Listening In

Sunday, August 12, 2007

The worlds you carry


11th August 2007


Here's another column restored to its full length.

And no, I am not too lazy to do proper posts. This is a proper post; it's got punctuation and everything.


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I didn’t mean to keep my summer vacation a secret; it was just too much work to explain.

To the few I did share my plans with, I would start by saying that I was going to help a Japanese friend who wanted to offer a lomi-lomi, or Hawaiian massage, experience at the inn run by his family.

But it seems a bit bizarre for lomi-lomi to suddenly appear in a traditional inn so I would add that the event was targeted at visitors arriving for a Hawaiian festival in town.

And then I’d have to explain why a small Japanese town was holding such a festival in the first place.

Better known for its hot springs, Ikaho has been twinned with the Hawaiian city of Hilo for a number of years. But even before that, back in the days when Hawaii was still an independent kingdom, one of its ministers had a summer home in Ikaho. The building remains standing to this day and has been converted into a museum.

Still, if you feel obliged to bring up historical links when someone asks you about your vacation plans, it just seems easier not to talk about them.

Even knowing about the area’s ties with Hawaii, it feels odd getting off the bus in Ikaho, about two hours away from Tokyo, to see people in aloha shirts and leis.

But when I meet the other bodywork participants, it becomes clear that this is a Japanese event. For starters, everybody does things together, very close to each other.

Though not all of the 18 people taking part stay for the three days of the festival, our rooms – doors slid back to make more space – are lined from wall to wall with futons at night.

Communal living takes on new meaning when you have to share a bedroom with about 15 people and individual snoring patterns come up for group discussion the next day.

Most of us know each other from past massage courses and between the work and the catching up, it is well after midnight before we go to sleep each day.

But we don’t turn in at the same time; some of us topple over earlier. Those who do, however, have to learn to sleep with the lights on and through the sounds of people talking and giving each other massages.

And we all have to sleep in the summer heat. One night, I lie dozing off, having pushed the futon cover to one side.

As if from a long way away, I hear a voice say, “Should we cover her?”

I don’t hear the answer but gentle hands pull the quilt over me; it feels warm.

Not all the bodywork graduates can spare the time to help out but some make it at least for the reunion. Katsu-san, a ski instructor turned massage therapist, is one of them.

He shows up with three boxes of grapes – an unexpected extravagance given the price of fruit in Japan.

“You know, it’s kind of wasted on us,” says one participant.

“It can’t be helped,” says Katsu-san. “When I went to buy fruit, this was all I could find.”

He stays with us, chatting well into the night. Unable to contribute much and reeling from the lack of sleep, I decide to go bathe while I still have the strength to stop myself from drowning.

A friend soon joins me in the women’s bath but before we can get into the hot water, a participant we call Nee-san (Big Sis) sticks her head in.

“Katsu-san’s leaving so we’re taking a group photo,” she says then disappears.

I look at my friend. “Does this mean we have to go too?”

“I think so,” she says.

I start rinsing off.

It turns out to be a nice photo – people look tired but so happy you’ll hardly notice the two in bathrobes clutching towels.

Then everyone carries on talking some more. At least, we do until Katsu-san notices something odd.

“Nee-san,” he says. “Why are you holding a sandal in front of your face?”

She blinks, looking surprised as she realises that she is, indeed, holding her slipper inches away from her nose.

It is clearly time for everyone to say goodnight.

Nee-san presses the button for the lift and when it comes, gets in to hold the door for Katsu-san.

But leaves without him.

Yes, clearly time to say goodnight.

We work together, rest together and when it’s time for the evening festival performance, well, of course we have to watch it together.

Hoping to catch up on sleep, I try to get out of it but am somehow cajoled and nudged along until I find myself standing in front of the stage.

I should’ve known. After all, these are people who make sure you don’t get left out, even if it means gatecrashing your bath.

Billed as the highlight of the festival, Halau I Ka Wekiu came in overall champions this year at the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hawaii, an annual event culminating in a competition that’s been called the Olympics of hula.

Still, so much of the hula I’ve seen has been the lukewarm tourist version that I am less than optimistic as I stand waiting in the crowds.

Then the troupe strides onto the stage and the audience breaks into a cheer. Call me a cynic but I think their enthusiasm has something to do with the fact that the dancers are all male, sculpted and wearing nothing but loincloths and leis.

I wonder briefly if they’re going to be the hula Chippendales then the chanting starts, the men surge into the dance and I forget tourists, fatigue and my aching feet because it is hula kahiko that they dance – hula in the ancient style.

Gods and goddesses, chiefs and heroes are danced alive again, the legacy of a people who had no written language but who did not want to forget.

Chants and hula became their pen and paper; this is history written into the body.

And it is more than history – the dancers go beyond recounting events to recreating emotions.

When they tell the story of a chief who lost a game to a goddess and the dance she claimed as a forfeit, they do more than string the movements together; they lay bare the feelings of a man offering himself through his dance, down to the beating of his heart.

The goddess, bound by a promise she’d made to her sister, turned him down. But if he moved anything like the men on stage, it couldn’t have been easy.

The dancers perform on each night of the festival; we watch all three shows and I eavesdrop shamelessly on the audience’s conversations.

Of course, there’s speculation on what exactly the crowd will see if a loincloth flips up during a turn but there’re also comments on technique, the background of the songs and their composers.

And I am reminded that the number of hula dancers in the country has been recently estimated at more than 500,000.

In an interview with The Honolulu Advertiser, respected hula teacher Kawaikapuokalani Hewett, who has been holding workshops in Japan for years, said: “Their love is very intense; their dedication is very intense.”

I can believe it. In the lomi-lomi group alone, I see one person studying a Hawaiian-Japanese dictionary in between clients and another practising chants before bedtime.

Yumi-san, who contributes regularly to online forums about all aspects of the culture, also takes the trouble to bring a bowl of poi with her.

A Polynesian staple, the taro dish is often compared to library paste. It doesn’t taste bad but first-timers probably won’t go back for seconds.

Despite this, we all sit in a circle and take it in turns to dip a finger into the paste then pass the bowl on. This could be the next big thing for cults around the world.

But pinballing back and forth between the lomi lomi, the hula and the Poi Secret Society, I start to wonder exactly where the Japanese love affair with Hawaii comes from.

There is no one answer that will fit a group numbering over 500,000. Some may have been drawn in by the music; others by the movements.

The stark difference between the two peoples may also explain it. One of the most formal and ritualised cultures around, Japan seems a world away from the easy warmth of the aloha spirit. Perhaps that distance is the attraction.

But when I pose the question to my friends, all of them focus on the ways in which Japan and Hawaii are alike, not apart.

One person points out that both peoples historically lived in constant awareness of nature, seeing the world around them alive with spirits.

Others raise anthropological theories about biological and cultural links; DNA is mentioned more than once. For them, their love of Hawaii is, like hula, inscribed in the body.

In reaching across the ocean to another island people, they are not searching for a world apart but simply expanding their own.

And perhaps the best way to enjoy another people is to appreciate your own because when you no longer seek what you think your culture lacks, you are free to see what really lies in another.

What lies there are not the answers you need because you already have them – all you will ever find in the Other are mirrors to help you see them better.

And if the mirrors are held by men in loincloths, well – we should all be so lucky.

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