Camp teaches keiki the ways of Okinawa

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The kids of Warabi Ashibi kicked off their Friday with flourishes of deep-purple ribbon, puppetry, practiced karate moves, and a bit of taiko.


The kids of Warabi Ashibi kicked off their Friday with flourishes of deep-purple ribbon, puppetry, practiced karate moves, and a bit of taiko.

A six-day camp featuring everything from fishing to noodle-making, Warabi Ashibi (Children at Play) introduces kids to Okinawan culture.

On Friday, their families got an introduction as well, gathering in the large Sangha Hall space for the final show. Smartphones, iPads and digital cameras were out in force.

The camp is supported in part by grants from the State Foundation of Culture and the Arts, and is presented by Hilo’s Hui Okinawa.

“Understanding each other’s culture leads to a better world,” camp co-director Dwayne Miyashiro said in his welcome speech.

The statewide Warabi Ashibi program celebrates its 20th anniversary this year. It’s been in Hilo for 14 years — long enough that one of those first campers, Megan Escalona, is now a lead teacher. Escalona’s twin sister, Taylor, is an assistant teacher.

Half of the kids who participated in this year’s camp were returnees.

“It’s a lot of fun,” Koby Koseki, 13, said. “We do a lot of different things.” Koby was back for his “fourth or fifth” year, and said his favorite part of this session was making the shisaa puppets (his featured a red-and-yellow color scheme).

The puppets, in the form of the lion dogs that traditionally guard Okinawan homes, took three days to complete.

Each year’s session features different projects — one year, campers made sanshin (a stringed instrument) out of tuna cans.

For the musical performance this year, campers repurposed 5-gallon buckets into taiko drums. The kids learned their taiko song in a few hours, instructor Troy Sakahira said.

“Most adults take a few days,” he said.

Mastering basic Okinawan phrases and songs in five days proved more of a challenge. Miyashiro called it “the toughest of all lessons. It’s almost like being in school.”

The kids were up to the task.

First-year camper Joshua Kitamura, 12, said he liked learning the new vocabulary. Okinawan (Uchinaguchi) is one of several Ryukyuan languages, and is distinct from Japanese.

Co-director Ruby Maekawa said cooking lessons were also a highlight for the campers.

Since it was founded on Oahu, Warabi Ashibi has branched out to Kauai, Maui and the Big Island. Kohala and Kona also have camps this year. Each session is different, with most lasting between two and four days.


But with six full days, Hilo’s program lasts the longest of any others, a source of pride for organizers and a way for kids to get more of an in-depth Okinawan experience.

“Nobody else does that,” said Maekawa.

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