Okinawan Bullfight

This Bullfight in Uruma Okinawa, Japan was part of the festivities associated with the Lunar, or Chinese New Year on the 1st of February 2009. According to Asian calendars it was the Year of the Ox.


Bullfighting is a traditional Sunday pastime in Okinawa and earliest records show it has been a spectator sport since at least the 17th century.

The evening prior to the event, ceremonies and entertainment took place in the bull fighting ring.  Eisa dancing was one of the activities performed. Notice, the stadium has plenty of seating available.

Unlike bullfighting in Spanish speaking cultures, there is no matador to face the bull; it is one bull challenging another and neither will be seriously injured or die in the event.The arena where this took place was a dome-shaped structure with open sides providing air circulation. A circular area covered with a mixture of sand and clay, about 18 meters in diameter is where the bulls face each other. It is surrounded by an earthen mound and topped with an iron fence railing. Completely around and above the bullfighting ring are concrete bleachers with enough seating for a few thousand spectators. A tunnel, under the bleachers, is the only way for bulls and their handlers to enter and exit the ring.

There may be a team of handlers in the ring for each bull but, only one member at a time is permitted to physically handle their bull. The rest of the team stays back at a distance, ready to relieve a handler as required. The less experienced bulls are led on a line tethered through their nose. Bulls with the most experience are not tethered. These animals do not need to be led and actually, look forward to the fight.

Judges, seated above the arena, determine the winner and loser of each bout when a decision needs to be made. Normally, the bulls decide for themselves. Whichever bull runs away from the fight is declared the looser. Sometimes a bull will break free and run, only to gain enough momentum to turn around and charge his opponent and win the match.

Visit the 5 UNESCO Castles on Okinawa Island

If it’s World Heritage Sites you’re into and want to rack up a score in a hurry, visit the island of Okinawa, you can add five to your score in a weekend.

Okinawa, Japan was once an independent group of islands known as the Ryukyu Kingdom and kings built castles just like Walmart builds shopping centers today. There are around 300 castle ruins, remnants of the 12th through 15th Century castle boom, scattered throughout the Ryukyu chain.

The largest castles were severely damaged or destroyed during World War II and over the past thirty years tremendous efforts have been put forth in restoring them to their original condition. Designated UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the year 2000, they are well maintained and contain a wealth of information for anyone interested in architecture, history, artifacts, photography, culture or just plain-old sightseeing.

Visit all five castles in a weekend or spend a whole week and enjoy the beaches and island culture as well.


Located on a peninsula jutting out on the Pacific side of Okinawa, this castle was built sometime between the 12th and 13th Centuries.

Should you wish to use restrooms or get something to eat, turn back; once you cross the street, you’ll be in a different Century. The spacious parking lot has a small, air-conditioned museum, an attendant will give you an informative brochure (English) and, everything is free! The castle offers a commanding view of the Pacific Ocean, as well as the area in all directions surrounding it. Excavation of artifacts demonstrates that trade was conducted between Japan, China, Korea and all of Southeast Asia. The climb to the top, walking the entire circumference of the walls and grounds and snapping a few great photos takes less than an hour for most folks. There’s a Mom and Pop refreshment stand that serves noodles, pastries and ice-cold drinks if you want to sit and rest awhile and work the kinks out of your legs before moving on to see the next monster



Centrally located, not far from today’s Okinawa City, this castle sits atop 160 meters of rugged cliffs overlooking the Pacific Coast. From the top of its walls you can also see the East China Sea. An entrance fee of 300 Yen gets you admission and an English language pamphlet with an excellent map and descriptions of the construction, history and cultural significance of what you’re about to encounter. Inside the walls are several sacred sites where, even today, locals worship their ancestors. Photography is permitted, but discretion is recommended where people are praying. It is said that when Commodore Perry visited in 1853, he was impressed with the mortar less construction technique used in building this immense castle. While most of the other restored castle ruins have smooth stone walkways and stairs, this relic has some ankle-twisting, original walks and steps to negotiate. Sturdy footwear; not high heels would be the wise option. There are six separate, stone-walled enclosures to this sprawling behemoth and you could easily spend two hours navigating the site. The height of the structures, stone archways and trees provide shade from the blistering sun when it gets to be too much for you.


Nakijin Castle is the northernmost of the World Heritage Castle Sites. It is at an elevation of about 100 meters above sea level on a peninsula jutting out from Okinawa’s northwest coast. A fee of 400 Yen gets you a handy travel guide and access to everything on the site. It has some sacred prayer sites, a museum; plenty of refreshment stands and hosts a Cherry Blossom Festival during the months of January and February. The exact date of construction is unknown, but it is believed to have been built before the thirteenth Century. Many of the paths and stairways appear to be the original stone material. A good pair of walking shoes and caution when walking would be wise. This treasure could easily eat up two hours of your time, especially if you visit the museum.


The throne of the Ryukyu Kingdom, Shuri Castle located in the hills above Naha was the center of the kingdom’s trade, culture and politics and in fact, Naha is still the capitol city of Okinawa, today. Best guesses estimate the castle was originally built during the 12th or 13th Century and records indicate that it was burned-down and reconstructed several times over the years. In 1945 during the battle of Okinawa, the castle was destroyed. Construction and restoration began in the early 1990’s and today it is the most visited tourist attraction on the island. The port and Naha City are visible from the walls of Shuri Castle which overlooks the East China Sea. This is the only castle on the island that provides some wheelchair accessibility and for those who favor sandals or high heels the Shuri Castle Park is foot and ankle friendly. An 800 Yen entrance fee gets you in for the day; 1600 Yen will gain you a one year passport for access, so if you’re really an avid castle and culture explorer, you may consider coughing up the big bucks. Kind of like Disneyland, there’s more to this place than you can absorb in just one visit.


An early 15th Century Castle sits 120 meters above sea level along the Pacific coast and is located in the center portion of the island at Yomitan Village. This is the only World Heritage castle in Okinawa that rests on red clay footings; all the others were constructed on limestone based mountains. No entry fee is charged to tour the grounds, here. In an hour you can tour the entire sprawling complex, capture some great photos, admire the arches and architecture then, go look for some shade; it’s scarce. After a visit to the castle, it is well worth the 300 Yen fee charged to enter the museum. Besides being in a climate-controlled atmosphere, there are 400,000 items on exhibit to see. There are hundreds of items associated with the fishing culture of Okinawa, artifacts from the Ryukyu Dynasty, farm implements, textiles, art and a few items that’ll make the hair stand-up on the back of your neck!

If it’s World Heritage Sites you’re into and want to rack up a score in a hurry, visit the island of Okinawa, you can add five to your score in a weekend.

The normal bout lasts around ten minutes with the bulls locking horns and trying to muscle their opponent into quitting. They get tired much as a couple of arm-wrestlers would and usually one bull will just give up, turn and run; ending the match. There are times a bull will be intimidated when he first sees his opponent and just run for the exit without ever starting to fight. The hecklers in the crowd go wild! Then, there are the bouts that last twenty to thirty minutes. The unpredictability of each match is what the crowds come to enjoy.

With their heads and horns as their only weapons one would think this might be a bloody sport, but it isn't. Judges and handlers would quickly end any match where serious injury might occur. The handlers actually treat their bulls as family pets. Some of them go through the bout barefooted while standing next to their bull, patting a shoulder and speaking encouraging words while its locking horns with another ton of snorting, earth-pawing bull.

At the end of each bout the loosing bull is quickly escorted to the exit by its team of handlers. The winner has a colorful cape placed on its back and bright colored ribbons and towels tied to its horns and tail by celebrating fans and team members. Then he is paraded around the ring stopping only for children, family members and handlers to jump on his back for a victory photo.

Loud, traditional music is played until the victor leaves the ring. The crowd cheers and applauds until the bull is out of sight.   The music stops, the announcer calls for the next teams and the crowd becomes silent,waiting for the next match.

Getting There:

The Ishikawa Dome, where these events take place, is sheltered from the weather. It is about a 45 minute drive from Naha International Airport. The quickest route is north on HWY 58, or north on the Okinawa Expressway, following road signs for Exit #6 of the Expressway. The arena is a large concrete, dome-shaped building visible from the entrance/exit of the Toll Road.

More Info:

Bullfights are events held on Sunday and the tickets are sold at the entrance for 2,500-3,000 Yen. Most Google searches for Okinawa Bullfight will lead to travel agencies (some in English; most in Japanese). A good Link to try is:

Photo Credits:

All photos by Michael Lynch

Contributor’s Bio:

Michael Lynch is a wildlife photographer living in Okinawa, Japan. His photography has been published in a quarterly Okinawan magazine and his travel articles are published in various online magazines.

Shinugu Matsuri

A Festival in Northern Okinawa

In the Village of Ada, on the northeastern coast of the island, this event takes place.

It is held, annually, during the 7th month of the Lunar Calendar.

Listed as one of Japan's Intangible Folk Cultural Properties, it is seldom witnessed by foreigners.

Males, only (females are forbidden) climb one of the three mountains in small groups. They follow  trails to clearings at the top where their bodies are decked out with leaves, vines, brush, and jungle vegetation.


Some of the males may be as young as 3 or 4, while the eldest might in their seventies. Each group has an elder leading the ceremonies. He instructs group as to which way to face for prayers and leads them in chants while beating a cadence on a large red drum.

After the prayers, quick jungle costume adjustments are made, and each person picks up a tree branch. Circling the area and chanting “Eh, hey, hoy”, they stop on cue from the elder with the drum and shake the branches close to the ground, chasing evil spirits away.

Coming down the mountain each of the groups will stop at a clearing about halfway to town and repeat the circular march and warding-off of evil spirits. At this point the drums and chants from all three trails can be heard by the villagers below.

Groups of women converge on a bridge, crossing the river, leading to town. They offer cold drinks and snap photos of the men who haven’t been seen for an hour.

The entire crowd of men, women and children converge on a field, just outside of town.

All the women are in the center and the men from the three trails circle the field, marching to the drum beats and chanting “Eh, hey, hoy”.

Then, on a cue from the elders with the drums, they gently swat the women on their heads with the branches, ridding them of any evil spirits.

This is where final prayers are offered to the mountains and the sea. The vines, plants, bushes and branches from the jungle are stacked in a pile and again, men only, run into the water, where they cool off from the hike up and down the mountain.

After about a twenty-minute dip, they group together with their original trail

This is where final prayers are offered to the mountains and the sea. The vines, plants, bushes and branches from the jungle are stacked in a pile and again, men only, run into the water, where they cool off from the hike up and down the mountain.

Just before the sun goes down three traditional performances take place. One simulates the planting of rice, another rowing a boat, and the third is a women-only dance.All participants are dressed in traditional Okinawan clothing. Musical accompaniment for the first two is provided by seated musicians playing drums and sanshin (a 3-stringed instrument), but the women sang and danced to their own drum beats for their dance (Ushinde-ku). The dance is quite lengthy with breaks in between, and apparently demonstrates the thanks and joy of the women at the outcome of the preceding rituals.

The audience, sits at the sidelines on straw mats,observing, drinking, socializing and, enjoying the view. The finale to the last performance, however, is a traditional Okinawan freestyle all-comers dance called ‘Kacha-shi-’. It involves a coordinated swiveling of the wrists on raised arms and walking with a jaunty gait, but anything goes. Participation is much appreciated, especially from visitors from out of town, and could be seen as their contribution to events.Before midnight the festivities come to an end and Ada, becomes a quiet mountainside village, once again.