Guest Blogger: David, his wife, and their five year old son, B, have lived all around the United States, but are currently stationed in Okinawa where David enjoys producing movies and eating pancakes in his spare time. You can find David’s videos of their Okinawa adventures on YouTube.
I am sure that by now, you’ve read my travel posts featuring places in the United States as well as Tokyo. But, I live in Okinawa, you say, so where are the Okinawa posts? Well, fasten your seat belts and secure your tray tables, because today, I’m all about the Okinawa bullfights – cue the Rocky theme song!
Before we start, let’s talk about the bull…err, elephant in the room. I have traveled to Spain and have seen bullfights. Bullfights are a cultural event that also takes place in Mexico and while gory and inhumane to some, in my opinion, it’s a cultural event that people can either choose to embrace or not participate in. I happen to choose the latter because I love animals and typically abstain from bullfights and bullfighting events. But, it turns out the Okinawans feel exactly like I do! They love animals and these giant bulls are like pets to them! The Okinawans house the bulls in elaborate pens, feed them, and walk them down the street on a leash just like you would walk Fido!
My friend, Cody, lives in Okinawa, and suggested that we meet him at the Ishikawa Dome, the only domed bullring in Okinawa, which plays host to some 20 bullfighting events each year, including the All-Island Bullfighting Tournament, the biggest such event on the island. Conveniently, the Ishikawa Dome is located just 15 minutes from my house, so I decided it would be a good opportunity for my wife and my five year old.
Okinawan Bullfighting Rules, In a Nutshell:
Prior to our visit, I did some research about Okinawan bullfighting rules, which turn out to be quite simple. Two bulls walk into the ring, they meet and butt heads. The first bull to run away, be pushed out of the ring area, or not want to re-engage with the other bull is declared the loser. As you can imagine, Okinawan bullfights vary in duration. The first fight we saw lasted 45 minutes. But, we also saw one fight in which both bulls met in the middle, neither wanted to fight, and one ran immediately back to the entry gate. That fight did not even last one full minute.
Parking at the Ishikawa Dome was a snap – just find a space anywhere and leave your car. Since the main parking area is small, we found a great spot along the back of the dome on a side street.
Admission was approximately $60USD for my family of three and upon entry, we found ourselves walking past various food vendors selling Japanese eats: Yakisoba, Okinawa soba, yakitori (grilled chicken on a stick), and even a small bar with local drinks. There were also vendors selling bullfight hats, t-shirts, and stickers — things you would find at just about any festival! Cody met us at the top of the stairs and led us down close to the ring. As I glanced around, I was amazed at how many families were there. Children were busy eating snacks and running up and down the stairs, and Cody’s neighbor was coaching a bull that was preparing to fight that day. The owner’s son (probably 6 or 7 years old), was running round waving his “team towel” and carrying a small trumpet in anticipation of his bullfight. There was definitely a family friendly atmosphere, which I appreciated. Music was playing in the background and soon the eisa performance (traditional folk dance originating on the island of Okinawa) began as the welcoming entertainment. As people filed into the stadium, we enjoyed a few performance before the bullfighting began.
There were a total of nine fights, each of which were exciting and unique! Prior to a number of the fights, a group of supporters enter, wave colorful flags, and throw salt on the dirt arena floor for good luck. Each bull has its own team of supporters, managers, and owners, all of whom come out to wish the bull luck and to watch. The bulls then square off, pushing and trying to gain traction on one another in order to win. While the event is technically called a bull “fight,” it is really more of a bull sumo match, with team members taking turns shouting encouragement at the bull. One funny thing we noticed was that as a team member got tired of shouting, another would take over and begin yelling. The original, “tired” team member would then retire to a corner, where he would drink water from a metal ladle, to refresh himself, before returning at some point to continue shouting encouragement at the bull. This might seem crazy, but of course, the craziest thing is that these team members were each within inches of sharp horns and positioned such that they could theoretically get trampled!
As I mentioned before, the Okinawans love their animals and many of the trainers even sleep in the pen with their bulls the night before the big day. Although the bulls are technically fighting, if one bull gets cut or wounded, the fighting stops immediately. This makes sense because if your pet got hurt, wouldn’t you stop doing what you were doing immediately? On the day we attended, one bull was cut above the shoulder from another horn, and the fighting stopped immediately. When I told people we attended a bullfight, many commented saying they would not ever attend a bullfight, having seen one in Spain. I can assure you, an Okinawan bullfight is nothing like that.
Once the fighting is over and a winner is declared, the losing bull leaves the ring and the winner is draped with a glorious banner. The children of the team members then get to climb the bull and wave to the crowd! It was truly amazing to see how gentle and still the bulls were while this was happening. Indeed, the last match featured the largest bull, weighing in at 2000 pounds. As I made my way down towards the winning bull, Cody told me to grab my son B and get a photo! I was initially hesitant, but B was all for it and the locals held the bull as B smiled and perched on the biggest bull of the day!
On our way out of the area, we visited the area behind the ring where the bulls are kept, rather lavishly, if I may say so! After each fight, the bulls get fed and bathed. They are checked for any wounds and the owners and team members pet the bull, thanking him for a great day of fighting. The bull is then loaded onto the family’s truck, where each bull has a single open-aired truck that is used for that bull only! It’s like a bull limo or bull party bus…no bull! The bulls and team members will even continue to pose for photos with visitors, who are still in awe from what they saw earlier.
If you happen to find yourself in Okinawa, be sure to check out a bullfight. These gentle giants really know how to put on a show, while getting pampered like rock stars in the process!
Could it be that Okinawans have such high life expectancy because of their love for bulls? Who knows?! If you loved David’s review of bullfighting in Okinawa as much as we do, be sure to check out his other posts on WGWK!
Every so often, we encounter a place that is so fabulous for those traveling with kids that it is worthy of being featured on its own. For more fabulous locations, please check out our other Spotlight features!
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