The same weekend lion dances and fireworks sound off the new year in Honolulu’s Chinatown, a similar cultural happening takes place on the other side of the city. The Ohana Festival is how the Japanese in Hawaii have been ringing in the new year for the past decade – complete with taiko drumming, cultural demonstrations and a foodie’s haven.

Crowds of people joined the fun at this year’s Ohana Festival in Honolulu.

By mid-morning on Sunday, the Moiliili community was up and rocking. A steady doon doon doon from the rhythmic taiko drumming escaped into the overcast skies, followed by a blend of folk and rock music that put a contemporary spin on the traditional art form of ensemble taiko drumming. The group, Ryukyukoku Matsuri Daiko Hawaii, really kicked it up a notch with several Karate kicks and punches incorporated into the choreography. Girls, guys, kids and adults lit up the grassy performing area with their colorful costumes, wide-eyed expressions and the high-pitched shrills that were interjected between beats.VIDEO: Hawaii taiko drummers take the art of drumming to another level.

Across the way, a different kind of beat could be heard – the beat of mochi being pounded into its stickiest form. It’s the food of the new year in the Japanese culture that takes time and strength to prepare. We watched as a group of men circled around the large stone bowl and took turns hitting the rice inside with a big wooden hammer. Kids later jumped in to take a whack at the white globby goo, using all their might to lift the heavy mallet-like device over their heads. The gathering crowd cheered and chanted for each new pounder who stepped up to the plate, helping them to get through the rigorous swings. Whack, whack, whack…In the end, I’m sure the hard-working mochi fleet would agree that enjoying the finished product made it all worth it.

Mochi was just one of the edible delights at the Ohana Fest. A neat row of food booths stretched across the community’s baseball field with an array of flavors to be had – sushi, andagi, carne asada and shave ice. This year, a few new savory flavors were added to the mix from food trucks that lined Beretania Street. Needless to say, no one left the event hungry that day!

Over the years, the festival has gotten so popular that organizers had to split it into two locations to accommodate the thousands who attend every year. Across the street from the food booths and mochi pounding, the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii served as the go-to place for attendees to get their shopping fix on. My sister’s really into vintage Asian stuff and ironically, found a paper wallet with a calendar inside from the year she was born: 1993, Year of the Rooster. A find of the day that didn’t stop there. She left with a bag full of cool stuff – old record covers, wall art and a framed hologram-type photo of a Hiroshima temple.My sister’s loot from the day. The festival had something for everyone.

We had planned on staying for an hour or two but ended up hanging out ‘til the very end. Nearly half a day’s worth of being wonderfully embraced by the Japanese culture helped me to understand just how much they’ve influenced our community overtime. While I’m not Japanese, I still relate to the Asian ways through my Chinese ethnicity. I enjoy seeing pieces of an ancient culture carried on through today’s society, but most of all, I enjoy knowing that cultural festivals like this one never fail to bring a new kind of life to our busy little communities.

Photo Credit (second photo): Ariel Navares

JAPANESE CULTURAL CENTER OF HAWAII • 2454 S. Beretania St., Honolulu, HI 96826 • 808-945-7633 • www.jcch.com • Opens Tues-Sat, 10am-4pm • Municipal parking; Near bus route

2 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Bruce,

    the Energy of that festival jumps right out of the post and the video.
    It has a very happy feeling to it.
    Hawaii could be a country I might be tempted to visit once I have had enough of being home.

    Thank you for sharing this!

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