Travelling home: Part I

I’m now in Haneda Airport in Tokyo, waiting to fly back  to England  and meet my family whom I haven’t seen for a year. Seeming as I have a few hours to spare, I thought I’d share my journey.

From the train window

The train from Fukui goes through hidden forested valleys, past shining Lake Biwa before arriving in the higgledy-piggledy urban mass that is Kyoto. It is a route I know well, but every time I appreciate something new as each season is so different; from watching fluffy snow whizz past the window in winter, to seeing sailing boats on the lake in summer.


Today Kyoto looked hot and muggy, but from the air conditioned carriage of my train I still romanticise the small streets and the old houses, like they were in ‘Memoirs of a Geisha’. Some people I know can’t stand this romanisation of ‘old’ Japan, as if it takes something away from the modern Japan today, but I see them as a continuation of each other. For example, no longer do geisha’s walk the streets, but hostess clubs provide the same experience for men wanting to be doted on in exchange of money. The narrow streets, with water running down one side and lanterns hung on the houses, are still beautiful, even if a girl is walking down them with platform heels, pink hair and an anime outfit on!

The train terminates in Osaka; the hub and heart of Japan, where people conform less to traditional values, and more to the rules of fashion. I still see fragments of an older Japan, one which hasn’t changed in decades. Taxi drivers wearing white gloves, more people wearing hats than don’t wear them, and older women sprinkling  water outside their houses for some reason. Stone tori gates mark the entrance to a shrine, in a forested corner of a street, a haven of reflection between the busyness of the city. Japanese people embrace change; older salary men with grey hair, dressed in perfectly tailored suits, now have the latest smart phone. Girls ride on the back of their boyfriend’s bike, even though they have 5 inch heels on and short white skirts. Everyone looks stylish, like they’ve just rolled out of bed with perfect hair, flawless skin and a stunning outfit. I wonder how this will compare to the fashion in England.

From the airport lounge


I take the randomly named ‘Salad Express’ bus to Osaka Itami Airport and continue people watching. Airports can seem like sterile places, with thousands of faces passing through each day, but if you look a little closer you’ll see they’re emotional places too. The arrival lounge is like the opening scenes of ‘Love Actually’ with families being reunited, and on one floor higher there are people crying as they say goodbye to their loved ones. I know the ecstasy and the sadness of going through both. As I fly so infrequently, I enjoy waiting in airports, seeing people crossing paths, moving homes or just going on holiday.

Some anthropologists call airports homogenized ‘non-places’ (Auge,1992) characterised by global brands and similar procedures, which is true to an extent, but you can’t forget you’re in ‘Japan’ in a Japanese airport. The annoying sounds from a TV blare out at you, shop keepers welcome you with a warm ‘irasshaimase’ as you walk past, and salary men share platters of food and beers whilst waiting for their flight.

From the plane window

I’m not sure I’ll ever get over the excitement of taking off. The wait as the plane makes its way through the myriad of flashing lights on the runway slips, the firing up of the engine and then the sudden acceleration as the plane picks up enough speed to take off. Tonight, as we lifted off the lights of Osaka looked great, with green baseball fields lit up and roads looking like white snakes criss crossing across the black earth. The cloud layer was low, and the full moon lit them up from above. We touched down in Tokyo an hour later, and I braced myself for touch down, my least favourite part of the flight.

In the next airport

Tokyo Haneda airport’s international terminal has done well in creating an old Japanese street to house its various eateries. It also has beautifully decorated areas, using flower displays, and paper hangings in keeping with the latest Japanese festival. I see there are ‘shower rooms’ but why has no one thought of putting an onsen within an airport? Weary travellers like me, who have to wait all night until their next flight, would love to soak in the silky waters of an onsen.


Between 1am and 6am there are no flights and the airport changes into a busy bustling place, to one of mood lighting and soft music. Half-sleeping bodies are sprawled over long seats, trying to sleep before their flight. I am one of the lap-toppers, sat using the wifi of the airport, wasting the wee hours of the night surfing online. Cleaners polish the floor until it shines, a group of immaculate looking flight hostesses walk past happy to have finished their shift, and a group of friendly policemen remove a slightly odd woman from disturbing the sleeping layabouts.

For me, airports symbolise freedom. The possibility to jump on a flight to anywhere, making the world seem so small. Maybe when I’m on my 12 hour flight in a few hours, the world won’t seem so small. I hope I get a window seat.


You may want to read Part II, to see what happened just after I’d written this post.

Cultural Crossings: Japanese finding their hula self

It was back in April when I accidentally walked into a Hawaiian hula dance class at Echizen Cultural Centre. I wouldn’t have been surprised if I’d have found an ikebana class, or a calligraphy class but instead, I came across about twenty women in long colourful skirts with flowers in their hair, dancing to Hawaiian music. How strange, I thought, to find hula dancing in my small Japanese town! 

From then on I’ve realised how much Japanese people love Hawaii, and its exotic Polynesian heritage and American culture. Speak to any Japanese person about Hawaii and they’ll probably tell you about their visit to the ‘tropical paradise’, or how much they want to go. It is of course the closest place to actual America, and Japanese people, at least my students, love America. I wanted to find out where this fascination began, and why there is a hula class in Echizen. 

The first outreach of friendship

In the January of 1806, a Japanese cargo ship named Inawaka-maru left a port near Tokyo to head back to her homeport near Hiroshima. During the journey she was battered by a horrific storm. The eight-man crew had to cut down the mast due to the strong winds, and their fate was at the mercy of the elements. As their ship drifted across the Pacific Ocean, their water and rice stores ran dry, but the men survived by fishing and collecting rain water. It was an American captain near Hawaii that found the men in a state of near starvation and nursed them back to health. The captain left the eight men in Oahu under the care of the Hawaiian King Kamehameha, who openly welcomed these foreigners to his country. Due to illness on their return journey, only one of the men made it back to Japan to document their tales of the Hawaiian kindness, but this account began an amicable relationship between the two countries.

The first wave of migration

Scared of the affects of most foreign contact, between 1869 and 1885, Japan banned emigration to Hawaii, in fear that Japanese labourers would degrade the reputation of the Japanese race. Yet the Hawaiian-Japanese relations were softened when the king of Hawaii visited Japan in 1881 and met with Emperor Meiji Mutsuhito. The similarities between the countries were apparent: both were island nations of the Pacific, both were monarchies and both were under pressure of Western powers. To join the countries even more, King Kalakaua even proposed a marriage between his daughter and a Japanese prince. This alliance never happened, but the ban on emigration to Hawaii was lifted, and in 1885 the first Japanese immigrants arrived in Hawaii to work on sugar-cane and pineapple plantations. Most of them never left, and became the Issei – first generation – of the Japanese diaspora in Hawaii.

Settling and choosing ‘picture brides’

A monument to the Japanese sugar cane workers in the early 20th century

A monument to the Japanese sugar cane workers in the early 20th century

The Japanese community in Hawaii grew and grew. Like other immigrants they revolted against the hard working labour conditions of the plantations and set up their own businesses. The number of Japanese migrants arriving in Hawaii made it possible to maintain strong cultural ties with Japan. They brought their religious traditions of Shinto and Buddhism with them, as well as many other customs, festivals and foods.

It appears that the Japanese community kept themselves quite separate from the native Hawaiians, well at least in who they would marry. A ‘bride trade’ emerged, where Japanese men in Hawaii would choose a Japanese bride from looking at a set of postcards with Japanese women on them. And so the chosen women crossed the ocean to meet a man they had never met to start a family in Hawaii, probably the first mail-order type bride.

Picture brides brought from Japan

Picture brides brought from Japan

WWII – what to do with Japanese Americans?

Obviously WWII, and the bombing of Pearl Harbour by the Japanese, was a slight hiccup in this harmonious relationship. At the time 157,000 Japanese were living in Hawaii – that’s about a third of the population, but only about 2000 Japanese Americans were put in internment camps. These camps were to control people who were a threat to American security, and in other parts of America, such as California, many more Japanese were put in these camps. This disparity between American policies was to sustain the economy of Hawaii, as if a third of its population were to be put in an internment camp, its economy would implode on itself. Yet it must have been an extremely hard time to be a Japanese American in Hawaii when the two countries were at war.

Hawaii today

Now Japanese Americans make up about a fifth of the whole population in Hawaii. Japanese is a major language spoken and due to the large number of Japanese tourists whom visit, Japanese is often added to signs. For a long time, the identities of the Nisei and Sansei, second and third generation Japanese born in Hawaii, find their identities crossing both countries.

Hawaiian culture in Japan

My friend's hat - bought in Japan - Hawaiian inspired fashion.

My friend’s hat – bought in Japan – Hawaiian inspired fashion.

Over the last 10 years the popularity of Hawaiian culture has rocketed. Not just Aloha shirts, but learning Hawaiian language, or taking up the ukulele. A craze is sweeping the nation – that of hula dancing. It is estimated about 400,000 Japanese are involved with learning Hawaiian dance, most of whom are middle-aged women who enjoy the light exercise and the excitement of learning a new dance form These Japanese are drawn to the rhythm and sway of the dance, something exotically freeing from traditional Japanese dances. Many of these followers make a trip to Hawaii to take hula lessons or attend competitions. To cater for the needs of these hula dances, Hawaiian jewellery and Hawaiian-style dress shops are springing up. People are interested in the music, the culture and learning the moves of the dance. A student of the dance, Chieko Kobayashi, 50, says that the dance captures her emotionally. “Dancing makes me feel I can be just my soul, nothing else,” Kobayashi said.


A Japanese hula group competing in a dancing competition in Hawaii

This fascination in Hawaiian culture no doubt comes from the thousands of Japanese people who choose to visit Hawaii on their vacation. For those who can afford it, instead of going to their own tropical islands in Okinawa, they go to Hawaii. Hawaii continues to be the most popular honeymoon location for Japanese people, with 40% of newly wed couples choosing to spend their vacation there. Why? Because it’s ‘a home away from home’. There is the excitement of travelling abroad, but they also know they can speak Japanese, eat at Japanese restaurants and stay in Japanese hotels. On top of this, they are in ‘America’ and can watch baseball matches, eat the biggest hamburgers and splurge in American shops, where the shop attendant probably speaks Japanese.

So from my research, I can now understand why there are a group of middle-aged women in my town who are learning to sway together to the gentle sounds of Hawaiian music. I wonder what other surprising cultural crossings there still are in Japan…


Hiroko Hara dancing in the annual Hula Ho’olauna Aloha festival