HILO » For Keiko Otaki of Kawasaki, Japan, hula is life.
Otaki is among 17 hula dancers from Japan at the 48th annual Merrie Monarch Festival, drawn by their love of hula.
Following the March 11 tsunami and earthquake, Otaki said she was thinking of canceling her trip to Hawaii because she just wasn’t in the mood to come.
After 45 days she changed her mind.
"In Japan everyone is depressed," she said while waiting in a long line for Wednesday evening’s free hoike exhibition performance. "But we can’t keep being depressed forever."
For Otaki and fellow dancer Taiko Kawada of Nagoya, hula is uplifting for the spirits and a way to move forward.
They are part of a group tour arranged by Island Dreams, which offers a package including Merrie Monarch tickets, transportation and accommodations. Some of them brought specially designed T-shirts to sell as a fundraiser for the Red Cross of Japan.
At the hoike performance, baskets were passed around among the spectators to collect donations for Japan disaster relief.
None of the reservations for the Merrie Monarch package were canceled, said Tomomi Komatsu of Island Dreams.
"Some people feel like they shouldn’t have any fun, but they stay home and do nothing, then the economy gets worse," she said. "So, many people are thinking they have to do something to make the economy move, and to get back to the normal routine."
Vendors were busy with crowds at the Arts and Crafts Fair at the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium, but there have been fewer Japanese visitors this year, said Sylvia Kop of Hula Supply Center. She said more local residents seemed to be shopping.
There are ties that bind hula and Japan.
At the Merrie Monarch it’s clear that hula fans come from around the world, but especially from Japan.
Many kumu hula who compete at Merrie Monarch have halau or haumana (students) in Japan whom they mentor on a regular basis, or they have students from Japan who come here to study hula.
Many are accomplished and dedicated dancers, and some of them go on to become kumu hula and open their own halau in Japan.
More than 40 hula halau are listed in Japan in the global directory on mele.com.
Kumu hula Maelia Loebenstein Carter has halau in Tokyo, Fukuoka, Hokkaido and in the Osaka area. Her sensei, who teaches in Tokyo, still came to Merrie Monarch this year.
When Carter first learned of the tsunami on March 11, she was worried. One of her alakai (student group leaders) who was living and teaching in Tokyo called her as it was happening because she was terrified.
Luckily, the alakai made it back home to Hawaii safely, but Carter waited anxiously to hear whether other students in Japan were OK.
Phone lines were down but Facebook was still accessible, and she was able to get updates from students in Japan. One of her student’s families survived but lost their home.
"You know your haumana by name, you know their families, so you worry until all of them are accounted for," said Carter.
Carter plans to return to Tokyo at the end of May to teach, especially since many of her haumana there are getting ready for an annual hoolaulea in July.
"I decided that, yes, I will go," she said. "Hula is something that brings them (the students) peace and joy. It’s their one outlet, and they’re waiting for me to come. I can’t disappoint them."
Kumu hula Hokulani De Rego is also planning to go to Japan in May to visit haumana from as far north as Hokkaido down to Osaka and Fukuoka in the south.
For De Rego the tsunami and earthquake really hit home.
"Not all of our haumana have been heard from," she said. "Many of them have been lost. All of our teachers are sending their aloha."
She and her students are in constant pule, or prayer, over the students in Japan, particularly in the Sendai area where the earthquake hit most severely.
De Rego said Hawaii’s ties go as far back as Merrie Monarch Festival founder King David Kalakaua, who had a close friendship with the emperor of Japan. There were many cultural exchanges and that continues today through hula.
"We just love the people," said De Rego. "We love that they love Hawaii and its people so much. We really are family."