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vol. 10, No. 5
October/November 2007

  >>   The Great Race
  >>   In the Land of the Western Sun

In the Land of the Western Sun (Page 7)

May 20, Setonaikai

AFTER PASSING through the strait, we head along the coast to a yacht club marina in the countryside to bunk down for the night, then rise in the wee hours for another early cast-off. By the time daylight creeps over the Land of the Rising Sun, we are cruising on a glassy sea filled with small, gorgeous islands of steep, lushly forested hills.

We pull in close to one of the islands, called Iwaijima (Celebration Island), where, amid a flotilla of kayaks and small fishing boats, a group of men row up in a traditional boat, beating a drum and chanting. Incredibly, two dancers balance on platforms at the bow and stern—one waving pom-pons and the other executing quick, nimble motions with a small paddle. We’re told that this is a ceremonial fishing dance unique to Iwaijima that is normally performed only once every four years during a specific festival, but the island people decided to make an exception for Hoku’s visit.

The men in the boat present Kalepa with a kerosene lantern, whose flame they say was lit from a fire that started in the inferno of the Hiroshima bombing and has been kept burning ever since. They ask him to take the lantern out to sea and douse the flame to symbolize an end to war. The exchange is brief, but it leaves everyone on the canoe deeply affected. Our ship’s doctor, Cherie Shehata, later writes on the crew’s blog that the encounter “was so touching that it brought me to tears. It is such a bigger global perspective, and reminds me how things in the past shape our future, and our actions today, although small and symbolic, can have a large impact.”

Our next port of call, Suo-oshima, is an island with deep ties to Hawai‘i dating back to 1885, when more than 300 people from the island were among the first boatload of 944 Japanese contract workers to arrive in Hawai‘i to work the sugar plantations. Those ties extended over the years, as oshima continued to be a major source of emigrants to Hawai‘i—even earning the nickname “emigration island.” In 1963, the bond was formally cemented when oshima and Kaua‘i entered into an official
sister-island relationship.

As we pull up to the dock, dozens of local hula dancers sway gracefully along the seawall, and a crowd of several thousand people, many in bright aloha wear, cheer excitedly.

At oshima, we’re scheduled for a changing of the guard, with Nainoa Thompson, Hokule‘a’s senior navigator and visionary-in-chief, taking the helm for the next leg. Nainoa is at the dock waiting for us, and before we join the welcoming ceremony, the crew gathers in a tight circle beside the canoe, where Kalepa tells us that he’s asked Nainoa to douse the flame we had been given at Iwaijima.

As we huddle around, Nainoa tells us that it was originally the dream of his late father, Pinky—a hugely influential force in the contemporary Hawaiian renaissance—to bring Hokule‘a to Japan as a way to share its inspiration with the wider world.

“And now our canoe has been given the honor of carrying this powerful symbol of peace, and the privilege to maybe put an end to warfare and bigotry,” Nainoa says. “So to all who have brought the canoe to this moment in time, I am eternally grateful.”

After a moment of silence, he pours seawater from a coconut shell onto the flame and extinguishes it, saying: “No more, no more hatred in this world. Let’s just drown it.”

When the brief ceremony is over, we line up for a heartfelt performance of the “‘Aiha‘a,” then make our way up the gangway into a seemingly endless handshaking line. As the welcome party gets under way in earnest, we’re treated to taiko drumming and more hula. The performers invite us up onstage to try our hand at the drumming, which draws peals of laughter from the audience. Then as a finale, we observe a boisterous tradition of tossing paper-wrapped balls of mochi (rice cake) into the crowd for good luck.

Finally, we’re taken to our digs—a retreat hotel on a bluff with gorgeous views of the harbor on one side and the island-flecked inland sea on the other. In honor of oshima’s sister-island relationship with Kaua‘i, the retreat’s reception building is a replica of the Kaua‘i county seat, and Hawaiian music is piped throughout the grounds.

Before crashing for the night, a few of us enjoy the communal baths on the property, a series of large hot tubs with mineral-tinged water. It’s supremely soothing, and strikes us, as so many things on the trip have, as another way in which Japan’s ancient culture has honed daily living into a fine art.