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The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawaii (JCCH) is one of those hidden gems we often overlook; not because it’s a small hole-in-the-wall but because it’s a huge concrete building that can easily be mistaken for a parking structure.
Those in the local Japanese community know better. Take this older Japanese woman I recently met there, for instance; she has been coming there for years and knew exactly where to find the collection of antique Japanese dolls, which were hidden on the top shelf in the back room of the gift shop. Although it may not look it, this building houses Hawaii’s rich history of Japanese Americans in the islands.
We were looking through the rack of kimonos when I felt a gentle tap on my right elbow. I turned around only to find a tiny woman, wearing royal blue eye shadow and a pair of those Japanese wooden slippers, peering up at me. I felt like a giant; she must have been a foot shorter than me even with the added inch from her slippers, and I could see the top of her head! Then, in an even tinier voice, she politely asked me if I could reach for one of those dolls up there. Tippy toeing, the old woman pointed toward the doll with the pale snow face and an elaborate kimono as blue as her eye shadow.
She proudly told us about her extensive collection of dolls and how she has been collecting them since she was a young girl in Japan. Although we couldn’t quite understand all of her broken English, we could just see in her smiling eyes the passion she had for, which to her was, such a precious commodity.Have fun trying on traditional Japanese kimono.
Located in the heart of Moiliili, the JCCH is the hub of Japanese American history and culture in Hawaii. It celebrates such history with a small museum gallery, a Kenshikan martial arts dojo and a traditional Japanese tea house. From Japanese tattoos to the history of karate, the museum offers rotating exhibits during the year that share the Japanese American experience through photography, woodblock prints and sculptures. Special guest speakers come to talk about the exhibits on display, helping to enhance the exhibit.
A more permanent exhibit called “Okage Sama De: I am what I am because of you” is especially meaningful to the first wave of Japanese immigrants, who are still scattered throughout the islands. This exhibit goes through the multi-generational history of the Japanese in Hawaii – from their first hesitant steps onto a foreign land to the bombing of Pearl Harbor. It’s like stepping back in time to experience an era so crucial to present-day Hawaii.
The dojo (a place where people go to discipline themselves) has become one of the premiere practice spaces for learning martial arts. JCCH originally created the 2,500 square feet area to promote the practice of kendo (the way of the sword), but it has since broadened its focus to include karate, aikido, naginata and dance. The gift shop sells all things Japanese – tea sets, paintings and this cute little guy on the right.
And on the fourth floor of that massive concrete building, you’ll find a peaceful Japanese tea house and garden. The Omotesenke Hawaii Shibu, a traditional Japanese group, currently practice tea ceremony there while JCCH offers tea classes to the public. Tea has become a growing interest in Hawaii, with places like Waioli Tea House and the Tea Farm. But this particular tea room offers an authentic Japanese tea experience like no other.
The JCCH is a must-see when you’re in Hawaii, especially if you’re at all interested in Asian cultures. Look for that old Japanese woman I was telling you about. She has an interesting story worth hearing!
JAPANESE CULTURAL CENTER OF HAWAII • 2454 S. Beretania St., Honolulu, HI 96726 • 808-945-7633 • Opens Tues-Sat 10am-4pm; Resource Center: Wed-Fri 10am-4pm • $7 Adults, $5 Children; $3 Military; Second Saturday FREE • Parking available; Near a bus route