Postcard 35: A birthday party in Okinawa

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In 2013, I took my very first trip to Japan, a country that had long been on my bucket list since before I can even remember. Though I barely scratched the surface, I was still fortunate to have gotten a well-rounded tour of the country, getting just enough of a taste of everything it has to offer — from the concrete jungle of Tokyo to the historical wonder of Kyoto. As I departed Tokyo for Honolulu, I made a vow to myself that I would one day return.

Six years later, that’s exactly what I did.

But this time, I would venture to another bucket list destination: Okinawa, a region I have a personal stake in — primarily because I am one-fourth Okinawan.

Strangely enough, though, I did not visit relatives of my own. Instead, my mom and I were invited to accompany my mom’s sister and her family to Japan. That’s because my aunt’s husband (or my uncle) is originally from Okinawa, and his father would be celebrating his 97th birthday there.

Confused yet?

Maybe you know this, maybe you don’t. Okinawa is considered a blue zone region and has one of the highest life expectancy rates in the world. There are a number of factors that contribute to this, from eating a healthy, plant-based diet to other unique cultural factors that can only be explained in Okinawa.

Maybe it can be attributed to the concept of ikigai — a reason for getting up in the morning — or maybe it’s moai — a secure social support system that one maintains through life. Whatever it is, Okinawans live long lives. And at 97, you celebrate what’s called kajimaya.

Kajimaya is loosely translated in Japanese as “windmill.” We often see windmills as a representation of youth, and kajimaya is the idea that when one reaches 97 years old, he or she returns to a child. Think of it as the Okinawan version of Benjamin Button.

On Oct. 6, 2019, we celebrated Grandpa Tokeshi’s 97th birthday, or kajimaya.

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The day started off with my aunt’s family (a total of 11 people) taking professional family photos before the party, while my mom and I discovered a Tokyu Hands.

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Side note: If you don’t know what Tokyu Hands is, it’s basically a department store that has everything you can think of, from stationery to clothes to food to hair products. Essentially, it’s a shopper’s heaven on earth!

Then, it was time to head over to the party, a 5-minute taxi ride from our hotel — the Moon Ocean Hotel — to the Laguna Garden Hotel in Ginowan.

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Little did I know that it would be one of the most culturally unique experiences I would ever be a part of.

The party itself took place in a large banquet hall, seating roughly 200 or so. I was absolutely stunned to see how many people were there for a birthday celebration — many of whom were actually related to Grandpa Tokeshi!

Growing up, I had seen some of the Okinawan relatives visit Hawaii for the occasional Christmas or New Year’s party, but seeing everyone together in one room really put things into perspective.

Well, for starters, Grandpa Tokeshi has eight children (including my Uncle Jin). And they all have children — so just imagine how their family expanded through the generations.

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The event included a full program that lasted the duration of the party, which involved individual speeches by grandpa’s children, along with family members providing entertainment through instrumental performances, traditional Okinawan dances and dances for all the children to participate in.

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Boy, what a talented family!

And while we were being entertained, we were also spoiled with an endless amount of delicious Japanese dishes. My personal favorite: a plate of perfectly cut sashimi accompanied by the fish head and tail, arranged neatly aside small pieces of shrimp.

But to top it off, a local news crew was there from start to finish, interviewing Grandpa Tokeshi and filming b-roll throughout the event.

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The party wasn’t over yet, though.

We were then taken by taxi to grandpa’s home — another 10-minute drive — where we awaited the start of a community parade.

Another fun fact about kajimaya: The elders will take part in a parade by riding in colorfully decorated vehicles going through the town. And the community will come out  in support!

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What I didn’t realize is that I would actually be in the parade! Some of the family members beckoned me, my mom and aunt into a van that would be among several to follow Grandpa Tokeshi’s Mercedes-Benz sports car that was rented for the parade.

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Though there was a slight technical difficulty (the roof of the car not opening), that wouldn’t stop the celebration. The parade forged on.

Many of the family members were inside the parade vehicles, while others joined on foot to pass out pinwheels and balloons to passersby in the community. And as we navigated through the town, I was utterly impressed by how much community support there was. People came out of their homes to accept the pinwheels and balloons and to wave at the procession of vehicles.

And yes, the news crew was still following.

Gazing out the van window and seeing all the genuinely happy smiles helped me understand why Okinawans do live such a long, fulfilling life. Sure, they may live a healthy lifestyle, but I do believe the support for one another is everything.

The evening ended with a dinner back at Grandpa Tokeshi’s house, where about 30 of us gathered. It was the perfect way to end an eventful day, sharing stories and bonding in true fellowship.

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3 thoughts on “Postcard 35: A birthday party in Okinawa

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