Golden Week, Part 2: There Be Dragon Boats!

Golden Week: more people on vacation, more traffic, more festivities. Also, this:

photo 1

O Tannenbaum, why art thou shining in May?

Why are there Christmas lights up during Golden Week, you ask? Ahh, my dear Westerner, that is where you’re wrong (don’t worry, I made the same mistake). Those aren’t Christmas lights. Those are GOLDEN WEEK lights.  So what’s the difference between Golden Week lights and Christmas lights? Only the time of year you put them up.


Ahh, makes sense.

Did I mention more festivals? There was a big one down in Naha a couple Sundays ago, which coincided with Children’s Day, May 5:


One of the biggest events on island–everyone and their mama came out!


And even these two got dressed up and dragged themselves out of the house.

And this festival, my friends, is where the big, bad, annual Naha dragon boat races went down. I won’t get into to too many details about dragon boat history. We’d be here all night. There are plenty of articles and sites (like this one and this one) that trace its origins back to ancient China, which explains why Chinese-influenced Okinawa has dragon boat festivals, but mainland Japan doesn’t.


Dragon says, “Their loss.”

I’ve been “doing” dragon boat, with a couple months hiatus, since last May. And really, the months and months of practicing, bruises, soreness, sweat, drama, all culminated in this one race.


Oh, the tension. The excitement. The anxiety. I think I might puke. Don’t worry, I’ll lean out of the boat.

But let me back up.

And get a little more personal.

I know, it’s rather cliché to talk about dragon boat as a personal journey, even though that’s exactly what it was. Instead, here’s my angle– the question I’ve been asked over and over again:

Is it worth it?

Twenty two weeks of “official season” training, with hour-long practices 4 to 5 times each week, all for one 6 minute (or less) race–is it really worth it?

When the question is framed this way, it seems, well, ridiculously disproportionate. That’s just a LOT of time invested in one freakin’ race. And right after it was all over, I really pondered whether it was worth the hours and hours of time, knowing that it was all over, lickety split, just like that.

Said everyone on the team the moment it was over.

Said everyone on the team the moment it was over.

And once the adrenaline high from the race wore off, I found myself a bit lost, without an evening rowing practice (or “paddling practice,” if you’re gonna get all technical on me) to go to. It’s an adjustment for anyone to commit so much time to one thing, for so long, and then suddenly not have to do it anymore.


Don’t get me wrong, I have lots of hobbies, lots of freelance work I could (should) be doing, lots of future blog posts I’m procrastinating on. I even signed up for a fitness boot camp, and started to take up running. If you know me, you know that I like running as much as I like the smell of decomposing food, but hey, somebody has to keep this body fit and active (okay, that would be me), just like somebody has to take out the rotting garbage (breathing through my mouth is how I tolerate both).

Unless there's a way to delegate it to someone else.

Unless there’s a way to delegate it to someone else.


I’ve gone back and forth on my answer, over the last four months, and last week, after the race. But when I think of where I was at the start of dragon boat season, and where I am now, all the lessons I’ve learned, how much I’ve grown mentally and physically,  then my answer is an unwavering YES, dragon boat is definitely worth doing, at least once.



And here are my reasons why.

I met lots of people who became friends.

When I first started going to dragon boat practices last May, I was a bit quiet, trying to figure out form, and not look like a total noob doing so. My strategy was, get all the physical stuff figured out in the summer, so when the official season kicked off, I would be ahead of the curve, and more likely to get on that boat. And boy, did that help. By the time January rolled around, I had a short summer race under my belt, and was well acquainted with a handful of peeps who also continued on into the season.

In January, even though I still had much to learn by way of form (I don’t think you ever stop learning and improving it), I could focus more of my energy on helping the newbies, and on winning over the new recruits using my charming personality and goofy jokes.


Not to mention my keen fashion sense and flair for accessories. Image courtesy of Blue Ring Photography.

And I looked forward to that the most when my aching body was singing the “I don’t wanna go to practice today” song: being around people I liked and wanted to get to know better, and who I hoped to keep in touch with, after the (main) season was over.


I became part of a tribe.

There are no superstars in dragon boat. Stronger and weaker people, sure, but everyone on the boat must be doing exactly the same action at the exact same time as everyone else. The more in synch you are, the faster the boat moves forward. Anyone who isn’t in synch, causes drag and slows the boat down. So how do you stay in synch? By watching and following the person directly ahead, and by listening for cues–the banging of the gong, or coaches and teammates yelling “Dig!” and “Rock!” to know exactly where your body parts and paddles are supposed to be at all times.



I think this repetition of synchronized movement helps build more of what I call “tribe mentality.” Like our human ancestors, who survived by sticking together and doing what was best for the group–no one person should be out of synch or selfishly looking out just for numero uno. And, if our ancestors were ancient water travelers, they also had to row in time to get to their destination more quickly. It’s hard to explain, but the chanting and synchronization of dragon boat makes me think it appeals to that ancient part of our brains.

Thanks to a recent education by my Shogun teammates Emily and Amie (by the way, “Shogun” is a Japanese military warrior/commander from feudal times), the synchronized rowing also makes me think of this delightful scene from Ben-Hur:


I got out and enjoyed lots of sunsets.

Since practice was at 5:30 pm, at the Marina, we often were paddling just as the sun was setting.


For this sometime homebody, that’s a pretty sweet benefit. Because I probably wouldn’t go out just to see a sunset. But a sunset while I’m already out doing something else? That’s cool.


Ahh, the epic mind battle of, “Is it worth putting a bra and pants on for this?”


It made me strong.

Physically, of course. Here’s the pictorial proof.

Early in the season:


Who’s got passion for dragon boat? Raise your paddle!

End of season:

"You can't ban these guns, Mr. President."

“You can’t ban these guns, Mr. President.”

My “gun” and I are third row up, far right. In the “Rosie the Riveter” pose. That’s right, I can give you ALL directions to the beach AND the gun show.


I started to think of myself as an athlete.


Leslie and me. Game faces on.

Look, as serious as we all get about dragon boat on Okinawa, truth is, we’re not professionals. Yes, there ARE professional dragon boat teams. And most of them reside in Canada (I know, I was surprised, too!).

Still, being on an amateur dragon boat team, to me, requires that you think of yourself as an athlete. It’s not just the time commitment to practice, and to the team (there’s that tribe mentality again!). With so much physical exertion, dragon boat practices force you to pay more attention to your health, and your body. Throughout the season, I played with different forms, different ways to hold the paddle, figured out which side of my body paddled stronger (this changed near the end), and different ways to move my body to exert less energy while still trying to bury the paddle in the water and keep in time.  Those are lessons you can’t get from a book or a website. You have to just do it and figure it out as you go.

Even more than that, though, was learning, like an athlete, how to deal with muscle soreness and injuries. It meant listening to my body when it was screaming for rest from muscle aches (my solution involved heat packs, glutamine powder, bananas, deep tissue massages, and economy sized bottles of ibuprofen). As for injuries, there’s always the chance of banging your shin with the paddle if you practice standing in the ocean, getting blisters on your hands from the paddle, or what happened to me a few times: scraping hands (or legs) practicing on the docks:


I gave practice my blood, sweat, and um, sweat? Beware: those old docks at Kadena Marina have teeth!


I became strong mentally, too.

Maybe this goes hand in hand with thinking of myself as an athlete, but one of my biggest lessons and rewards from dragon boat was that I can do so much more than I originally think.

Picture this: It’s near the end of practice, you’re paddling but you’re almost out of strength, the lactic acid builds up in your stinging muscles, and your cramped fingers can barely grip that paddle, let alone push it through the water, and every fiber in your being wants to stop paddling and rest, but there is still a minute to go. Do you quit, or do you push through?

don't quit

If you quit, the pain subsides, but if you push through, you get the satisfaction that you gave it your all, and didn’t let your team down, especially the ones following behind you, who want to quit just as badly. What I’ve learned, is that when you see someone quitting/resting, you’re more likely to quit/rest. Unless it doesn’t hurt, or you can find a good enough reason not to.


You love these inspirational memes. You know you do.

By deciding to push through, often times I’d find an extra reserve of energy, something deep down that helped me hang on to the end. Maybe it was pride, maybe it was not wanting to label myself a “quitter.” But it always resulted in doing much more than I thought I could do.

Dragon boat, to me, means constantly playing with the limits of how far you can push yourself, mentally and physically, without injuring yourself. The mental drives much of the physical. As Biggest Loser trainer Jillian Michaels says, “You have to get comfortable with being uncomfortable.”

"And you have to get used to me calling you infuriating names, like Poodle and 'the one with the big J-Lo bootie'."

“And you have to get used to me calling you infuriating names, like Poodle and ‘the one with the big J-Lo bootie’.”

Pushing myself each practice made me better. Stronger. Not just at dragon boat, but as a wannabe athlete, too.


A’right, I’m done with the inspirational memes already! Sheesh!


I was able to take my stress & aggression out on the water.

Exercise is a good stress reliever, says everyone. Including The Mayo Clinic. Dragon boat practice is especially good for stress, because it’s the same repetitive motions, done over and over (great for zoning out), and the more mad you are, the more water you pull back with the paddle. Win-win. So when I was annoyed with the hubby for neglecting to take out the trash or clean up dog poop again, I realized that instead of skipping practice, I could really dig in, attack that water, and that helped me feel better about whatever was buggin’ me. I’m sure you can relate.


I was part of one of the biggest cultural events on Okinawa.

So there may not be any superstars in dragon boat, but I felt like a rock star on race day, along with everyone else racing that day, I’m sure. I’ve played sports in school, but it’s been a really long time since I did something in which friends and family could come out and cheer me on. Not only that, but I loved being part of the bigger dragon boat community, and cheering on not just our men’s team, but all the teams.


It’s an honor just to be a part of this famous event. No really, I’m not just saying that because we didn’t get a trophy! Photo courtesy of JL Photography.


I made lots of memories.

Too many to count. For example, that one time when we practiced in the pouring rain–which was so uncomfortable (especially if you usually wear glasses, like me) that it became ridiculous and fun.


I’m having a good time. I swear.


Woo, waterlogged.


Leah & Kristin, smiling as if the rain is what they’ve always wanted at practice. All rain, all the time.


Or how ’bout finding Bubbles, the team’s unofficial blowfish mascot:

Image courtesy of Leslie Smith.

Tiffani named him; Leslie captured his image.


Other fun memories: Singing jodies (military chants) while we paddled. Also, seeing the men’s team take advantage of the open air urinal trough on race day (man that smelled bad!).

What's better than a photo of all the guys using the trough? A photo of someone taking a photo of all the guys using the trough.

What’s better than a photo of the men’s team using the trough? A photo of a guy taking a photo of the men’s team using the trough.


And one of my favorites, practicing with the Japanese Air Force (JASDF):


Most informative practice. We learned how to improve our form, that some of us (me included) weren’t twisting nearly enough, and how to grunt instead instead of yell “Rock!” Good times.


Look a that FORM! I have a dragon boat crush!


And. . . the results!

So how did our team do in the Naha race? The Shoguns (Kadena Air Force) men placed second in their heat (they were in a really tough one since they did so well last year).

The Shoguns women (also representing Kadena Air Force, but we had a nice mix of women from all the branches, including Marines and Navy) battled it out against the Navy and Army women’s teams.

 The women on my team placed second–Army women got first, and Navy women were just seconds behind us.



Woo pointing out our official race time. We did better than last year’s time, and earned the second best time of ALL time for the Shogun women’s team!

Here’s the women’s race.

The videographer was an Army supporter, so our team (wearing blue in the black boat) comes in and out of the video. Kind of like ninjas.

To get a feel for what it was like on the boat, here’s a video of the Shogun women, racing/screaming our hearts out. Big thanks to Ryann for capturing this on her GoPro:

And a big “CONGRATS” to the Army, whose men’s AND women’s teams made it to the final race (which is based on time, not winning heats).


Background, green boat: Army women. Yellow boat: Navy women. Black boat: Air Force/Shogun women. Photo courtesy of Jim Blankenmeier Photography.

And an even bigger “CONGRATS” to the Army men, who ended up winning the whole shebang!

Photo by Capt. Sonie Munson. Image found here.

Photo by Capt. Sonie Munson.

And now all of us dragon boat racers can breathe some big sighs. One for relief: Now we can rest a little, ’til next January! One for accomplishment: We did it–one (more) season for the books! And one more sigh of longing: Is it January, yet?