought too I bet. Since Okinawa Sumo is all about center of balance, by taking his opponent off his feet, the student was able to completely control the match. Flexibility is a big part of this sport.
Like Edo Sumo, Okinawan Sumo isn’t just done for show. The act of competition is a form of offering. For this reason, Okinawan Sumo is often performed during festivals which purpose are for thanking spirits, and/or seeking good fortune in the coming year. Many mainland Okinawan people know little about Sumo, but it is very popular on the outer islands. Many Sumo Wrestlers travel to other islands to compete during festivals. This promotes inter-island communication and friendship. While not everyone can compete in sumo, even the spectators are drawn together as they enjoy watching.
Students on various small Okinawan islands learn to do Sumo from very young ages, and compete regularly. This helps promote health and discipline, and gives them a way to participate in the local festivals.
Most Sumo participants can also expect gifts for competing. Even those who lose generally are given a small thank you gift (usually a towel or small box of laundry soap- Actually comes in handy for cleaning your gi after all those practices in the sand!). As you go up in the rankings, you can expect larger gifts and trophies too!
This is a trophy I received in 2008. That was my first year competing, but at that competition there were only eight people. I didn’t actually win either of my two matches, but I guess I got lucky in the draw. Since then, I’ve learned a lot about Sumo and have finally won a few matches!
More Things Sumo
One thing you may notice with both Edo and Okinawan sumo is that the participants often throw salt onto match area. This serves several purposes. First it is a kind of offering in itself. The participant does this in hopes of avoiding injury and may also consume a small bit of salt as well. Salt is also an antiseptic, which is useful after several clashes ^_^.
I’ve had the good luck to live on relatively small islands. My placements have given me the opportunity to learn and participate in Okinawan sumo. At first I did not find it very enjoyable, since the sand can easily abrade your skin when practicing for long periods. After I learned ways to avoid this, and built up my strength, Sumo became much more enjoyable. More so than the actual competitions (I doubt I’ll ever be a yokozuna [champion]) were the social opportunities that came with practicing. I meet many more people than I would have at just my work place, and that eventually let to being invited into a moai. It also allowed me to visit other places for competitions and talk with many people interested in sumo. I even ended up in the Okinawan Times newspaper after a competition.
If you live in Japan, consider taking up a local sport or club! Do you have any Sumo stories? Share them in the comments!