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Mosquito Propellant Ultralight whiz Armando Martinez at home in the skies of Hawai‘i
Vol.12, No. 3
June/July 2009

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A Day at the Races 

story by Sue Kiyabu
photos by Olivier Koning

Some twenty years ago Jimmy Arakaki, a one-time Hilo city councilman, was visiting the Okinawan city of Nago on a goodwill trip. Nago is Hilo’s sister city, and “they asked what we wanted from them as a sister city,” Arakaki recalls. The councilman had an audacious request in mind. He knew that Nago was home to one of Okinawa’s most important haari boat races—races loosely modeled after Chinese dragon boat races but unique to Okinawa and an important part of the one-time kingdom’s rich maritime culture. Arakaki knew, too, that his constituency back in Hilo contained not just water-loving paddlers and Okinawan descendants, but water-loving paddlers who were Okinawan descendants. And so he decided to ask for haari boats for Hilo. “I was going to ask for one boat,” he remembers, “but my guy told me, ‘Ask for three boats. That’s what they race.’ And I did. And they said OK. I was so surprised! These boats, they are the real McCoy. They had to import the wood from Japan. They hired a master boat builder and built these boats from scratch just for us.”

As he tells this story, Arakaki is thick in the middle of preparations for the 2008 Haari Boat Festival in Hilo’s Wailoa River State Park. It’s a semiannual festival, first held in 1990, in which the three boats from Nago are raced on the city’s river. Arakaki’s no longer a councilman, but no matter; he’s still heavily involved in this civic celebration. For this race, he’s sponsoring two teams, and that means backing some forty people from the youth arm of the Kamehameha Canoe Club. Arakaki, himself a third-generation descendant of Okinawan immigrants, is a passionate believer in the importance of shared culture—and an avid booster of Okinawan hospitality. He once raised $30,000 to take a team of young paddlers from Hawai‘i to Okinawa to participate in a haari boat race, and he hopes to do it again someday.

“Okinawans are so accepting,” says Arakaki. “They have a saying, ‘From the first time I meet you, I feel like we are brothers and sisters.’ I want these kids to experience that.”