Flashback Friday: Returning to Oahu After a 9-Year Trip Around the World

In 2008, I graduated from the University of Hawai’i at Manoa, moved out of my apartment in Manoa, said goodbye to my sweet landlady Mrs. Arizumi and then I stayed in a Waikiki hotel before flying to Portland, Oregon for Christmas. From there I took trains across the USA, flew to Europe, took a ferry to Africa, hot air ballooned in Turkey, rode horses to the pyramids, hitchiked into the Korean DMZ, hitchhiked and walked across Canada, sailed in the Aegean, got married in the Sahara, emigrated to California with a foreign wife and child, started and sold an antique shop and a newspaper in Oregon, went through the citizenship process with my wife as she became a naturalized citizen, and then after nine years of being away, I came home and got things ready to bring my wife and child back to Oahu.

It was the completion of my trip around the world. I arrived back on Oahu in June of 2017. I rented a car, and then I drove to the SGI culture center on the Nuuanu Pali Highway where I chanted Nam Myoho Renghe Kyo in gratitude for returning home and the completion of my adventure. After that I drove to Kailua on the windward side of the island and went directly to Ninja Sushi where I ordered the meal that I’d thought about constantly but not had since 2008. A Shogun Dunburi from Ninja Sushi.
It was as delicious as I remembered. The years had not magnified it. I was not disappointed. I ate every bite.

There were lots of new expensive houses. I had thought that perhaps I would move my family to Kailua when I brought them to Oahu a few weeks later – but Kailua seemed to have moved out of our economic range – for the moment. Still, I stopped at my favorite beach park and bodysurfed a dozen waves before sitting on the sand and staring out at the Mokulua Islands in rapture.

I looked through Kailua a bit noting that Kimo’s Surf Hut still survived but had been moved because a shopping center had gone up filling that block. Daiea – the Korean Superstore had disappeared – replaced by Target and Safeway. Other loved businesses had also disappeared…but there were new ones. Then I drove around the South Shore of the Island with Hawaiian myth, story, legend, geography, and more flooding into my brain. All that I used to share as a tour guide started to return as I passed Pele’s chair, Rabbit Island, Makapu’u, and Koko head. I was hit hard with memories of my epic walk around the perimeter of Oahu as I saw familiar stones, heaiau, and landscapes. I drove to Waikiki, remembering the traffic, the roads, and the feel. One sad note – I saw far fewer people stopping to let pedestrians cross traffic than I used to. Especially in Kailua where people seemed surprised as I let them cross and an impatient driver even honked at me. My hotel, the Waikiki Ambassador was a fake internet bargain. Comfy bed and pillows but a concrete box with 1980s furniture and no real comfort. It was on the opposite end of Waikiki from where I began at the hotel named for deposed Queen Liliuokalani.

I drove to Waikiki and paid my respects to Duke Kahanamoku and then went up to Manoa and visited Mrs. Arizumi and her daughter Clare and her little dog Choo-choo. Mrs. Arizumi must be near a hundred now – maybe older, I don’t know. She is still sweet and I was hugged and welcomed back like a part of their Ohana. After that I returned to Waikiki and took a long walk. Being a person who doesn’t enjoy crowds or shopping, I shouldn’t love Waikiki, but I do. My whole heart does. This is home. As I stood by a favorite Niu next to the jetty I leaned against it and I swear this old coconut tree was happy to feel me leaning against it again. The waves were welcoming me home and the sunset kissed me and welcomed me home. Yes, I was home and after looking all over the world – I know for certain that Hawai’i is the best place in it. This adventure had come to an end.

And then, on that day, a new adventure began. Home is where the heart is. My heart is always here on Oahu.

The USS Arizona Memorial at Pearl Harbor in Honolulu, Hawaii

There are few places that can inspire awe and contemplation as those where important historical events – and thousands of human deaths – took place. Pearl Harbor, once the jewel of the Hawaiian Islands – a protected harbor with many streams flowing into it and oyster beds that some say produced the most beautiful pearls in the world – then the catalyst for the overthrow of an ally and eventually a different jewel – the showplace of American military power in the Pacific Ocean – ships and planes lined up on display to deter an enemy from thinking they could attack – and then – the unthinkable – on the morning of December 7th, 1941 – the United States learned never to underestimate an enemy, to never forget to look upwards, and the cost was so high that the nation still bears the scars.

The Japanese attack on Pearl Harbor was a triumph for the Japanese – a total success with the exception of two factors – the aircraft carriers were not there by a lucky quirk of fate and the Japanese did not destroy the fuel reserves on the hillsides – which would have crippled American naval power. The United States was brought into World War II by this attack – awakened from a nationalist and isolationist period of navel gazing while the world fell into chaos. The warnings were there, but the USA never saw it coming. There are many lessons that could be taken from this with direct relevance today…but the beauty and power of the memorial are such that the only way to truly feel it – is to visit.

The Pearl Harbor Visitors Center is open from 7 am to 5pm every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Years Day. Admission is free to the visitor center and also to the USS Arizona Memorial which involves watching a powerful film and then a US Navy launch to the memorial itself.  With 4000 daily visitors, tickets go fast – so it’s not a bad idea to reserve them online through recreation.gov. Any other site you reserve through online is a private tour company. Recreation.gov will charge you $1.

The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center was opened to the public in 2010 as part of the newly-designated World War II Valor in the Pacific National Monument. The new visitor center has welcomed millions of tourists from all over the world just as the old visitor center did for decades.. The center was built to further enhance the visitors’ Pearl Harbor Tour experience.
Admission to the visitor center is free and within the grounds you will find two free museums, a comtemplation garden, and the Remembrance Circle along with the anchor of the USS Arizona, the statue of the Lone Sailor, and the other Valor in the Pacific Attractions – the USS Missouri Tour, The Pacific Aviation Museum, and the USS Bowfin Submarine and Submarine Museum.  The free museums on site are named ‘Road to War’ and ‘Attack’ and detail the events leading to the war and then the attack itself. The Attack museum has a twenty-three minute documentary as well as artifacts, memorabilia, and historic timelines.
The Pearl Harbor Visitor Center works in partnership with the National Park Services and Pacific Historic Parks as well as the United States Navy. The memorial itself was built in 1962 by Honolulu Architect Alfred Preis over the top of the sunken USS Arizona Battleship where 1177 sailors lost their lives on that fateful morning.

Visiting the Kamaka Ukulele Factory – A Family Business with 101 years of Experience in Hawaii Ukuleles

The Kamaka Ukulele is the gold standard in fine ukulele quality and there is a reason for that. The Kamaka family has been making the best ukes in the world since 1916 when Honolulu resident Sam Kamaka Sr began making the instruments in his Kaimuki basement. Since then the Hawaiian ukulele has made it’s way around the world in the hands of celebrities, musicians, comics, vaudeville stars, visitors, and Hawaii residents. Four generations of the Kamaka family have kept the Kamaka Ukulele factory running with the guiding principle of quality first.

Sam Sr and his two sons Fred Sr and Sam Jr are all three inductees into the Ukulele Hall of Fame. The elder Sam was the inventor of the ‘pineapple’ ukulele – it was 1918 and he just liked the idea of making the body a little more round – turns out it made the sound a little more rich. Sam Kamaka Sr. said to his sons, “If you make instruments and use the family name…don’t make junk,” and lucky for all of us, they listened. Fred Kamaka Sr and his brother Sam Kamaka, Jr –  still run the Kamaka Ukulele Factory where  twenty-five employees – mostly family members – continue to make the world’s best ukes.. The factory produces a maximum of 17 ukes per day…

As a long time ukulele fan, it was awesome to get to meet Fred Sr. (And Fred Jr.) and get to talk story with them and learn about the history of my favorite istrument…the true Hawaiian Ukulele.  I also met Sam Jr’s son Chris Kamaka. He is the quality control officer and rejects one out of every five ukes produced in the factory because of inferior grain, sound defects, or other imperfections that would be invisible to the rest of us.

If you would like to visit the Kamaka Ukulele factory and meet some of the family, see how these beautiful instruments are made, and maybe even learn how to play a simple tune – it’s still possible. The factory, located in downtown Honlulu near Kaka’ako is open several days a week. 

Kakaako Graffiti – Honolulu Hawaii’s Gritty Urban Chic Neighborhood

Kaka’ako is one of the fastest growing and most vibrant neighborhoods in Hawai’i. This formerly neglected area between the financial district and Ala Moana consisted mostly of industrial and low rent business for most of the 20th century. In the past ten years it has been transformed with seven luxury condo towers going up in the last five years and reports that up to FIFTY more will be going upn over the next decade. What you see today, probably won’t be there in a few years – which is a shame, because it’s beautiful.
Long ago, before white people came to Hawai’i – the area called Kaka’ako which now sits between Honolulu Harbor, Downtown Honolulu, and Ala Moana Shopping Center was a place where Hawaiian royalty lived – it was a rich agricultural landscape of terrace agriculture. There were fishponds, homes, and burial sites. Even Kamehameha the Great kept a home in Kaka’ako.

Up until the middle of the 20th century, Kaka’ako was a place where families lived and where indsutrial businesses existed. The neighborhood fell on hard times in the 1900s – lots of fight clubs and gyms moved into the warehouses and it gained a reputation as a rough place. Then, because of politics in the 1970s it became even further degraded while all around it development thrived. Kaka’ako became an industrial neighborhood of warehouses and mechanic shops. The city even built a huge landfill near the waterfront – in other words Kaka’ako was a dump.

In the 1990s and 2000s that started to change…

The City and County of Honolulu poured a huge amount of money into developing the Kaka’ako Waterfront into three distinct beach parks over the top of the landfill. The result was a 35 acre greenspace that quickly became beloved by residents for family outings, barbecues, and even beach goers due to the proximity of the Point Panic surf break – to be clear, there is no sandy beach at Kaka’ako. Next artists and those looking for cheaper rent began to move into Kaka’ako. Some surprisingly awesome restaurants opened in dark alleyways next to auto body shops. Finally, Kamehameha Schools in concert with Castle and Cooke began to do some serious redevelopment in the early 2000s. The formation of Our Kaka’ako and SALT has brought new life into Kaka’ako centered around art, culture, and community…a big part of that has been the mural projects in the neighborhood.

Today, no trip to Honolulu, Hawaii is complete without a drive through Kaka’ako to admire the many murals there. Below are just a few of them…there are many more…If you’d like to explore Kaka’ako and the cool neighborhood it is growing into – just get in touch. I’d love to show it to you.  In the meantime, here’s a little sampling:

Matsumoto Shave Ice – Matsumoto General Store on Oahu’s North Shore

If you ask any child in Hawai’i what they want for dessert or a treat – chances are you are going to hear most of them say the same thing- shave ice.

That’s shave ice, not shaved ice because Hawaiian language doesn’t have a ‘D’ in it and our local language ‘pidgin’ officially known as Hawaiian Creole – also tends to leave the ‘d’s off words. It just flows better to say “Like get shave ice?” Instead of the mainland haole version of “Would you like to have some shaved ice?” Right?

The number one shave ice place in Hawaii is up in the little surf town of Hale’iwa. Matsumoto General Store. Back in the 1950s, Hale’iwa was more about sugar cane production than surfing and while there was a hotel (the upscale Hale’iwa Hotel) where people could come to see the ‘country’ of Oahu, mostly it was a place where people worked, went to church, went to school, and just lived. The Matsumoto General Store was a local Japanese owned place where residents could buy grocieries, toiletries, gas, and whatever else they might need.

In 1956, Momoru and Helen Matsumoto made a decision that would change the store forever. They bought a little hand cranked shave-ice maker from Japan. The Japanese had been shaving snow-fine ice to provide treats for nearly a thousand years. Momoru figured it would be a nice treat on hot days. Stanley, the son of Momoru and Helen, was five-years-old when it arrived. According to him it was the first shave ice machine in Hawai’i. The Matsumotos decided to create a different shave-ice experience than that of the Japanese.

For starters, they decided to take tropical Hawaiian flavors and mix them with sweet sugar cane syrup as well as going with the more traditional berry flavors. Soon there were pineapple, lilikoi, coconut, and mango shave ice syrups. Later they put ice cream on the bottom (which might be the most genius decision ever made in regards to shave ice). The ice cream keeps the ice from melting as quickly and absorbs the syrups as the ice above is eaten. Later still they decided to bind the flavors with a ‘snow cap’ topping of sweetened condensed milk. Other innovations included the addition of sweet azuki beans, mochi, and fresh fruit. The classic Matsumoto Shave Ice is vanilla ice cream, ice, three flavors, and the snow cap. Pick your favorite flavors or just go for the rainbow – strawberry, banana, pineapple.

Little Stanley grew up and took over the operation in 1976. At the time the North Shore was booming with surfers, tourists, and development. Matsumotos moved out of the grocery business and became almost 100% shave ice. It continued this way until the early 2000s when the building was remodeled and they brought back t-shirts, souvenirs, and country store items.

The Matsumoto Shave Ice is famous all over the world. When you get there, the line will probably be long – but don’t worry – Stanley has streamlined the process and local teens will make your shave ice with expert precision in a very short time. While you are standing in line, don’t be surprised if Stanley (usually wearing a t-shirt with a cartoon version of himself on it) comes over and starts talking story with you. He’s seen his family store and the entire North Shore change over time – but the shave ice – it’s still as good as it ever was. Maybe even better. Definitely ono.

A Beautiful Free Waterfall Hike On Oahu – Manoa Falls Trail

Oahu waterfallSure, you will enjoy this hike more if you pay for it – the guides will tell you lots of stories, you will learn about the plants, the history, the geology – and you won’t have to worry about parking your car. But if you want to go for a great free hike on Oahu – Manoa Falls is it. Easy hike (5 year olds do it all the time and so do grandparents) with great scenery, set locations from lots of different movies, and a waterfall. Are you suppossed to swim in the waterfall? Well, no, you aren’t. Does that stop anyone? No, not really. In fact, the ropes and signs are ignored by everyone – even the people who have died from rocks dropping from above and smashing their heads – so don’t say you weren’t warned.

 

I’ve been doing this hike for a long time – and even though it’s more crowded than before – it’s still a good hike. Here’s me doing the hike back in 2007.

To get to it, you simply head out of Waikiki towards the University of Hawaii at Manoa and if you want to pay $5 for parking, drive all the way up to the lot or if you want to walk an extra half mile or so, park in the neighborhood below. The waterfall can be gushing but sometimes it’s just a trickle. The hike is the best part. Getting in the water at the falls is illegal, but most people do it anyway…there is some danger of rocks falling from the cliffs above and killing you if you are in the pool. There is also the danger of Leptosporosis. You’ve been warned.

Oahu Waterfall

The hike will lead you through a hau tangle, into a verdant rainforest (parts of Jurassic Park were shot here – watch out for dinsaurs) into a Bamboo forest, down muddy trails, and along a stream. Do bring bugspray – you will end up at the beautiful Manoa Falls. Don’t drink the water! For two reasons – first leptospirosis can get in tropical fresh water – you don’t want it. Also, figure that everyone in that waterfall pool is peeing in it – so if you wash off mud downstream – you are pretty much washing in. A bunch of strangers urine. Urine Luck!

Oahu Waterfall

Pee jokes aside – take your time on this hike and be sure to bring water, good hiking shoes, snacks, and a towel to dry off with (either at the waterfall or at the bottom when you wash off the mud in the parking lot.

Mike’s Huli Huli Chicken on Oahu’s Windward Side

There are few places as beautiful as Windward Oahu (East side of Oahu in Hawai’i). The Windward side offers sweeping mountain vistas, lush tropical rainforest, both rugged and serene coastline with fifty different shades of blue water, and much more. It also offers some amazing food choices…and if you have a taste of BBQ rotissarie chicken…you are in luck.

Mike’s Huli Chicken in Kahalu’u started out as a shrimp truck but has grown into much more. From Garlic Shrimp and Kiawe smoked huli-huli (turn-turn) chicken it has grown to one of the most sought after meals on Oahu. Mike Fuse is a locally grown North Shore chef who took two local ingredients – kiawe wood and Hawaiian sea salt and turned it into something that locals and visitors can’t get enough of. Trust me – make the trip to Kahalu’u on the windward side – just north of Kaneohe on the Kamehameha Hwy. It’s been featured on Diners, Dives, and Drive ins and most importantly for me – my tastebuds are always pleased with a visit there. This is a plate lunch place with the usual scoop of rice and scoop of mac salad…do not forget to get the sauce…it makes the chicken taste even better.


Huli means turn and Huli-huli means rotissarie. Plenty of celebrities, tourists, and locals have gushed about the delicious taste of Mike’s chicken and one thing they all agree on. The sauce is da best! Sometimes, Chef Mike Fuse is there handing out samples or trying out new sauce recipes which these lucky guests got to try!

Flashback Friday: 2008 PhotoEssay: Urban Hiking in Hawaii – Chinatown Honolulu

This was a very fun day which I am reposting  from a decade ago back on July 3, 2008. The photos were taken with my old Motorola Razor.

Total time: About 3.5 hours
Total $: About $25 including lunch, groceries, and snacks.
Total value: Priceless…check out the pictures if you don’t believe me.

It was just myself and my friend Antje and everyone else really missed out. We met up at the “Bad Ass Coffee Company” at the Aloha Tower Marketplace. Actually, Antje thought I meant the bad “ass coffee” company so she first went to Starbucks…an easy mistake. Anyway we took the elevator to the top of the Aloha Tower after a completely worthless search of our bags by the security guard. He has probably been sitting at that desk since the tower was built in 1926, but if we had been carrying anything bad, he certainly would have missed it in his minimal search. The signs describing the scenic wonders at the top of the tower were more than a little out of date. Nice views though.

From there we walked up Nuuanu stream where we had to hop a couple of fences and do some scrambling to get into the stream bed. Lot’s of old Chinese guys playing cards and homeless people sleeping along the way. We roughed it down the stream doing a lot of rock hopping and seeing frogs, fish, and birds along the way. We emerged at the Kuan Yin Temple and paid a short visit. After that another visit to what I thought I remembered being a taoist temple but that is now a shinto temple (maybe it always was).

Next was a visit to the Chinese Cultural Plaza where there were old men playing Chinese fiddles, mohawked kids in squeaky shoes, and surprisingly nimble old ladies teaching gum chomping little girls how to do traditional Chinese dance. A nice place to eat some dried mango and drink young coconut juice.

We walked into Chinatown proper and browsed some shops, looking at old buildings, and cruising the open markets where there was a bewildering variety of fish and vegetables…not to mention more than a few cockroaches. Don’t worry though, i still bought lots of dirt cheap groceries.

Next we browsed through more shops and ate the award winning food at Little Village. MMMMM!

Finally, a walk back to the tower and farewells until the next time.

The Hitachi Tree in Honolulu’s Moanalua Gardens

On the west side of Honolulu, just near the big pink building (Tripler Army Hospital) before you reach Aloha Stadium – is one of the most famous trees that you’ve seen but never heard of (unless you are Japanese). The tree is located in Moanalua Botanical Gardens, a privately held garden which is open to the public with a small admission fee.

The Hitachi Tree – the symbol of the Hitachi Company – a large monkeypod tree with a distinct umbrella shape that is so important to Hitachi that they have paid a license fee to use it since the early 1970’s.Currently the annual fee is about a half million US dollars. The tree is a huge draw to Japanese tourists, though most Americans or other nationalities have never heard of it.

The Hitachi Tree first originated through a TV commercial that aired in Japan in 1973. It symbolized the “comprehensive drive” and the “wide business range” of the Hitachi Group. It continues today as an image of the Hitachi Group’s working for communities through leveraging of its collective capacities and technologies, and the dedication of the individuals that the Group comprises. The tree is widely recognized, especially in Japan, and has become an important symbol of the Hitachi Group’s reliability, and earth-friendliness. It also enhances Hitachi’s brand value as a visual representation of its corporate slogan: “Inspire the Next.”  Over the past 35 years, the Hitachi Tree has become a valuable Hitachi Group asset as a familiar and respected image in Hitachi’s expanding messages globally.

It is a magnificent tree – but the gardens around it are also worth visiting. The Moanalua Gardens contain the Hitachi Tree and the summer cottage of King Kamehameha V of Hawai’i  which was moved from it’s original location up Nu’uanu Ave and Old Pali Road.. There are beautiful refelction ponds, a stream running through the gardens, a lovely visitor center, and large grassy areas that are perfect for picnics, days playing frisbee, or just lying under a huge trees and reading a book.

One word of advice though,  don’t try to relax under the Hitachi tree – about once an hour a bus full of Japanese tourists will pull in and crowd the area to get a picture with the most famous tree in Japan.

To get there, take the H-1 Freeway West from Honolulu, when the freeway splits into the H-1 or the H-201, stay to the left on the H-201 and take the Moanalua/Pu’uloa Road exit. The entrance to the garden will be on the right side before you get off the ramp. It’s tricky, but you can do it. Watch for the sign that says Moanalua Gardens about midway down the ramp and turn right directly after it.

Kapena Falls – Free, Beautiful, Not Crowded, Easy Oahu Walk with Petroglyphs

It always amazes me that there aren’t crowds of people at Kapena Falls – I really can’t figure it out. Manoa Falls has a bizillion people on the trail even when it’s raining or the falls are a drizzle – people go past the ‘don’t go past this sign’ signs and wade into the shallow water of Manoa Falls with thousands of others each day – but Kapena Falls – most times I go there, no one is there – or just local kids enjoying the pool there and jumping off the cliffs into it.

I’m not giving away any sort of secret by writing about Kapena Falls – it’s well known. It’s in the guide books, it’s been written about by plenty of other Hawai’i travel websites – but it’s almost always serene, quiet, and uncrowded. Maybe it’s the dogs….

First of all, let me tell you how to get there. From downtown Honolulu, take Nu’uanu Ave towards the Pali. Turn into Memeorial Cemetary on the right side – the one with the huge pagoda. Drive through the cemetary all the way down to the maintenance shed where there is parking. Don’t leave valuables in your car – ever.

The trail starts to the left of the maintenance barn.

A few steps in, you are awarded with a set of waterfalls in Nu’uanu Stream. That is Alapena Falls. Take a few more steps and you will see a rebar cage on the left side with some rubbish around it (it’s always there, I think that some people think the cage is a rubbish bin) – take a moment and let your eyes become accustomed to the jungle light – you will see ancient Hawaiian Petroglyphs. There are people and dogs. I’ve always heard that they are Madam Pele’s dogs, magical beings that act as guardian spirits to the area – there are other stories, but that’s the one I like.

Don’t be surprised to find homeless campers on the other side of the stream. Homeless people are everywhere on Oahu except for the rich neighborhoods and the tourist areas like Waikiki. They won’t hurt you. The mosquitos on the other hand – make sure you have plenty of bug spray on. There are a lot of mosquitos on this trail.

A few minutes walk and you will find yourself at the base of the beautiful Kapena Falls. The trail ends at the shoreline of the Alapena pool. The Hawai’i Department of Health advises to not swim here because of Leptospirosis and urban pollution – so, do so at your own risk. The cliffs are a favorite summer jumping spot for local youth – if you join them, be sure to swim in the area you plan to jump first because there are rocks in certain areas that people have jumped and landed on – and then been injured.

It’s said that Queen Emma, who had her Summer Palace not far away – used to cool down in this pool on days when the trade winds were still. I certainly can’t blame her.