On the west side of Honolulu, just near the big pink building (Tripler Army Hospital) – just on the edge of the Salt Lake Neighborhood but 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.
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.