Inside Honolulu: Drumming Up Inspiration

A work assignment inspired me to reconnect with my Japanese heritage.
Jayna practicing at her taiko studio.
Photo: Aaron K. Yoshino


It started out like any other interview. A key source met me at a crowded Starbucks in Kalihi. We grabbed the last open table and started talking.        


It wasn’t my first meeting like this. Over four months, I spent 73 hours interviewing 21 people and sitting in on 21 meetings, practices, site visits, setups, festivals, and anything and everything in between for my feature on Honolulu’s ethnic festivals. My presence became so noticeable that the volunteers started joking, “You’re here again?”


During that time, I got to know a few of the volunteers really well. After all, I saw some of them more often than I did my own friends and family. My interviewee at that crowded Starbucks was one of them.    


As she began talking about how her grandparents and their sacrifices inspired her to get involved, we locked eyes and she began to cry. A few drops fell as she explained how important perpetuating her culture was and how proud her grandparents would be knowing that she’s continued their legacy. It wasn’t a long explanation, but it was heartfelt and genuine.    


I was on the brink of tears myself. That experience opened my eyes to how much I had lost touch with my own heritage. But it wasn’t always that way.


My grandma was born in Hawai‘i but spent most of her childhood in Japan. She did whatever she could to keep the culture alive in our house. We practiced calligraphy during summer breaks, folded origami animals that we found in the books she’d buy me, attended bon dance every year and watched sumo wrestling tournaments. But after she died when I was 13, I felt I lost a part of that connection to my culture.


photo: courtesy of jayna omaye


I’m reclaiming that now. That touching moment with the festival volunteer is just one example of the dozens of inspirational people I met while I shadowed five ethnic festivals. Their passion, perseverance and love for their cultures surprised and inspired me. I had to do something about it. So, I began researching taiko groups and started my first class in September with Somei Taiko in ‘Aiea.


It hasn’t been easy, that’s for sure. I’ve never done anything like it (unless you count high school orchestra and marching band), so it’s been challenging to master the technique of hitting the drum while keeping rhythm and memorizing the beats.


I practice every week and study videos we are allowed to record of each song. I watch my classmates during rehearsals to gain insight on how to improve. And I ask for help when I don’t know what I’m doing.


As I learned from the dozens of volunteers I met and got to know, nothing great ever comes easily. Playing taiko is a new challenge that’s broadened my horizons and helped reconnect me with my Japanese heritage. It’s not the be-all and end-all, but it’s a start. And I know my grandma would be proud of me. I wish she was here to see my performances.


As journalists, we write all kinds of stories. Some are more compelling than others. A handful leave a mark. I’m glad this one did.


SEE ALSO: Best of the Fests: O‘ahu’s 21 Annual Ethnic Festivals


From the pages of the writer’s notebook …

Notebook page 1

  Notebook page 2