KEALIA — Yukio Otani of Japan had a goal of making a lei with a lei maker on each island in Hawaii.
Monday, near the end of his stay on Kauai, Otani sat under the windy, cold, and overcast skies, working with raffia and flowers to brighten the bleary conditions that enveloped the Kealia Farm market.
“He has published a book on lei,” said Elvrine Chow of Heavenly Haku. “He just showed up at the farmers market, Saturday after not being able to meet with Marina Pascua. Kauai Museum sent him to the farmers market.”
Unable to work on a lei at the Kauai Community Market, Otani returned to the Kealia Farm market armed with a collection of flowers, raffia and other supplies.
“At the flower markets in Japan, I tell them I’m looking for colors like cherry, or chocolate,” Otani said. “That led to the title of the book on lei — Umahana. ‘Umai’ translated is ‘delicious,’ and ‘hana’ is, of course, ‘flower.’ The name means delicious flower.”
Starting at 26 years old, Otani embarked on a career of working with flowers. Along the way, he departed from the traditional floral crafting and learned how to make lei.
Meeting Marie McDonald of the Big Island, author of Ka Lei, Otani’s lei making was honed by the meaning of lei, and why people make lei. This started him on a three-year exodus of lei and lei making, both in Japan and Hawaii.
“She told me, ‘Every island of Hawaii has its symbolic lei,” Otani said. “Likewise, flowers have different meanings depending on the region. When we look at a lei a person is wearing, we can tell where the person is from.’ In lei making, you must use the flower of the region, give the lei to a person of the region, and when done, returning the used lei to the land of the region.”
He took this to heart, returning to Japan to teach hula and leading workshops to communicate the joy of lei making to the Japanese people.
“Many hula halau use lei made with silk flowers,” Otani said. “They say ‘there are no flowers in Japan. However, there are places in Japan, at certain times of the year when farmers and farms, like apple farms, have too many flowers. I wanted to show the graces of each flower to the people in Japan.”
Through her book, Otani said she wanted top show the people around the world the smiles and happiness of Japanese people who grow flowers and farm products.
Chow, who received a copy of Otani’s book, said he has created lei using strawberries, tatami mats, and even rice — flowers of the region.
“When I visited around Japan to see the flowers, I recognized that each region has its unique traditions, jobs, and people living with flowers,” Otani said. “I could realize that the nature and climate of each region were making our lives and minds more fertile.”
But he also saw the other side of that fertility.
“Sometimes I heard that productions were decreasing, or even discontinued,” Otani said. “This is due to the aging farmers and competition from imported less expensive flowers. To see this is unforgettable and a valuable memory for me. I met with people about preserving tradition.”
Otani said when he started looking for flowers with McDonald’s words as guidance, he found more than flowers.
“When I first started, I was running on the thought of how beautiful the lei I would make should be,” he said. “However, while going on the journey, I found the things that were much more important — the smiles of all the people I met. I realized I should tie not only the flowers, but also these people’s smiles.”