Hawai‘i Herald Columnist
If you’re a Ghibli fan, you’ll understand this reference: the month of May, to me, is that moment Chihiro and her family drive up to the tunnel in the forest in the film “Spirited Away.” Her adventures are about to begin on the other side of this mysterious tunnel that seems to push them along, and once she adjusts to her new situation without her parents, she learns to adapt to customs and traditions that feel familiar yet odd, all while meeting new characters along the way.
Say I am Chihiro in that scene, then the land she finds herself in is Japan. May – specifically Memorial Day weekend, is that tunnel, the entrance to Obon season in Hawai‘i. There’s something about the lantern floating ceremony held at Ala Moana Beach every year that feels like the opening of a portal to the spirit realm. While it would be many years later that I made that connection, as a child, I grew up missing the Hawai‘i version of Obon, which runs throughout the summer. Summers I spent instead in the Nagoya prefecture heat.
Obon season has always been a big part of my life here and in Japan. Since Obon is associated with honoring ancestors and my O-papa (my Japanese grandpa) passed away when I was nine, it’s been a big part of my summers since I could remember. As an adult, even before my aunt suddenly passed away, we’d try to participate in Obon festivities here.
In my O-mama’s (my Japanese grandma) neighborhood, the park down the street behind her house would transform magically into the site of the bon dance that took place in August like a midsummer night’s dream.
I would fly to Japan towards the end of May, sometimes missing the last few days of elementary school here so that my brother and I may be enrolled in school there for the remaining eight weeks prior to summer break. Thankfully, because the new school year begins in April in Japan, I wasn’t the awkward new kid that was crashing classes midway through. Instead, I was there about a month into everyone sorting themselves into groups only to upend the social order like a wild card contestant in some dating show. By the end of July, I would have my friend group: the kids I’d bike around with my best friend Yumi, with whom I’d spend a ton of time, and the kids I grew up with that lived near my cousins, about a 20-minute drive away.
Since O-mama made it clear that I wasn’t allowed to lazily lay about in the AC while snacking, watching Japanese TV shows, and only getting out of my nest of pillows to refill my oolong tea – something I am still happy to do when I get the chance – I kept myself busy with ballet classes, spending time with friends and Obon lessons at the neighborhood park.
In Japan, they do this thing called radio taiso, radio exercises — a Japanese tradition (inspired by something similar in America, by the way) that began in the 1920s as a way to keep soldiers, women and children fit and healthy. While they now play it on TV with women dressed in bad activewear while a bodiless male narrator calls out the exercises over piano music, the exercises are so ingrained in Japanese culture, most people can do it without watching the TV and simply go through the motions if you play the music on the radio, hence radio taiso.
When school gets out for summer break, you are given a few things: several homework worksheet books (one for writing, one for math, one for science, one for journaling) that you are expected to complete by the end of summer. There’s about a page for each day of your summer break but all of the procrastinators panic at the end of summer to fill them up. You also receive a stamp card to encourage an early start to your day with radio taiso at the neighborhood park. Filling it is like extra credit and theoretically a way to get kids to stick to some sort of routine. When you get to the park by about 6:30 a.m., there is a designated neighborhood aunty that’s willing to lead a group of other neighborhood aunties and children just trying to get their stamp cards filled for school. They’d run back home for the morning cartoons and video games immediately after.
I was, of course, fascinated by it all and every summer, I was gungho about attending these lessons for about the first few days. Laziness usually won but O-mama would try to coax me to go anyway. After the exercises, the same group of neighborhood aunties would go over the bon dance routine that everyone was encouraged to learn that year. The one I remembered most was to a song called ‘Tsuki ga deta,’ or “The Moon is Out.” I was in fifth grade in Japan and would be starting fifth grade when I got back to Hawai‘i.
I should first explain what I mean when I say “neighborhood park” because it really is such a fantastic place. It’s made of powdery white sand-like limestone, and the park is big; the top area has a zipline for kids, a dome-shaped jungle gym, bars in varying heights, a sandbox for the little ones, and a small pavilion with table and bench. There were more benches overlooking each area and paths that separated them all safely. To the right, the path leads to a slight slope that leads downhill to an open space of nothing – a multipurpose field of sorts in which I learned how to ride my bicycle without training wheels in the summers before. There’s yet another path, a pebbled stone one, that wraps around the perimeter of the entire park. There are also steps that lead up from the open field and away diagonally left from the playground to yet another field, a fenced off area in which sport teams practice baseball and soccer. There’s a public bathroom building down that pebbled path to the left of the playground and the entire place is an oasis lined with trees and bushes that encloses everything.
There, the aunties and I would practice ‘Tsuki ga deta’ to reedy vocals over taiko drums that are all played on a small silver radio in an open space at the playground area between the jungle gym and zipline. One day in early August, I noticed that the path leading to the bathrooms was getting lined with booths of sorts. My best friend lived across the street from the park and we had promised to meet at the Obon event. O-mama bought me a new yukata, a summer kimono, and dressed me while my aunt did my hair for me. I was excited!
When I walked into the park with O-mama, I felt spirited away. The drab booths from the days before had transformed into colorful food stalls that lined the path. There were lanterns floating overhead and led to the enclosed field, which was much, much bigger than I had anticipated even after I had rode around it on my bike for weeks. The Obon stage towered over everyone and there were impressive taiko drummers at the top. Red lanterns glowed like string lights overhead, giving the field a red-orange wash. We danced in circles around the stage for what seemed like hours. I ran around to every stall catching goldfish, buying masks, and buying up all of the food – grilled squid, BBQ corn on the cob, skewered grilled hotdogs, candy apples, cotton candy, ramune soda. Thank goodness O-mama was willing to spoil and indulge. We ended up at the large clearing below the playground to pop sparklers at the end of the night before going home with my festival haul.
That night became a core memory, and one I hope to recreate in some capacity for my kids someday, too. In my adult years, I have strived to participate in Obon season festivities in Hawai‘i with my family – yukata and all.
Join me on my journey to self care and happiness along and see how I do with the rest of my goals. You can find me at @saschakoki on Instagram for more.
Sascha Koki is the vice president of Media Etc., a PR & Marketing company based in Honolulu. As a Japanese and Black hapa bilingual woman who grew up in Hawai‘i and Japan, Sascha has a unique perspective on growing up with three rich cultures; she sees herself as a bridge that connects these worlds through her career and in life. Happily married and a mother of two humans and one pup, she strives to raise her pack of wild cubs into compassionate beings that wield their powers for good while enjoying all that life has to offer. Passionate about fashion, beauty, wellness and good (okay, and bad) TV in near equal measures, this former Miss Waikiki and UH Rainbow dancer is a true Aquarius.
In her column, she plans to write about “lifestyle,” which really means anything and everything, all at once. Her wish is to inspire and shed light on everything from cultural issues to hilarious culture shock moments through personal stories.