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. 

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.

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.

 

Sea Life Park – Oahu, Hawaii – Dolphins, Sea Lions, and Sharks – Oh My!

Sea Life Park on the island of Oahu in Hawaii is a must see destination for families with young children. We loved it. Open 7 days a week with tickets starting at $25 and offering reasonably priced specialty programs like dolphin encounters, educational programs, and more.

I grew up in California during the 1970s and 1980s. We went to zoos, circuses, wildlife safari parks, and rode around in the back of pick-up trucks when driving to huge water parks. We also went to Sea World and Marine World and as a child – there are few memories that can compare with watching a show with the Orcas Kandu and Shamu (not the original Shamu, but a different Shamu) – I know that the view on keeping whales and other animals in captivity has changed – and I get it – but those memories were profound and life changing. Wildlife parks of both the marine and land based types – gave me a deep love of animals and ecology. I’m happy that Sea Life Park, here on Oahu, offers me the chance to share that with my daughter. No, there are no whale shows – there is no Free Willy or Feel Bad situation, but there are dolphins, sea lions, sea turtles, sharks and more. The entry fee is a very reasonable amount – and the shows were fun (even if a little hokey). Sea Life Park was a hit with us. Most importantly, our 6-year-old left with that same excitement I remembered from visiting those 1970s and 1980s California adventure parks.

 

Jurassic Park Movie Tour at Kualoa Ranch on Oahu

 

People seem surprised that when we have time off,  we choose to do tourist activities in Hawaii. People expect I want to get away from tourism but the truth is – I generally like tourists, I like tourism, and I like tourist activities. The reason people come on vacation and do this stuff is because it is fun.

Back in 2003, I worked as a guide for Kauai Movie Tours. It was a fun job. I knew that taking a movie tour on Oahu would be fun too.

Kualoa Ranch is 4000+ acres on the windward side of Oahu – it was gifted to Doctor Garret P Judd  by King Kamehameha V during the Kingdom of Hawaii period. The ranch remains in the same family, still has about 500 head of cattle and engages in some agriculture – but mostly, it’s a super awesome theme park with ziplines, horseback riding, snorkel tours, and movie tours. We plan on doing everything there eventually but this time we did the movie tour with George ( @ZenTourGuide ) as our guide. He was great – you should take his tour.

And hey…don’t forget to tip your guide. We watched the majority of people leave the tour bus without giving him a dollar. Guides survive on tips and work hard to make sure you have a good time…appropriate tips for guides are 20% or more of total cost for an outstanding guide, 10-15% for an average to good guide, 5% if you have no complaints but can’t say anything really good, and no tip if they aren’t at least trying to be friendly. Like a great guide, George thanked everyone with a sincere smile and warm aloha whether they tipped or not – but come on folks….I know Hawaii vacations aren’t cheap but $20 isn’t going to break you.

Some of the movies and TV shows filmed on Kualoa Ranch include the Jurassic Park franchise, Lost, Pearl Harbor, Hawaii 5-0, 50 First Dates, Kong Skull Island, Journey to the Mysterious Island, Godzilla, and much more. It’s a great tour and we’ve been enjoying watching the movies since taking the tour. I won’t spoil the tour by telling you more – you should check it out.

 

The Lowdown:

Address: 49–560 Kamehameha Highway, Kaaawa 96730, USA
Hours: Open daily, closed Christmas and New Year’s Day
Admission: From US$21