The Nagahama Kumin Undökai Brings a Community Together
Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
“Okinawa is such a beautiful place, not just the ocean and scenery and culture, but the people. I’ve been treated well and taken care of by many people here in what has become ‘My Hawai‘i.’” — Colin Sewake
The 46th annual Nagahama Kumin Undokai (Nagahama Residents Sports Day) was held last July at the Nagahama Undöjö (sports ground). Each year, I look forward to this community event because everyone comes out to gather and have fun.
The announcement blared out on the village loudspeakers reminding everyone that the undökai was starting at 4 p.m.
Aiya! I thought it was starting at 7 p.m.! So I finished up some computer work, changed into my workout clothes and put on my running shoes, and quickly walked over to the undöjö. I greeted the kuchö (community chief) Masaaki Toyama, and other neighbors as I took note of a signboard that listed the event sponsors and looked for my fellow yon-pan (Block No. 4) neighbors. Nagahama is divided into five neighborhood blocks, and I belong to the fourth block.
Similar to “Hawaiian time” (being a “little” late to events) in Hawai‘i, many of my neighbors and I were running on “Okinawa time” so we started several minutes after 4 p.m. Everyone formed up in rows, the kucho gave his opening comments and then we warmed up and stretched out to the popular Japanese rajio taisö. Rajio taisö, or calisthenics broadcast on the radio, can also be found on YouTube. I half-jokingly said to my neighbors that I was already tired from that warm up because it was partially true!
Ground golf was the first event, and each block’s team consisted of four adults and one child. I was selected to be on yon-pan’s team so I grabbed a light blue wooden club and corresponding light blue ball and walked over with my teammates to our starting area.
We played about eight “holes.” I was third in the rotation with all of us trying to hit our ball into the circular wire frame with a flag marker. It took me three tries to get the ball into the circle each time, and on one of the holes it took me a fourth attempt. It’s no wonder I don’t golf. I was happy, though, to receive a gomibukuro trash bag as a participation gift because here in Okinawa we have to purchase a specific bag to throw trash away.
The Snack “Grab” Bag Game
The kids participated next by running up to a suspended rope with bagged snacks clipped to it and trying to take a bag. I wanted to participate in this event too, until I found out that the rule is that they couldn’t use their hands. Instead, they had to grab the bag with their teeth.
A Game of Coordination and Balance
The röjin, elderly folks, were up next and divided into two teams to compete in a relay event. Each member took turns either rolling a wire hoop using a wooden stick or carrying a softball on a badminton racket. I’m not sure which of the two is easier to do, and the elders looked a lot more skilled than me.
After that event, the köchö sensei (principal) from Tokeshi Shögakkö (elementary school) had arrived. He gathered the kids together and gave a short speech. Children from Nagahama and several other northern areas of
Yomitan feed into Tokeshi Shögakkö. I later introduced myself to the köchö sensei because my daughter and son, Mizuki and Yoshiaki, both attended Tokeshi Shögakkö.
The next event consisted of teams of four members from each block — one child, an adult male, an adult female and a senior. Everyone had to run half a lap and pass a hollow plastic colored baton to each other. I was glad that another yon-pan adult male was chosen because I can’t run like I used to in my younger military days.
Tamaire – Ball Toss
For the next event, the tamaire, children and elders were split up into red and white teams, respectively.
I’m not near the röjin age but was called upon by my neighbors to participate in this event. The goal of the game is to throw red and white colored balls into a net. The team that threw the most balls into the net was the winner. But instead of balls we used bean bags, and everyone tried to hurriedly lob these bean bags into the net once the clock started for this short event.
To count the number of bean bags in the net and determine the winner, each team’s representative pulled out two bean bags at a time according to the emcee’s count of two, four, six, … etc. The elders had run out of bean bags after counting to 60, and the children must have had a total of 80 or more. I wanted to win this event but was happy to walk away with another participation gomibukuro.
The Bucket Game
While I waited for the next event to start, I enjoyed some kakigori shave ice that my fellow yon-pan neighbor had made using a small shave ice machine. As I ate my ichigo (strawberry) flavored kakigori, I was once again called upon by my fellow yon-pan neighbors to participate in another relay and had to put my refreshing cup of dessert down.
Each of the five blocks assembled 12 members who had to take turns either carrying a bucket of water or a bag filled with sand. Because of my position in the lineup, I ran with the bucket of water and, like a previous neighbor, had sloshed and spilled quite a bit of the water. I added another participation gomibukuro to my growing collection.
One of my neighbors approached me at our yon-pan tent and placed a heavy metal shot put ball in my hand. Again, I was selected to participate in the next event. Ten adult males were chosen for the shot put contest, and I was ninth in the order. We were each allowed one practice throw before the actual throw. My neighbors were impressed, but more than that, I impressed myself! I took first place with a distance of 8 meters, 7 centimeters (26.5 feet). I had no idea that I could throw that heavy ball that far. Not only did I receive bragging rights to winning first place, I also earned yet another victorious participation gomi-bukuro.
Dinner and Quiz Time
My favorite event finally came up on the program — dinner. I was served a bowl of soup with konbu (seaweed) and a piece of tebichi (pig’s feet) as well as a small plastic bento container with two onigiri rice balls and some mixed tem pura. I didn’t want to eat too much because I wasn’t sure what other events were on the program, and I knew I would be selected to run especially if it were the 1500 meter (approximately one mile) race. Good thing they didn’t hold that this year.
After the dinner break, the kuchö called the kids to gather around for an Uchinäguchi quiz where they were asked about the traditional Ryükyü language words like sü (father), anma (mother), ingwa (dog), maya (cat), inchu (mouse), etc. I was glad to see that this aspect of the culture was being emphasized to the younger generation.
The Nagahama Jihäri Race
The last event for the night was the jihäri race. Most people are probably familiar with the häri dragon boat races that are typically held at local seaports. But this original version from Nagahama consisted of one driver and five people using bamboo sticks to push a ke-tora (short for kejidösha torakku, small engine flatbed scooter truck) that is placed in neutral with the engine off. The “ji” in “jihäri” comes from the word “jimen” or “ground” since the race is on land, versus on the ocean. After our yon-pan team came in second and all the participants laughed together, a neighbor told me that they were featured in the newspaper before because Nagahama is the only community to do this.
Kujibiki and Awards Ceremony
Before the awards ceremony started, numbered pieces of paper were handed out to each resident and a kujibiki raffle drawing was held to give out a variety of prizes including katsuobushi, or fish flakes for cooking, cases of ocha (tea) and cola, Zanpa awamori bottles, and other items. I won a piece of yachimun (pottery).
During the awards ceremony, the kucho recognized the different teams that won as well as individuals who placed. Winning blocks were presented with monetary awards to be used for their block, and individuals received various prizes. I walked home with a 5 kg (11 lb.) box of rice for placing first in the shot put event.
“Oyasumi Nasai – Good Night”
The undökai ended with everyone cooling down to another round of rajio taiso exercises before tearing down the event site and cleaning up.
The one aspect I love about living here in Okinawa is the strong sense of being a tight-knit community. I’m reminded of the good ‘ol days growing up in Wahiawä and following my dad around to collect dues and fees for the kumiai, fishing club, and other groups he was involved with. Everyone knew each other, got along well, and cooperated together. The same goes here in “My Hawai’i.”
Colin Sewake is a keiki o ka ‘äina from Wahiawä, O‘ahu, who was assigned to Kadena Air Base in Okinawa in December 1994 to serve his U.S. Air Force ROTC commission. There, he met and married his wife, Keiko, and decided to make Okinawa his permanent home. Colin retired from the Air Force and the Air Force Reserves. He and Keiko have two children and live in Yomitan.