See a celebration of Okinawa’s rich nautical history at the Naha Haarii, or dragon boat races. Every May during Japan’s Golden Week, the Naha Haarii transforms the Nahashin Port into a battle zone, as dragon boat teams compete in high-energy races.
One of Okinawa’s biggest annual events, the Haarii festival runs over three days, and attracts more than 150,000 spectators. This is a wonderful time to visit the wharf to watch the races and enjoy the carnival atmosphere, with music, drumming, traditional dancing and live entertainment.
The tradition of dragon boat races in Okinawa and other parts of Asia came from the days when fishermen would pray for safe journeys, give thanks for a good catch, and celebrate healthy and prosperity.
The Okinawa-style dragon boats are elaborately carved and decorated in bright colours, with a dragon’s head facing skyward at the front, and a tail at the back. These dragon boats can hold 32 rowers, along with a crew of drummers, gong beaters, and flag bearers.
At the race, you’ll also notice some smaller race boats, called sabani, which typically hold 12 people. In the olden days, fishermen used these sturdy sabani to travel great distances.
On opening day, you can watch races by local teams, including teams from middle schools and high schools. On the second day, in addition to watching the races, visitors can actually take a ride on a sabani, but be patient, as lines can be quite long for this very popular and unique opportunity. The festival comes to a climax on the third day, with a pitched battle during the main races. At the end of the festival, be sure to stick around to watch fireworks and enjoy lots of fun activities.
How to get there
The Naha Haarii is held at the Nahashin Port (那覇新港), which is north of the Tomarin Port. Because of the traffic congestion at this time, if you have a rentacar, it’s best to find a car park nearby, and then walk to Nahashin Port. If you’re staying in Naha and trying to come by public transport, then take the monorail to Miebashi Station (or a station nearby), and then take a 10-minute taxi to Nahashin Port.