“It was clear that The Mill, as my place of refuge, would be incorporated into my sabbatical plans, but it was unclear as to how that would transpire.” In early 2023, Aaron Tanimoto, a Japanese Language Teacher at Honoka‘a High School, took a semester-long sabbatical to focus on art and travel. Unknown to us at the time, what transpired over the next six months was an experience from which we all gained more profound insight, inspiration, and connection.

“[During my sabbatical] I decided to pursue the things I always told myself I’d love to do if I had more time,” says Aaron. Listing the Donkey Mill Art Center as the base for his sabbatical, Aaron looked to ground himself in the art world while also planning several off-island trips. In his words, “after memories of Zoom calls, social distancing, and as a gushing support for teachers faded, I decided it was time to replenish my worn and tired spirit. Around the same time last year, The Mill had an exhibit entitled Puuhonua which asked the question, ‘Where is your pu‘uhonua or place of refuge?’”. Motivated to explore this pu‘uhonua, to replenish and reconnect, Aaron began spending his time at the Mill. 

If you’ve followed Aaron’s Instagram posts (@aa.ron.tani) where he’s chronicled his sabbatical journey, he paired Japanese language with reflections of his art and travel endeavors. Looking back on the experience now, he chose three Japanese terms; Datsuzoku, Ibasho, and Hansei that capture the impact the Mill has had on his sabbatical transformation.

Firstly, he names Datsuzoku, or the Japanese aesthetic of breaking from routine to re-energize creativity and see problems differently. Aaron notes, “This sabbatical has given me the opportunity to step away from the conventional and experience something surprising. However, it was not just about stepping away, but being welcomed by the family at the Mill and experiencing their generosity and true aloha spirit.”  

Aaron’s hands-on approach and ability to lean into Datsuzoku helped guide his weekly time at the Mill. He not only contributed deeply to potluck lunches and day-to-day activities but stepped up to support our events and care of our facilities. As a student again, Aaron explored our classes and studios: discovering new approaches to observation through bookbinding, intro to ceramics, drawing in nature, and more. 

The second term Aaron uses to capture his time is Ibasho which roughly translates to “a place where you can feel like yourself.” This concept is used in education circles to support students who are marginalized to empower and strengthen from within. “The Mill gave me a place where I felt seen as a curious, competent, creative and complete person. To experience all of the dedication that goes behind the activities and events felt so confirming that my purpose is shared within the community.”

Lastly, that is Hansei, or “self-reflection” which Aaron identifies as the cornerstone of his transformation during the sabbatical. “To have the time and support to reflect has been essential to my time at the Mill. I love how they create space throughout the workshops for people to safely and authentically reflect on their work. I stole this model in my daily practice and discovered that when I prioritize self-reflection, I can drop the weight of preconceived expectations and suddenly a journey becomes an adventure full of surprises.” 

Captured through his own lens in this journey, Aaron’s daily wordle-inspired poems coupled with his photography showcase not only his daily life but his creative eye. He has a unique ability to pause, zoom in and notice small moments. Utilizing Hansei in both writing and photography, Aaron found the ability to pause, observe deeply, and reflect.

As the upcoming school year approaches, Aaron’s sabbatical will end, but his experience at the Mill will carry forward to the students and communities he touches. “The Mill is my pu‘uhonua: it has nourished me, shown me how to feel complete and I will take that forward on my continued adventure. Dōmo arigatō gozaimashita!”. We offer our thanks to Aaron for sharing this journey with us and reminding us of the importance of people, time, space, and connection.