Even before coming back to Japan, I knew that every year for the past few decades at least a million Japanese citizens have visited Hawai‘i, many more than once. But I've been surprised again and again by the depth and breadth of Hawai‘i connections all over Japan.
Hawai‘i-roasted Lion's coffee, Kona coffee, and Hawai‘i macadamia nuts and chocolates were available in the first small grocery store we shopped at in Shinagawa station in Tokyo. And, of course, every train station travel agency displays plenty of flyers for Hawai‘i vacations. We've noted a lot of aloha shirts and Hawai‘i T-shirts--at least in August--and not just on yakuza types. We've seen T-shirts plus aloha shirt combinations for sale in Ito Yokado, a nationwide discount department store. (The layered look is quite popular with young people here.) T&C Surf Design stuff is ubiquitous. (I've even seen it on wooden geta.)
One of the most prominent restaurants in Ashikaga, right on main street near the JR train station, is a Royal Host franchise with a full-on Hawai‘i theme and hibiscus logo, as if were lifted right out of a Waikiki hotel oriented to Japanese tourists. It offers Kona coffee, macadamia chocolates, orchids and pineapple on the plate, a "Big Island" four-kinds of meat dinner, and even Loco Moco on the menu. Loco Moco is even mentioned on the banners out front. When we ate there one day, I ordered their cold noodles, which turned out to be a passable attempt at Korean-style nengmyon, complete with sliced apples, sliced boiled egg, (mild) kimchee, and a subtly sesame-flavored broth. They're open from 8 a.m. to 2 a.m., and seem to attract regular customers of all ages.
But even more impressive are the chance encounters that turn up surprisingly deep connections.
The travel-happy owners of our favorite okonomiyaki restaurant in Ashikaga have been to Hawai‘i six times--and to Bali twelve times! The many Indonesian artifacts in their store prompted me to inquire.
Yesterday, my wife and I went up to the immigration office in Utsunomiya and stopped at a coffee shop called Akai Tori ('red bird') on the way back, just as we passed Futaara Shrine. The place was filled with Hawaiian collectibles from the 50s and 60s. The owner had been to Hawai‘i five times
The most poignant tale came from a widow running a small Ainu craft and souvenir shop at the small Kawamura Kaneto Ainu Museum in Asahikawa on Hokkaido, which has had an official visit from a Maori delegation, but none from Hawai‘i's Kanaka Maoli. While we were poking around her neighbor's shop, she began talking to our daughter, whose Hawai‘i connections prompted a sweet but sad story. Her husband had made many trips to Hawai‘i as an Ainu woodcarver when Shirokiya department store in Ala Moana shopping center held its annual Asahikawa food and crafts fair. He brought his family along a few times, and the son ended settling in Hawai‘i after marrying a local girl. His mother had attended his Hawaiian wedding and--too few years later--sadly returned to attend his funeral as well. He died in his 40s. His mother kindly dressed our daughter up in an Ainu robe and headband so we would take a photo, all free of charge--although we did buy the headband, which was embroidered by the widow herself.