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. 

Saturday Slideshow: I Love Honolulu – It’s Perfect – Even if it’s not Perfect

I love living in Honolulu. I work all the time and still don’t make enough money to pay all my expenses. I rarely have time to go to the beach. I have a smaller and much more expensive living space than I’ve had in a decade. I am stuck in my car looking for parking all the time. And still, I love living in Honolulu. There is no better place in the world as far as I’m concerned. Yes, it could be better, no it’s not perfect, yes, I run the risk of running out of money. It’s hard to explain…if these social and economic conditions, the crowding, the traffic, the expense, the need to work so much…if these conditions were somewhere else, I would be miserable, I would probably be suicidal – but here, I put a record of some goofy tiki-beach songs on or I step outside and see a rainbow or an old auntie crossing the road so slowly in her mumu that I end up being late for work or some gnarly looking truck driver just stops and tells me to go in violation to all traffic rules and common sense – or a homeless guy sitting in the median is playing his ukulele as I drive by or there is an art exhibit in city hall where the employees and their kids are the ones who have their art on display. I’m not kidding. I love living in Honolulu. It’s not easy – in fact, there’s nothing easy about it. Free time is hard to come by, it’s loud at night, the homeless make me cry, the zoo has gone downhill, the lines are long, the prices are insane, the beaches are crowded – and yet…there is no place like it in the world. I am so happy this city is my home.

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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.

Honolulu Biki Bikes – A fun and reasonable bikeshare program for Hawai’i

The Biki-Bike (https://gobiki.org) program in Honolulu is a winer. Getting around by bicycle is the best way to get around Honolulu and the Biki-Bike program opened that up to everyone. There were bike rental companies, but the beautiful thing about Biki-Bike is the sheer volume and accessibility. You can pick up a Biki-Bike in 100 station locations around Honolulu. There are 1000 biki-bikes spread through the system at any given time.The bikes sit in the racks waiting for you to enter the code to take them. The bikes themselves are great with fat pothole resistant tires, built-in lights, and easy adjusting seats. These are multi-gear bikes that are kept in constant good maintenance – thank god it’s not the City and County of Honolulu or State of Hawai’i who are doing the maintenance – in about a week they would all be wrecks sitting in piles around the homeless camps – but that’s another story. Biki-Bikes are privately owned and totally kept up.

 

Fares are cheap at $3.50 per 30 minute ride or $15 a month for unlimited 30 minute rides. The idea of Biki is that you grab a bike to get where you are going, put it in a rack, and then when you need another ride, grab it from the rack. The 100 stations are spread out from Chinatown then east to Diamond Head. I live west of Chinatown by a good bit so communing with Biki isn’t an option for me, but if it were, I would be doing it. As it is, parking in town (Honolulu) is a nightmare and sometimes it is far easier to park away from popular locations and then to Biki there. Visitors use the Bikis for exploring Waikiki and our Downtown Historic Districts. There is almost never good parking in Chinatown, near Iolani Palace andthe Kamehameha Statue, or at the Mission Houses Museum, the Honolulu Art Museum, or amongst the highrises of downtown Honolulu for things like Hawaii State Art Museum (HISAM). Biki Bikes make those areas more accessible

Biki is a private public partnership. Bikeshare Hawai’i is a nonprofit group organized to administer Biki Bikes and the day to day operations and equipment are provided by two companies PBSC Urban Solutions and Secure Bike Share. This partnership works.

 

Top 5 Reasons Hawai’i is Still the Best Vacation Destination

A friend from Oregon told me “We keep thinking about taking a trip to Hawai’i but Cancun always wins because it just seems to be a better value for our money.”

I respect the fact that people have to get the most value for their money, but the truth is – there is nowhere that compares to Hawai’i for the vacation of a lifetime. Here are the top five reasons why Hawai’i is still the best vacation destination for anyone.

1) Hawai’i is safe. Violent crimes are extremely rare here. We do not have kindnappings, gang violence, or drug cartels to deal with here. Yes, your rental car may get broken into when you leave your purse in it and yes the cost of your hotel (and everything else) borders on the ridiculous – but unless you are acting like a drunken idiot – your chances of a violent encounter are close to zero.

2) Hawai’i is exotic. In Honolulu there are fifteen languages that are spoken on a daily basis by a large number of residents. (English, Mandarin, Japanese, Tongan, Fijian, Micronesian, Spanish, Portuguese, Samoan, Cantonese, Hawaiian, Pidgin, Korean, Visayan and Illongo) In addition there are many other smaller ethnic groups here which have vibrant communities. Hawai’i residents practice Christianity, Shinto, Taoism, Buddhism, and modern Native Hawaiian traditions. You can have Japenese food for breakfast, Korean for lunch, and Moroccan for dinner.

3) Hawai’i has volcanoes, tropical rain forest, great ocean beaches, and a healthy tourist infrastructure. It’s incredibly rare to hear horror stories from tourists who come to Hawai’i. In fact, I only have met one woman who didn’t enjoy Hawai’i and she said it was because she missed her swimming pool at home…so, not exactly a normal tourist.

4) Hawai’i is a part of the United States but not a part of North America. This means that for Americans, there are no visas, no changing money, no need to bring a language guide book, no extra vaccinations, and lots of the same protections they get at home. For international travelers – Hawai’i is a chance to experience the most unique culture in the American Empire.

5) Hawai’i has a rich history of war, conquest, betrayal, and colonization and a vibrant natural history that includes more endemic plant and bird species than anywhere else on the planet. Hawai’i is the most remote place on the planet and the species that made it here became different from those in every other place. It’s my belief that this is also true of the human culture here, though Americanization is destroying that uniqueness at an unbelievable rate.

10 Free Things to do in Honolulu

While I love being a world traveler, most of the time, I’m just happy to live in Hawaii and do the amazing things you can do for free here. Honolulu, the capital city, offers tons of free things to do. Here are my top 10 things to do for free in Honolulu

1) Hike to Manoa Falls and enjoy the tropical rainforest
2) Go to Ala Moana Beach Park for surfing, snorkeling, and sunbathing
3) Free night movies on the beach in Waikiki
4) Free Hula and Torchlighting every night in Waikiki
5) Walk through the historic district of Honolulu
6) Once a month First Friday Gallery Walk in Chinatown and Arts District
7) Eating a picnic lunch on the Iolani Palace grounds
8) Watching tourists hang leis on the statue of Duke Kahanamoku
9) Sunsets from Magic Island with a perfect view of surfers
10) Sledding down the big grass hills with local kids on cardboard boxes at Kakaoako Beach Park

Honolulu is probably one of the greatest cities in the world for incredible free activities. I could list hundreds, but these are the ten that make me smile at the moment.