Memories of Hawai’i Part 1 and 2

October 18, 2013 at 4:53 am

by David Fujino
October 2013

the sun in my dark sunglasses
warm tropical breezes swaying
visiting blue Hawai’i
wearing jet stream across its smile

I wrote this before I flew to Hawai’i — my first time, ever. Now I might write: when you travel, you’re there to learn.

But it’s already Friday, August 2nd, back in Toronto, and as I unpack laundry from my suitcase, I inhale the scent of mandarin and lime.

I’m home from Paradise, where I took part in the NAJC’s 2013 Heritage Tour to Hawai’i, focusing on Honolulu and its island of Oahu, from July 25 to August 1st. The tour was not a typical guided tour. Although there was a printed Itinerary that was designed to inform us about the history of Japanese Americans in Hawai’i, this special heritage tour for JCs was also self-directed.

Ken Noma was usually around to point out things about a museum, a cultural centre, or Chinatown, and he’d always encourage us to take the open-sided trolley cars that ran on the red, pink, and green lines to the places we wanted to see (we had 7-day passes). In the case of the museums and aquarium and forts, I remember he’d suggest we explore and learn at our own pace, according to our interests. He didn’t always accompany us.

From July 25 to August 1, 2013, ‘The Group of 12’ — JCs from Toronto, Windsor, and Vancouver — gathered at the Sheraton Princess Ka’iulani Hotel in Honolulu, Hawai’i. We knew we were privileged and lucky to be on this tour in Hawai’i and some of us said so to each other. For the record, the Waikiki Beach area was ‘touristy’, but if you relaxed, and allowed yourself to enjoy the weather and flowed with the crowds, the Hawaiian experience was yours.

We first arrived in Honolulu at 10:30 pm — Hawai’ian time — on July 24, Day 1, and the first impression of the glowing Princess Ka’iulani Hotel, as we disembarked from the van, was that of walking into a welcoming and open-to-the-four-winds style of architecture so typical of Japan and the tropics. Open porches. Why not let the breezes flow through your building? It was a warm tropical evening and we 12 travellers entered the hotel, wearing fresh flower leis around our necks.

But, before going to bed, along with my room mate, I took a walk to a local small store for some food (onigiri with tuna) and a bottle of green tea. There were lots of Japanese kids in the various stores and shops and the nearby buildings were a combination of balconied high rises (like our hotel) and modest village size shops like the quaint and very Brit-looking Kings Village. Many many ABC stores dominate Honolulu — they’re the Hawai’ian 7-11— so believe me, they’re everywhere.

It was pitch dark outside — they really don’t over-illuminate the streets at night — but our senses perked up when the local, powerfully fragrant big ladies strode towards us on the sidewalk in their chunky-heeled white leather boots. Sweet dreams, no thanks, sweet dreams …

Day 2 – July 25: We started the day off at 7:30 am with a multicultural buffet breakfast, which was covered by the tour. Bacon and eggs or sausages with home fries and toast or croissants, or pancakes, and bananas and pineapples — whatever you want — or a Japanese-styled breakfast of steamed rice, grilled salmon, takuwan and miso shiru, was my choice, and my delight. I later had slices of sweet pineapple. It was interesting what people had this morning for breakfast, beyond just coffee and tea. They came back to their tables like dignitaries bearing gifts.

Next, at approximately 8: 45 am, we`re off in a taxi (driven by a beauteous Asian woman) to the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i — we weren`t even sure of the address! — where Derrick Iwata promptly greeted us at curb side and immediately complied by taking photos of us — ‘the group of 12’ — with our offered cameras.

As he led us into the center, Derrick transformed into our guide for the exhibit, Okage Sama De: I am what I am, because of you, in the historical gallery. Guests were allowed to handle some of the artifacts while Derrick explained that the first wave of Japanese immigrants to Hawai’i had arrived in the 1880s to work on the sugar plantations, but within three years, the majority returned to Japan, complaining that the work was back-breaking and intolerable. This bitter history is a far cry from the majority position that Japanese and Japanese Americans enjoy in the Hawai`i of today, where everyone, certainly everyone in Honolulu, seems to speak Japanese and English. It seems to be a minimum requirement.

Derrick next led us to the screening room to meet Marilyn Higashide and Betsy Young and view the video, The Untold Story: Internment of Japanese Americans in Hawai’ì. Afterwards, Marilyn and Betsy spoke further about the racial profiling practised in Hawai’ì as early as 1936, when the powers-that-be selectively kept lists of prominent Japanese community leaders, as well as Shinto priests, Buddhist and Christian ministers, and teachers. They could control the Japanese community by rounding up its leaders. It was sobering to hear this. “Life is so tender,” I remember saying to myself in Hawai’i, several times.

Here’s a link to Terry Watada`s article about the last discovered internment camp in Hawai’i — Honouliuli — as well as the story of Sanji Abe. Watada praises the excellent work of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i and its staff.


The 13 values inherited from the Issei were printed on the wall as, Kachikan Values: Koko (Filial Piety), On (Debt of Gratitude), Gaman (Quiet Endurance), Ganbari (Persistence). Shikata-ga-nai (Acceptance with Resignation), Kansha (Gratitude), Chugi (Loyalty), Sekinin (Responsibility), Haji (Shame), Hokori (Pride), Meiyo (Honour), Giri (Sense of Duty), Gisei (Sacrifice).

Think about it: the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai’i succeeded in transmitting core cultural values via text printed onto a wall. Okage Sama De: I am what I am because of you. What a smart exhibit. We left the Center, happy with meeting our Japanese Hawaiian cousins and climbed into a taxi that delivered us to the Honolulu Museum of Art, where a travelling exhibit of samurai armour and the art of Georgia O`Keefe and the photographs of Ansel Adams were the main and significant attractions. Both the O`Keefe and Adams` works had that extra oomph! to them because the subject matter was Hawai`i and here we were in Hawai’i. The work was, as expected, masterful.

Samurai-ArmourFor its part, the samurai armour show was well-designed, pleasing to look at, and well-preserved. The explanatory panels were informative and the quality of the objects was very high. A couple of people from the group liked the shows so much they decided to stay the afternoon to see the rest of the museum`s collections. Six or so of us opted for catching a trolley car back to our hotel in the Waikiki Beach area. We ended up getting a bird’s eye tour of the west and south neighbourhoods of Honolulu from the upper deck of the trolley, with the driver providing mellow commentary as we drove by notable buildings and notable neighbourhoods of Honolulu. “Don Ho was born here,” or he’d say, “We’re now entering an area filled with artists and artisans and stores. They sell really good olive oil here.” The group navigator and I agreed that this shopping area looked like Granville Island in Vancouver.

Mabuhay!-(Welcome!)-Filipino-RestaurantChinatown — Day 3, July 26. Our walking tour of Honolulu’s Chinatown started inside the Hawai’i Heritage Center at 1040 Smith Street, between Hotel and King Streets. It was a very hot day and the bottles of cold water we received were truly appreciated. The Speaker said with a smile that she’s accepting donations of a million dollars towards building the Heritage Center’s own building. Then they could bring out of storage over 80% of their actual holdings and display them. Outside, Hawai’i State Representative Bert Kobayashi guided us for the afternoon, leading us from the very streets and historical buildings to an old bank, a dim sum factory, where we picked up our lunch, to a place that sold pig snouts.

Sun-yat-SenAfter admiring the black figurative sculpture of Sun Yat-Sen — considered the father of modern China — we walked on River Street alongside the canal, passed by the rows of homeless and their buggies, then crossed a small white bridge and arrived at a Shinto temple. The group of 12 had an aesthetic moment in front of the temple. We whipped out our cameras. Some of us rang the bell, some of us took our shoes off and entered the temple. All of us were impressed by the huge knot of two rice sheaves hung above the steps to the temple. The refined aesthetics of Shinto-ism and traditional Japan were on grand display.

Shinto-TempleBert said that, in the early days, ‘Japanese people, kimonos, and Japanese hotels for the field workers dominated Chinatown. Today, there’s no Japanese business in Chinatown. But, whether any Chinese live and work here, or not, there’ll always be a Chinatown in Honolulu. Chinatown will remain a destination of choice for many new immigrants. Today, the Vietnamese and Filipinos run most of the restaurants and food malls, but this will be changed by successive waves of immigrants who come to Chinatown’, a Chinatown anchored in the mists of time, waiting to be changed by new arrivals.

On Day 4, July 27, we visited Fort deRussy, an incredibly thick brick-walled military museum that’s open to the public by donation. We learned about the 442nd Regiment of Japanese Americans — the ‘Go for broke’ guys — who’ve been heavily decorated for their bravery. And I know one traveller referred to the museum as a “place for boys and their guns” — and I can understand this, but I excited with a renewed appreciation of the soldiers and the contribution they make to their country and society. So it was doubly pleasing to see the extensive displays devoted to the life and military career of the island of Kauai-born, Eric Shinseki, retired Four- Star General and now Secretary of Veteran Affairs in the Obama administration. Shinseki has brought honour to Hawai’i and Hawaiian Japanese Americans. As a Japanese Canadian, I paid my respects.

JelliesDay 5 – July 28 – Honolulu Aquarium A visit to the aquarium brought us to the water world and its creatures. I learned that coral reefs are living organisms, while outside, I had a rare animal moment and saw a sea otter bobbing upright in the water. I honestly didn’t feel so good about my flash photography used on the fishes in the wall-sized aquariums, especially on the alluring jellies. Somehow, I turned into a camera-happy tourist. In any case, here’s an example of some jellies I just had to shoot.


PART 2 – November 2013

Honolulu made me think. The human current of spoken English, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese, and Tagalog was Everywhere — and with its distinctly Asian face, Honolulu still presented itself as very American, capitalist, and friendly, with daily scenes of the original Hawaiian culture all around you. Turn your head, and there’s Hawaiians walking along River Street and Monsarrat Avenue, people mostly minding their own business. Hawaiians are riding along with you on the public buses and open-sided trolley cars; Hawaiians driving the buses and trolley cars. There’s Hawaiians working in the hotel where you stay, and there’s Hawaiians gathered in city parks, standing on street corners and holding placards emblazoned with, The Real Hawai’i, and, through all of this, the Hawaiian culture, the very air we breathed on those days, lives resolutely on, no problem, man. Interesting fact: unless you’re born a Hawaiian, you’re not allowed to own land. For this, I’d have to say, bravo!, here is a real case of poetic justice.

 Day 6 – July 29 – was a splendid van tour touching upon more remote parts of the island of Oahu, especially parts of the north shore. But Ken and Tim decided we’d avoid Waimea Valley because getting caught in a valley and facing the fast approaching Hurricane Flossie was a bad idea. For reasons of time, we didn’t visit the Dole Pineapple Plantation Store, either, which was okay by me. I really didn’t need to know more about Mr. Dole, a very early American inhabitant and entrepreneur who planted his foot down in Hawai’i. What I did retain was that “Pineapple takes a year-and-a-half to grow”. [Tim Brislawn, our van driver]

Originally a native of Spokane, Washington, Tim has also lived in Nagasaki and South America before settling down finally, it seems, in Hawai’i. Over his amplified head-piece, he had a lot of interesting, informative, and even personal things to say about Hawai’i, and its people.

“Barack Obama was born in Honolulu”, Tim said. Somehow this energized the air. Maybe 45 minutes later, we stopped for 15 minutes at Sandy Beach for picture taking. Some of us walked down to the shore with Tim and were awe-struck by the rolling troughs of deep blue water crested with ragged white waves. Tim said Obama surfed at Sandy Beach in high school, so he knew how to dive backwards under these punishing waves and avoid the broken and sprained necks and backs suffered by many inexperienced surfers. I concluded that surfing is scary and for the physically strong and athletic. You don’t instantly ‘hang 10’.

Tim said he’s ‘lived and travelled and had dreams about aspiring to greatness, but when he realized it wasn’t going to happen, he now leaves it up to others like Bill Clinton and Barack Obama to aspire to greatness.’ (By the way, Tim does a good imitation of Clinton. It struck me somehow that Tim might be a Democrat.) Today, Tim has a “room with a bed” — and no real estate. Like many Hawaiians, he said, he ‘lives simply’. At one point in the tour Tim said, ‘Look at the houses. Most of them are pretty straightforward. Simple.’

At another point on our tour, I asked Tim if he knew what the racial composition of Hawai’i was, and this is what he answered: ‘The composition of the Hawai’ian population is roughly: Japanese 23%, Filipino 18%, Whites 30%, Hawaiians 12% (very mixed with Portuguese but no Japanese blood), Chinese 9%, 1% Black,3% Korean.’ Tim added, “It all depends on how you self-identify.”

And when driving through the Kahala area — ‘the Beverley Hills of Hawai’i’ — with its 10 million dollar beach front homes, he’d say, ‘ Jim Nabors lives in a mansion just down the street’, or, ‘Carole Burnett lives around here.’ Stars can afford to have homes in beautiful Hawai’i. They made some good choices. That’s what I understood. When we stopped briefly at Waimanolo, sumo champion Akebono’s home town, some of us bought neat t-shirts, or made a pit stop; others [van driver and passenger] really had to stretch their limbs.

Here’s some more Tim bits:
“You can live in Hawai’i without English.” … On Tim’s last van tour he spoke only Japanese with his group, so it was a real change for him to be asked by Japanese Canadians to speak English. But he certainly managed:  … “Hawaiians came from Tahiti 200 years ago.” … “Makapu’u is easier to hike than the last stretch of Diamond Head.” … ‘Hawaiian real estate is the most expensive in the U.S.A.’

After a dramatic drive through several  micro-climates, we pulled up to the parking area outside the Byodo–in Temple (a smaller version of the temple in Uji, Japan), just as the mist was rising above the trees.

Byodo-in-MistIt’s always tempting to write about the spiritual atmosphere of temples, but in this case, I would say it was like walking into the cool hush of a fragrant forest. Outside, people celebrated the unspoken by ringing the bell. A stream filled with bright orange koi wound its way through the green grass and alongside the smaller buildings.

Again, like the Shinto temple in Chinatown, Byodo-in embodied a true aesthetic moment: the temple’s calming orange and yellow shapes produced feelings of stability and calm and contemplation.    

Finally! a late lunch was consumed at Macky’s Sweet Shrimp Truck, followed by dessert up the road at Aoki’s Shaved Ice. This was on the North Shore, in a field by the side of Kamehameha Highway. Most of us were ravenously hungry, so we ordered quickly on arrival and sat on benches under a large tent and crowds of us, Caucasian and Asian alike, dove into food like garlic butter shrimp on a bed of steamed white rice with mixed greens.  I think Koreans ran it. It was so good. Our Chief Scout said it reminded him of the fields of Louisiana. Aoki’s was a treat. I recall the sweet slurpy fruit flavours and the headache-inducing cold of the shaved ice.  Like a kid again, I was reminded by others that I was dripping on the front steps and not letting others take shelter from the drizzling rain.

Food — for a North American urban person like me, the food experience was terrific; why, just around the corner from my hotel, I got to enjoy takeout sushi and bento boxes on a 7 days a week basis — most cost under $10.00! — from the Food Pantry on 2370 Kuhio Ave. and the local ABC store that’s nearby everywhere, or food at the Shirokiya department store, with its extensive food court and bento boxes  in the Ala Moana Center (“their rice is a bit dry”, observed a Group of 12 member.) Japanese  food — onigiri, sushi, and lots of bento boxes —was available practically anywhere. Dining out, we had a tasty time at Murakame, where they make the udon fresh and there’s usually line-ups. And you can add a side order of tempura shrimp.

Pearl Harbor – Day 7, July 30 – Free day
My resourceful room mate and I were the only travellers out of ‘The Group of 12’ to visit Pearl Harbor. This was not on the Itinerary. (Actually, we’d already tried to visit the Bishop Museum that day, only to find the Bishop was closed on Tuesdays!, but on the recommendation of a friendly and helpful Hawaiian traffic cop, we decided to come back another day. The cop said he makes it a point, once a year, to visit the Bishop Museum and “keep up with the culture.”)

With the rest of the day free, a visit to Pearl Harbor seemed a good idea, so we bussed back to Chinatown, as the cop had suggested, and waited for another bus that took us straight out to Pearl Harbor — a pivotal and definitional place in the lives of Japanese Canadians, Japanese Americans, and certainly the Hawaiian Japanese, I was reminded. Under clear blue skies and an intense sun, the open harbour and its white shore line buildings declared themselves a site of commemoration and remembrance.

We’d decided to remain on shore and visit the educational displays in the shoreline buildings. Besides, tickets to visit the Arizona were Sold Out! and how much was there to be learned by taking a ferry out to the Arizona’s half-submerged hull, anyway? I didn´t have the nerve to buy any of their (attractive) graphic t-shirts and Rosie the Riveter-styled shot glasses, but I did settle  for enjoying a steamed Eisenberg hotdog for two bucks outside the gift shop.

The Arizona, incidentally, was one of the (two?) battleships that sunk on December 7, 1941, when the Japanese mounted a surprise attack on the U.S. Navy at Pearl Harbor, as many of us know. In one building there were at least two scale models of the Arizona placed among the many well-written explanatory panels about the steady progress of war and its principal players in the Pacific theatre. 

Day 8 – July 31 – A Free Day at Aloha Stadium … later, a Sayonara dinner at Odoriko
This was a hot but happy and confusing day at Aloha Stadium. Outside  the stadium, as far as you could see, there were double-lined acres of vendors in tents selling their t-shirts, dried fruit, sunglasses, pineapple slices, body massages, macadamia nuts and ukuleles. Quickly, we went our own ways. A couple of us later forgot When? and Where? We were supposed to meet up afterwards, but no one really got lost. Four of us had bussed out together to the stadium, which is actually farther out from Honolulu than Pearl Harbor. We just wanted to experience their famous international market — acres and acres of tents encircling, it seemed, the whole huge stadium. Before I got to the very last section of tents, I had a nice sandwich of cheese and grilled tomatoes on an Italian-style herbed bread prepared by Japanese Hawaiians. For a non-shopper, I didn’t have a bad time. I bought seven decent t-shirts for twenty dollars and I’m wearing one of them today as I write.

Back home from the Bishop Museum, we had our Sayonara dinner at Odoriko — just across the street from our hotel where the 12 of us dined on shabu-shabu, or sukiyaki, our choice. I shared a chilled bottle of sake´ with T. It tasted better than the Hakatsuru and Gekkaiken we’ve had in Toronto. Others spoke with delight about the Japanese pickles and foodstuffs they’d found at the Japanese-styled supermarket, Don Quijote. They remembered  food from childhood. I had a second bowl of rice.

Sayonara dinnerBackground, left to right: Ken Noma, David Fujino, Randy Sakauye, Terez Hyodo, Chuck Tasaka, Janet Sakauye

Seated Left, top to bottom: Michael Noma, Kay Nagao, Donna Noma

Seated Right, top to bottom: Chris Noma, Ann Kane, Toshi Hyodo

Credit: Ann Kane


Day 9 – August 1 – Free morning & afternoon – then home to Canada:
It’s 8:40 am — our group of 6 are waiting in the morning sun for the 20 bus on Kuhio Ave., and we don’t have to be back at the hotel until 5 pm, so it seemed a perfect day to visit the Bishop Museum.

The Bishop is a multiple focus museum. Its five main buildings, the Jabulka Pavilion, Hawai’an Hall, Paki Hall, Richard T. Mania Science Adventure Center, and the Castle Memorial Building, make up its ‘Campus’. Clearly, it’s a place for people to experience things and learn. It lived up to its hype.

My tour of the Bishop started when I walked into a lovely wooden-floored room and found a poised Hawaiian storyteller standing on a platform speaking to an audience of all ages sitting in chairs, listening. I decided to sit down quietly among them and hear the skillful male storyteller tell the history of Hawaiian monarchy and the succession of Kings, Queens, and Princesses, the arrival of the Europeans and the Americans, and then the next period of resistance to colonization in 1883 when King Kalakaua resurrected — in secret — the hula dance the western missionaries had banned from Hawaiian social life. King Kalakaua died in San Francisco.

On the second floor of the Castle Memorial Building, Peter Tanaka, a docent, knocked my socks off when he said Hawaiian Japanese did not walk around with an inferiority complex. Originally a Japanese Canadian, Peter explained that his family left Canada for Japan, and when World War II began, they left for Hawai’i. In Hawai’i, the Japanese are a majority, and not a minority, like mainland Japanese Americans and Japanese Canadians.
Bishop Museum, 1525 Bernice Street, Honolulu, HI 96817 (808) 847-3511,

Hawaiian Philosophy of Life:
When walking around Honolulu, no matter how sweltering and oppressive the heat of the day, just around the next corner, a refreshing breeze unexpectedly wafted towards you.  Magical.  As if someone invisible had gently waved a huge fan from a few feet away. Perhaps it’s my imagination, but there should be a Hawaiian saying, somewhere, about how an oppressive situation is not forever. But you never know when.

Meanwhile, Filipinos and Hawaiians serve us in the hotel where we’re staying.  All around us, we can see the successive waves of immigrants that have arrived in Paradise to start a new life. I said to myself that living in Hawai’i must be very difficult. Apparently, only Hawaiians can own land.  And income-producing jobs — besides tourism , what do I know? — do not seem all that plentiful. I see this as a hard life. (This was intimated in some of Tim Brislawn’s tour guide commentary on Day 6 of our Hawaiian tour.)

August 1/13 — Going home
The 2-stage flight home was nicely graced by our travel agent, Joseph Shiu, and his wife, June, at our brief stopover at Vancouver International Airport. The Shius greeted us and treated us to coffee and pastries at Starbuck’s, and after some aimiable chat, we resumed our flight eastward, refreshed. I’m pleased to say, the flight home was unremarkable, and there were no ‘random checks’ and calling me to the departures counter over the loudspeakers, which I had experienced during the July 24 flight from Toronto, to Vancouver, to Hawai’i.

Since I’ve been back in Toronto, I have to remark on the TV we saw in Honolulu. You saw lots of Asians — Asians as TV news anchors, men and women, Hawaiian Asians, many of whom had Japanese surnames. And TV commercials, as well, featured lots of Asians. What’s on the screens is reflective of their society.

It was a fine place to visit. I had a chance to be on those islands to breath in the air. I bussed by Punahou Academy where Barack Obama graduated from in 1979, with Honours.

With deep thanks, Hawai’i.

David Fujino