Bloodless bullfighting in Okinawa
At a bullfight in Okinawa there's no matador and there are no weapons.
Visitors who expect bloodshed will be disappointed.
A bullfight in Okinawa is a bout between two bulls, similar to Japanese sumo wrestling -- only these contestants weigh as much as a ton.
Bullfighting has been a pastime of farmers in the Ryukyu Islands as far back as the 17th century. Today, bullfights can be seen at any one of a dozen outdoor arenas on the main island of Okinawa most Sunday afternoons.
In recent years, most of the matches have been held at the Ishikawa Multipurpose Dome in Uruma City. It's a large cement structure that seats up to 3,000 spectators.
An 18-meter earthen ring surrounded by iron railings protects the crowd should a bull decide to leave the match and join the spectators sitting in the concrete bleachers.
The day of a bullfight, or sometimes the evening before, there's usually a pep rally of sorts, in which a traditional dance called Eisa is performed in the ring. Youth from various villages dance, play drums, whistle, chant and display their village banners.
The sights and sounds of these spirited dancers are as much a part of the island culture as the bullfights.
Just as sumo wrestlers toss salt prior to a match to ward off evil spirits, a salt display is placed in the arena at the start of a bullfighting competition.
A few quick announcements are made over an ear-piercing loudspeaker and the matches are ready to begin.
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There are 10 bouts. With a line tethered to a ring in its nose, each bull is accompanied into the ring by a team of four or five handlers. Only one handler at a time is permitted at the bull’s side during the fight.
The other trainers wait on the sidelines.
They'll take turns handling the bull, depending on how long the match lasts. Some fights only last a few seconds. Others may last half an hour or more.
A panel of three judges sitting high above in the bleachers determines the winner, but it's usually evident which bull loses the match -- the one that turns and runs for the exit.
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Inexperienced bulls are kept tethered throughout the match; the ones that have been doing this for a while are aren't tied as they charge straight for their opponent without being led.
The handlers, some barefoot, shout encouragement and jump around -- usually creating more action than the bulls, which tend to just lock horns and remain practically motionless as they strain against their opponent.
At the end of each bout, the loser is escorted from the ring while the winner is draped in a cape and paraded around for a quick victory lap.
Often a jubilant team handler jumps on for a ride or lets his children hop on for a photo.
Just as in sumo, the Grand Champion is called a Yokozuna.
When the event ends, everyone wants to get close, pat the winner or pose for a photo with the champion.
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Tickets at the entrance sell for ¥2,000-3,000 (US$21-$32).
Refreshments are available on the second level surrounding the arena: Soft drinks ¥150, noodles and vegetables (yakisoba) ¥500, grilled chicken kebobs (yakitori) ¥500.
Ishikawa Multipurpose Dome in Uruma City, about an hour's drive north of Naha International Airport just off Exit 6 on the Okinawa Expressway.
For more information, visit www.mikesryukyugallery.com.