Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
Was it destiny, or simply chance that led to the unexpected connection between our Okinawan eisä taiko group, Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii, and an Iwaki City high school hula group from Fukushima Prefecture?
Last summer, Marian Moriguchi, who is involved with travel and tourism in Fukushima, arranged for a group of high school students from Iwaki City to visit Hawai‘i. The girls had won a hula competition in Iwaki and were given the opportunity to travel to Hawai‘i to share their hula and stories of their community’s recovery following the Great East Japan Earthquake and Tsunami of March 2011.
As Mrs. Moriguchi, who also serves as a liaison between Fukushima Prefecture and the Honolulu Fukushima Kenjin Kai, waited for the girls to get ready for their performance at the Shirokiya Japan Village Walk, she was surprised to hear another group performing to one of the songs the Iwaki girls had chosen to dance. Through a twist of fate, both our groups had decided to perform the song, “Umi no Koe” just an hour or so apart at the exact same location — the Iwaki girls to hula and our group to eisä taiko. Amazed by the coincidence, Mrs. Moriguchi approached our sensei, Akemi Martin, to ask if our group could stay to watch the girls’ performance.
While we definitely enjoyed and admired their award-winning hula, it was the stories the hula students shared about their hometown that left the deepest impression on our members. We were truly moved by their very personal recollections of that day when the tsunami came ashore and changed their lives forever. One student shared the loss and heartbreak of her grandmother having been swept out to sea. Other students spoke of their homes being devoured by the tsunami. We were amazed that in spite of the tragedy, the students remained remarkably optimistic. Rather than getting bogged down with the heartbreak of the past, they were focused on the future and the tremendous revitalization efforts going on throughout Fukushima Prefecture. They explained that it is safe to travel to Fukushima, adding that because the farmers hold their crops to the highest standard, produce from Fukushima is among the best in Japan. Inspired by the students’ stories, we began dreaming about visiting Fukushima and seeing with our own eyes how far they have come.
Mrs. Moriguchi graciously invited us to participate in a bon dance she was helping to organize in Fukushima City in late July. A few weeks ago, we realized our dream of visiting Fukushima. Mrs. Moriguchi and Akemi-Sensei worked incredibly hard to arrange an eight-day visit to Fukushima Prefecture with an additional two days in Tökyö! In Fukushima, we visited a foot bath at the legendary Tsuchiyu Onsen at the foot of Mt. Azuma, painted our own daruma in Shirakawa City, performed for the Fukushima Hawaii Bon Dance Festival celebrating Fukushima City’s 110th anniversary and so much more. Our whirlwind trip left each of our travelers with their own precious memories of our shared experiences.
Seventeen-year-old Katie Tokunaga, a senior at ‘Aiea High School, was struck by the tremendous difference between Fukushima and Tökyö. The serenity and quiet of life in Fukushima was so different from the seemingly chaotic pace of a Tökyö train station during rush hour. Katie hopes to participate in the JET Program (Japan Exchange and Teaching Program) in Japan after college. Having the opportunity to visit both a “really country” place and the busiest city in Japan gave her an idea of the type of place in which she would eventually like to live and work.
Nikka Kahalekulu-Nakama, 16, a junior at Mililani High School, said her favorite part of the trip was visiting Azuma Farm with our taiko ‘ohana. We learned about Fukushima’s famous peaches and got to see the tremendous care that the farmers put into raising them. We were even able to pick a fresh, juicy peach right off the tree! We were sad that we weren’t able to bring any of the delicious peaches back home to Hawai‘i, but we still felt lucky to have arrived just in time to get a true taste of Fukushima’s bounty.
Prior to leaving on the trip, Alex Au said that whenever he told anyone that he would be traveling to Fukushima, they were immediately concerned about his safety and warned him about radiation contamination in the food. Alex, a 20-year-old Leeward Community College student, admits that he was a bit nervous himself at first. However, after arriving in Fukushima, he was surprised to find that Fukushima is thriving! He found the rice paddies and wide, flat expanses of greenery to be especially picturesque. Alex said he felt warmly received by the local people who were happy to have the opportunity to share their community with visitors. After his experiences there, he said he understands why the people of Fukushima want to change the world’s perception of Fukushima as an unsafe place to visit. Alex said he wants to do whatever he can to encourage people to visit Fukushima and see its beauty with their own eyes and experience the warmth and resiliency of the people.
As for me, the memory I hold closest to my heart is of our visit to Iwaki. Prior to leaving Hawai‘i, our club members, friends and family had gotten together and folded 1,000 origami paper cranes to represent the good wishes, hopes and encouragement we wanted to share with the people who had been affected by the disaster. As we approached the beach area, which seemed like any other oceanfront, Mr. Tsuneo Suzuki of the Iwaki Hawaii Koryu-kai (Iwaki Hawaii International Association) pointed to the controversial seawall that is being built. Six years ago, he said, the now-empty beach was lined with homes. They were all destroyed by the tsunami. At first, it felt a bit eerie to reflect on the vast emptiness of the area. But as we presented the senbazuru (1,000 origami cranes) and performed taiko in the shadow of the Shioyazaki lighthouse, we began to feel surprisingly hopeful.
The songs “Umi no Koe” (“The Voice of the Sea”) and “Hana wa Saku” (“Flowers Will Bloom”) are no longer just popular songs to us. After visiting Fukushima and meeting those courageous and hopeful survivors, the songs hold a much deeper meaning for us now. We were finally able to see and experience for ourselves what the high school students we had met by coincidence had told us. Even when faced with unimaginable challenges, the stalwart people of Fukushima bravely power forward.
Editor’s note: You can catch Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii’s dynamic performance at the Okinawan Festival on Saturday, Sept. 2, at 12:20 p.m.
Melissa Ching is the Central O‘ahu leader of Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii. She joined RMD as a way of meeting new people after moving to Hawai‘i in 2004. As a result of joining Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko, she has been able to travel and form friendships around the world.