Issue 10.5: October/November 2007

In the Land of the Western Sun

story by Derek Ferrar
photos by Monte Costa


From January to June of this year, the celebrated Hawaiian voyaging canoe Hokule‘a undertook a truly epic journey, sailing some 9,500 miles through the remote islands of Micronesia to Japan. These were new waters entirely for the traditional-style double-hulled canoe, which was built in the 1970s as an experiment to test the legendary sailing abilities of the Polynesian ancestors who settled Hawai‘i and which ignited a renaissance of indigenous cultural pride throughout the Pacific.

On the first part of the voyage, Hokule‘a—or Hoku, as she is known to her widespread ‘ohana (family) of voyagers and admirers—accompanied the new canoe Alingano Maisu to the tiny island of Satawal in Micronesia, where it was presented as a gift to the master navigator Mau Piailug. When Hoku was first built, it was Mau, one of the few people alive who still practiced the Pacific wayfinder’s art of navigating by the stars, who agreed to come teach the new generation of voyagers in Hawai‘i, and who guided the canoe on her first voyage to Tahiti in 1976. Now getting on in years and in fragile health, Mau had asked that Maisu be built to help perpetuate the voyaging culture among the young people of his own islands.

After the new canoe was presented to Mau in March, Hokule‘a continued on a second mission, dubbed Ku Holo La Komohana (Sail on to the Western Sun), crossing 1,200 miles from the Micronesian island of Yap to Okinawa and then hopscotching through the islands of southern Japan to Yokohama.

The journey was conceived to honor the cultural ties between Japan and Hawai‘i, which began with the visit of King Kalakaua to the Emperor Meiji in 1881 and were strengthened by the subsequent emigration of thousands of Japanese contract laborers to the Islands’ sugar plantations, many of whom remained in Hawai‘i, forever weaving their heritage into the fabric of Island life.

Hana Hou! writer Derek Ferrar joined Hokule‘a for a portion of its sojourn in Japan, and as he reports, it was a voyage like no other.


May 14, Fukuoka

I CAN’T HELP THINKING THAT, after having sailed thousands upon thousands of miles over the last thirty-odd years guided only by the stars, it’s a little strange that in the city of Fukuoka, Hokule‘a’s “navigational star” is a towering ferris wheel, whose flashing carnival lights guide the way to the canoe from afar.

This is not just any amusement park wheel, but the Sky Dream, one of the biggest in the world at 360 feet tall—a veritable Godzilla of a ferris wheel. And moored at its foot, amid plush cabin cruisers in a tidy marina fronting an outlet mall, is Hokule‘a, with her timeless Polynesian profile of twin upturned hulls and stately rigging.

It’s incongruous, to be sure, and hardly what I would have imagined of my first voyage aboard Hoku, something I had been fantasizing about for years. But if there’s one thing that spending time with the voyaging ‘ohana will teach you, it’s to go with the flow. And on Hokule‘a’s maiden voyage in Japan, the flow is all about letting go of expectations and embracing the canoe’s role here as a celebrity envoy of Hawaiian culture.

Chad Kalepa Baybayan, Hoku’s captain and navigator (or, as he jokingly puts it, “ringmaster”) for the first leg of the Japan trip, spells it out at an orientation meeting for the dozen or so of us who are joining the voyage in Fukuoka.

“This trip is different on so many levels,” Kalepa says as he goes over a Powerpoint projection of crew assignments and schedules. “The sailing itself is not as much of a priority—this is much more of a cultural voyage. It’s about bringing people onto the canoe and sharing our vision and values. It’s a big mission over here—there are 120 million people in this country, so there are lots of eyes on you guys wherever we go. You need to remember that you are an ambassador for the canoe and for Hawai‘i.”


May 15, Genkaijima

ON THE MORNING after we arrive, I tag along with a delegation from the canoe to Genkaijima, a small island nearby whose residents were displaced by an earthquake a year ago and have just started returning home. The crewmembers who have been aboard Hoku since Okinawa tell me that the voyage has been a procession of goodwill visits like this to communities along the way.

When we arrive at the island aboard a jet ferry, the entire population of the small fishing town is waiting on the dock—mostly elderly men and women with faces leathered by lifetimes of hard work on the sea and a few babies peeking at us from the safety of a cradling arm. The crowd breaks into applause as we land, then forms a reception line of handshakes and bows accompanied by greetings of “konnichiwa” (good day) and “aloha.”

In the village’s community hall, kids from the local school perform on taiko drums and the traditional stringed instruments koto and shamisen. To their delight, we reciprocate with a thigh-slapping, foot-stomping hula called “‘Aiha‘a Hokule‘a,” which extols the canoe’s mana, or life force. Some of the preschool kids, dressed in bright blue festival coats and bandanas, present us with origami frogs and handmade fans with messages on them. Mine says: “We hope you have a nice trip forever.”

At the end of the program, our host, a member of the island’s reconstruction committee, tells us through a translator: “Although our islands are far apart, we are all islanders. And although we cannot make a physical bridge between our islands, today we have built a bridge in our hearts that will join both our islands from now on.”

On the boat ride back, I ask Kanako Uchino, a Japanese crewmember who got involved in canoe voyaging while studying marine science in Hawai‘i, what it means to her to have Hokule‘a in her home country. She replies by pointing out that the kids who performed for us, about thirty in all, are the only children now living on Genkaijima.

“It seems that on every small island I visit, the issue is the same,” Kana says. “The young people are all leaving. The fishing is not good anymore, and it’s a hard job—they don’t want to do it. So Hokule‘a’s visit poses a question, especially to our younger generation: ‘What is it that you truly value, and where are you are headed?’ Because navigation is all about clear vision and finding the way, and I think that’s a very important question in Japan right now.”


May 16, Fukuoka

IN ANTICIPATION of our passage through the narrow, tricky Kanmon Strait into the Seto Inland Sea, which is cradled by Japan’s larger southern islands and dotted with hundreds of smaller ones, I’m given a newbie’s orientation in the basics of canoe life.

I’ve been assigned to a watch crew under Dennis Chun, a veteran voyager and Hawaiian Studies professor from Kaua‘i with an always-ready roguish laugh. Since each of the foam-pad bunks beneath canvas tenting in the canoe’s manu, or hulls, is shared between two crew members on alternating watches, I’m assigned a bunk partner, a gregarious, curly-locked bruddah named Keala Kai, who recently left his job as a county lifeguard on Kaua‘i to be a full-time artist. (“Sometimes, you just gotta pull up the anchor,” he explains.)

I’m shown the essentials of onboard cooking (on a gas stove in an enclosed fiberglass box on deck) and answering the call of nature (over the side at the stern, while wearing a safety harness and squatting on a catwalk outside the hull). And, most of all, I’m taught the Cardinal Rule: Don’t go overboard!

Finally, Dennis offers a few words of guidance. “Remember that we are not just sailing for ourselves,” he says. “We are sailing for all those who have come before us, and for those who will come after. So when you’re out there, and you’re cold, wet and tired, remember: We’re sailing for them.”


May 18, Fukuoka

OUR DEPARTURE from Fukuoka has been postponed by a passing storm front. When dealing with “canoe time” on a voyage, this is a fact of life—nature calls the shots.

On Hoku’s heavily scheduled Japan trip, however, the delay causes logistical nightmares for the hard-working ground support crew from the Hawai‘i Tourism Authority’s Japan bureau. The head of the crew, a small, spunky woman named Kiyoko Tanji, who calls herself the crew’s “designated Jewish mother,” works her
cell phone late into the night, changing and rechanging plans in a nation that likes to stick to its schedules. (If a train runs even a minute late, I’m told, the conductor comes on the speaker to offer profuse apologies.)

When members of the crew teasingly ask Kiyoko what the Japanese word for ‘flexible’ is, she tells them there isn’t one. When they keep goading her, saying she needs to invent one, she finally blurts out: “Hokule‘a!”

During the lull in Fukuoka, I talk story with Chadd ‘Onohi Paishon, a gentle bear of a man who is one of the voyaging community’s senior navigators. I ask him what the Japan voyage means to him. “It’s a step that continues to push the boundaries of voyaging,” he says. “As long as we are rooted in our culture, why shouldn’t we go to Japan, or anywhere else? Voyaging is the legacy of our ancestors who were able to think beyond the horizon, so I think it’s important for us to continue to open new doors.”



May 19, Kanmon Strait

WITH THE STORM FRONT past, Hokule‘a readies for a 3 a.m. departure from Fukuoka, and around fifty local people show up at the pier in the darkness and chill to bid the canoe and her crew sayonara and aloha.

As is the case throughout the Japan trip, Hoku will make the leg not under her own sail but rather being towed by an escort boat—both for safety reasons in these heavily trafficked waters and because there is Mama Kiyoko’s schedule to keep.

In accordance with canoe tradition, we gather in a circle on the dock to join hands and offer a pule, or prayer, for a safe journey. Then the tow rope is hooked up, the dock lines cast off, and as the trumpeting sound of the pu, or conch shell, rings through the marina, Hoku slides away from the pier. Stationed at the bow, ‘Onohi quips to the crew, “Stand by … for anything!”

As we pass through the mouth of Fukuoka’s bay into the sea that separates Japan and Korea, a cold rain starts to fall, sending us scurrying for foul-weather slickers and as many layers of clothes as we can pile on underneath. I take a turn helping the steering crew and discover that even under tow, it’s a workout to muscle the steering paddle in and out of the water and keep Hoku lined up behind the escort boat. “Don’t oversteer it,” Dennis instructs. “Feel the canoe.”

Not long afterward, the first glimmer of light cracks the sky, revealing dim profiles of islands near the mouth of the strait that separates the main islands of Kyushu and Honshu. The shore here is lined with industry, and it’s a pretty eerie scene as the low, gray clouds merge with a gray sea, blurring the outlines of factories, cranes and smokestacks, billowing gray vapor. But soon the weather lightens to reveal townscapes on both sides of the strait, with steep, green mountains behind.

As the passage narrows, an unnerving parade of big freighters cruises by us on all sides. “Brah, it’s like one freeway,” remarks one of the old canoe hands.

By the time we reach the narrowest point of the strait—about a quarter-mile wide at the point where a bridge connects the two islands—the sun is shining. A number of Hoku’s local supporters have gathered near a small shrine under the bridge to watch her pass, and we exchange happy waves with them as perplexed fishermen look on from the sea wall.

The call of the pu echoes beneath the bridge, and we sail safely through to the inland sea.


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.


May 22, Suo-Oshima

TODAY WE PAY HOMAGE to oshima’s role in the heritage of so many local Japanese families in Hawai‘i.

First we’re taken to visit a temple with a radiant golden altar, which we’re told served as the model for the first Buddhist temple ever built in Hawai‘i. Translating for the temple caretaker, Kana tells us that soon after people from the island started leaving to work on Hawai‘i’s plantations in the 1880s, a monk from here went to minister to them, carrying a Buddha from the temple in his bag. Once settled in the Islands, he built a replica of the temple in the plantation town of Honoka‘a on Hawai‘i Island.

Next we visit the island’s Museum of Japanese Emigration to Hawai‘i, housed in the gabled mansion of a farmer who left the island as a contract worker around 1900 and returned a wealthy man, having gone into business when his contract expired. The museum’s rooms are filled with artifacts from the workers’ hardscrabble lives, along with displays on their eventual integration to become one of the most important groups in Hawai‘i’s ethnic mix.

While most of the crew heads down to the dock to give tours of the canoe, a few of us accompany Nainoa on a small personal pilgrimage that really brings home the oshima-Hawai‘i connection.

We pay a visit to a small island called Okikamuro, which is joined to oshima by a bridge. Nainoa has come here to honor the man he says first taught him about the ways of the sea: Yoshi Kawano, a milkman who worked at Nainoa’s family’s dairy farm and often took him fishing when he was young. A pair of local genealogists who have been researching the Kawano family for Nainoa discovered that Yoshi’s father likely learned to fish from one of the master fishermen for which Okikamuro is renowned. To honor this connection, Nainoa brought two stones from Yoshi’s old house in Honolulu, and the priest of the island’s temple has agreed to care for them.

The priest, Niiyama-san, meets us at the dock and leads us down narrow lanes of old-style houses with dark wooden walls and curving tile roofs to an ornate temple at the center of the village. There, he and a priestess formally accept the stones and, resplendent in silken robes and chanting in droning tones, perform a ritual for the happiness of Yoshi’s spirit and the safe travels of Hokule‘a and her crew.

“I heard that Yoshi taught Nainoa that human beings have the ability to become one with the ocean, and I believe that teaching is very important for us today,” Niiyama-san says after the prayer. “In Buddhist teaching, we believe that the mountains, forests, grass, stones—everything—has a Buddha nature inside and is sacred. I believe that is a very important teaching, not only for us in Japan, but everywhere around the world.”

On the way back, Nainoa sums up the day’s experience when he remarks to one of our entourage: “This is the really amazing thing about voyaging—it takes you to places you’d never imagine.”


May 23, Miyajima

AFTER A RELUCTANT FAREWELL to our newfound island family on oshima, we set out again into the lovely Inland Sea for the short journey to Hiroshima. Our first stop there is the sacred island of Miyajima—another stunning landscape of steep, forested hills rising from the sea. Just a short distance across the bay from the bustling city, Miyajima is a national treasure of ancient shrines that a tourist brochure we’re given touts as “one of Japan’s three most scenic spots.”

The most famous of the island’s sacred sites is the vast Shinto shrine of Itsukushima, with its enormous orange o-Torii, or Great Gate, which rises out of the sea as a ceremonial point of entry to the island. As Hokule‘a approaches, she makes a respectful pass in front of the gate surrounded by a flotilla of welcoming boats, as a news helicopter buzzes overhead. The next morning, the dramatic shot makes the front page of a local paper.

In the plaza fronting the island’s ferry terminal, we’re greeted with an arrival ceremony featuring a stately traditional dance by women in black robes and woven reed bonnets, as crowds of schoolkids on field trips and other daytrippers to the island crowd around to watch. Also in the plaza are a few of the island’s tame deer, who when approached will readily nuzzle you and “shake hands.”

Just off the plaza, we walk through a busy lane full of souvenir shops. Since Miyajima lays claim to being “the birthplace of the rice scoop,” most of the shops feature rice paddles in various shapes and sizes, including a gigantic one on display—the biggest in the world, according to its plaque—that easily dwarfs Hokule‘a’s main steering paddle.

Just when I’m starting to think that the sacred island might be a bit of a tourist trap, we make our way up the slope to the extensive compound of the Daisho-in Buddhist temple, for centuries an important sanctuary of the Imperial family, where we’ve been invited to spend the night. Setting bronze prayer wheels spinning as we climb the long temple steps, we arrive at an amazing scene of elaborately carved buildings and exquisite Buddha sculptures.

Our quarters are in a traditional-style guest hall on the temple grounds, with tatami mats and futons laid out on the floor, and still more magnificent art hanging from the walls, from calligraphy scrolls and intricate mandala paintings to classic watercolors of cherry blossoms and winter village scenes.

After yet another oishii (delicious) meal laid out for us on long, low banquet tables, our gracious hostess at the temple, the head priest’s wife, shows us how to fold paper cranes to give as offerings of peace at the atomic bomb memorial in Hiroshima the next day.

She explains that her father lived through the bombing as a child, and the inherited effects of radiation caused to her be born with a heart defect, a fact she was unaware of until she nearly died while giving birth to her daughter.

“I don’t hold any grudge against Americans,” she says, “but I’m against all weapons that would kill people in that way, and nuclear power, too. If there’s an accident, you can’t take it back.”


May 24, Hiroshima

AFTER A SHORT TOW from Miyajima, we pull in at a luxury marina in Hiroshima proper, replete with a mall and, you guessed it ... a ferris wheel. This time, there’s even a small roller coaster for good measure.

At the dock, there is the now-familiar welcoming ceremony, this time with cheerleaders from a local high school. There is the presentation of gifts and a few speeches, and then, as always, heaps of photos snapped to the exhortation to say “chee-zu!”

Then we’re whisked off to visit the memorial peace park at the site of the atomic bombing, an experience I don’t think any of us is really prepared for—but then, how could we be?

Soon we’re at the Atomic Dome, the building miraculously left standing near ground zero that has since been preserved as a memorial to world peace. Although you might have seen pictures of the dome countless times, it’s something else altogether to stand in front of the former exhibition hall that somehow remained upright while so many other structures—and tens of thousands of lives—were vaporized around it.

We walk across the park, past the T-shaped bridge that was the bombardier’s target, to present the paper cranes we made at the beautiful Children’s Peace Memorial sculpture, a tradition started by a young girl who steadfastly folded 1,001 cranes for peace in her hospital bed before she died of leukemia caused by radiation. Then we offer flowers at an arch containing a registry of the dead, before ending up at the Peace Memorial Museum, which is filled with horrific photos and artifacts from the bombing.

The experience shakes all of us. I ask Nainoa what it means to him to bring Hokule‘a to a place that is such a powerful symbol of the carnage that we humans so regularly inflict on one another. “I think an experience like this really rocks you into realizing that peace is not an option for our world,” he says. “It’s an absolute requirement. And I look at Hokule‘a as a bridge across cultures to the core value of aloha that can allow us to navigate toward a more peaceful future. So Hokule‘a has no choice but to continue to sail, and to carry that message to more parts of Island Earth.”

Lost in reflection over our experiences at the memorial, we’re shuttled to a press conference with local reporters and then back to the dock, where the somber mood is eased by a lovely welcome barbecue thrown by local supporters of the canoe, featuring lots of hula and kanikapila (backyard-style Hawaiian music).

One guest of honor is a beaming 85-year-old fisherman named Oshima-san, who had greeted the canoe at Miyajima and promised to bring some fish to the party. True to his word, he went out and caught enough fish to feed us all. “I can’t tell you how much it means to me to have you here, and to see how much you love the ocean,” he tells Nainoa. “For myself, I intend to go out to sea until the end of my days.”


May 25, Hiroshima

MY TIME ON THE CANOE has come to an end, as Hokule‘a prepares to work its way up to Yokohama on the last few legs of its long voyage, and I prepare to return to my regular life in Honolulu.

But as I get ready to bid a hui hou (until we meet again) to the crew that has been my ‘ohana for the past two weeks, I’m still feeling a lot of turmoil over the experience of the atomic bomb memorial. What good can one small canoe really do, I keep thinking, in the face of our world’s brutality?

But then I go down to the dock one last time, only to find a long line of people waiting in the hot sun for their turn to tour Hoku. On board, children scamper beneath the masts, and silver-haired men in yachting caps knowingly murmur over the elegant lashing. One older woman even wipes away tears as she caresses the steering paddle and listens to tales of the canoe’s exploits and mission of cultural rediscovery.

Suddenly, it all comes back into perspective: Seeing so many people being moved just by touching Hoku made me realize that this in itself is a statement for peace, since, as Nainoa has been saying over and over here, peace must begin in each of our hearts.

Perhaps my bunkmate Keala puts it best as we stand together on the dock checking out the crowd. “Look at all these people with smiles on their faces,” he says when we embrace goodbye. “You no can beat that!” HH