Life in balance with sweets, stitches and the sea


Every Tuesday, Hideki Okubo heads her car from the Tokyo suburb of Chofu towards the Shonan coast, and the oldest and possibly the largest windsurfing school in Japan.

“Today the owner of Zushi Windsurfing School lives in Maui,” Okubo explains, strong winds and driving rain keeping her sensibly on dry land. “The school is now run by his younger brother. We’re a community; we windsurf together, hang out together. I guess the average age is mid-30s, but we have a 70-year-old who’s out on the waves whenever conditions are right.”

The name Hideki is most usually given to boys, not girls. It’s her grandfather’s fault, she says: “I have no idea what he was thinking. Maybe he was attaching more importance to the meaning of the Chinese characters than my sex.”

A shy child, who just about coped with a school exchange to the U.K. — “the month homestaying in Cheltenham, U.K., in 1984, and then rushing around Europe was a lot of fun” — Okubo found her personality changed after she went to the U.S. for a year.

“I was lucky to stay with a wonderful host, a family in New Jersey, who made me feel safe and welcome; they really helped me open up. But I was really shocked by how insular and unfriendly the town was in general. Foreign friends say Japan can be like this, which I understand. But America? I’d always imagined all Americans to be friendly, accepting, noisy, outgoing. Well, not true . . .”

After graduating, Okubo worked as an OL (office lady) in an insurance company in Akasaka’s Ark Hills for nine years. Looking back now, remembering the daily grind and lack of opportunity, she wonders how she stuck it out for so long. “When my mother got a hernia, I had the perfect excuse to quit.”

Since then she has helped in her family’s “wagashi-ya” (traditional Japanese sweet shop) in Chofu. Kamemoko Hompo has been run by the Okubo family for three generations, and is now in the hands of Hideki’s older brother. “He and his staff create new designs, do all the creative work. I suppose that pushed me to find another way to express myself in color and design.”

What she found was Hawaiian quilting. It began when Okubo saw Cathy Nakajima demonstrating the craft on TV. Discovering that Cathy was teaching quilting in Sangenjaya, not far from where the family lived, Okubo joined classes for two years. “I loved my time there, the experience: the images, colorways, the sense of calm while stitching.

When New York’s World Trade Center fell on Sept. 11, 2001, Okubo was in Hawaii for a friend’s wedding. “It was the day I was supposed to come back. With the airport closed, I was stuck there for another five days.”

Feeling it something of a miracle that she was able to turn a bad time for so many into a positive personal experience for herself, she visited Bishop Museum, and saw antique and vintage quilts for the first time. Also she met some elderly quilters and was introduced to the grandchild of Debbie Kakalia (nicknamed Aunty Debbie), one of the island’s most famous exponents of the craft.

“This is how Nalani Goard became my teacher,” Okubo explains further. “I studied several years to get my quilting licence. Nalani used to have classes in Japan, but now I go there (Hawaii) most years. I didn’t go last year because my grandmother was ill. But I’ll be going again this summer.

Okubo is operating an online business, offering kits for making Hawaiian-quilted cushions and wall-hangings. All the kits are designed by Aunty Debbie and Nalani, and all but one design is traditional to Hawaii: bamboo. “This was designed by Nalani especially for Japan.” Shopping is easy; you simply click the design you want, choosing from the color samples, and then stand by for fast delivery.

Okubo teaches in Chofu. “It’s a small class, but that’s fine. I don’t want to be too busy.” She has the shop, the class, the online business — which is small also but ticks over — and her other love, windsurfing. Spare time? “I’m making a full-size bedcover in purple and lilac — my favorite colors. Also a bag. That’s enough.”

She got into windsurfing three years ago, and says she’s now addicted. “I can’t keep away.” In the first place a friend asked her to go along, but her friend soon gave up.

“It’s not for everyone. You need a certain amount of toughness. It helped that I was naturally sporty — basketball, golf, tennis, you name it.”

Windsurfing is especially hard, she thinks, because the sea and weather are always in control, and conditions always changing. Accepting that, bowing to that, helps keep the sail upright and the board scudding over the ocean surface. “Fighting the elements is a waste of time and energy.” Go with the flow, rather.

Okubo says she’s still not very good, but she perseveres, practicing nearly every week. Also she goes on windsurfing tours organized by the school. Having been to Saipan twice, she finds it hard to cannot describe the joy in being able to surf every day from dawn to sunset.

Right now her life is perfectly in balance. But she is adamant that she’d give it all up to marry and have kids, for a few years at least! “I’m 37, so I suppose I must think about it seriously.”

But not yet, she adds. “Right now I really like my life.”