In Japan, and other places where Japanese culture is strong, this is the time of the O-bon festival — the honouring of the spirits of dead ancestors. At this time it is common for Japanese families travel to relatives’ graves, or to set up household altars so that their spirits may visit them instead.
O-bon is celebrated with a three-day festival and a dance, Bon Odori, to welcome the spirits of the dead. While the style of Bon Odori varies from region to region, it almost always involves a large group of people circling the yagura, a kind of elevated wooden platform where the musicians stand.
Both of my Japanese O-bon experiences were in Tokyo (in 2005 and 2007) where August 15th is the official first day. Hawaii has a whole “Bon Season” that runs from June through August.
Tokyo is generally miserably hot in July and August, but I would happily sweat through another summer there to dance around the yagura and eat festival food once more. Of course, in all the festivities I did tend to forget the sober heart of O-bon — the respect and remembrance of those we have lost. Read another way, however, O-bon reminds me of the joy of being happy, healthy and alive.
One of the things I loved most about living on O’ahu was the little bits of Japan sprinkled across the island. From the Japanese grocery stores, to O-Bon festivals, mochi balls mixed into shave ice cups and the bilingual signs around Waikiki.
The Byodo-in Temple is an exact replica of a 900-year-old temple in Japan set at the foot of the jagged, at times mist-shrouded, Ko’olau mountain range. The temple was established on June 7, 1968, to commemorate the 100 year anniversary of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. After chiming the bon-sho — a three-ton brass bell you strike with a wooden log to bring peace and good fortune — you can stroll through the temple, pause at the feet of an 18-foot golden Buddha and wander past ponds with bloated koi and black swans — and maybe a wild peacock or two.
This room had been off limits for visitors for the duration of its several year-long renovation . As such, I never had the opportunity to see it when I visited a couple of years back. The Damascus Room dates from the late 18th Century and is elaborately decorated with ornate ceiling reliefs, gold calligraphy, Turkish ceramic plates, silk velvets and Iranian glassware.
That the room is called the Damascus Room prompted the house/museum’s director to say to the Honolulu Weekly “Especially given the current civil unrest in Syria and reports of damage to cultural sites, we hope the Damascus Room will open a window on the country’s extraordinary cultural heritage,”
The house/museum was one of my favourite day trips when I lived on O’ahu. Although the house is open to the public, you must go as part of a small group tour. You can book the trip online (early: it sells out weeks, even months in advance) then make your way the the Honoulu Academy of Art from where you are driven to the house.
The house is stuffed with one of the world’s largest collections of Islamic art, collected over Duke’s years of traveling through Iran, Morocco, Turkey, Spain, Syria, Egypt, and India. Duke was captivated by Islamic cultures and, in her will, created the Doris Duke Foundation for Islamic art, to promote the study, understanding and preservation of Islamic art and culture.
Duke purchased the home, which lies on the ocean and beneath Diamond Head, while honeymooning in Hawaii in 1935. The distinctly Hawaiian surrounding landscape is as stunning as the art inside.
Dessert is my favorite meal, as if that were not quite obvious already. O’ahu was good to me in this respect; the variety of sugary tasty goodness comes in many forms and is widely available. Here’s my recommendations for a sugar fix on O’ahu.
What it is: Finely shaved ice soaked with syrups (preferably home-made) and topped and filled with your choice of mochi balls, azuki bean or haupia cream. Just don’t call it “shaved ice.”
For a different (even sweeter) take on the traditional Hawaiian-style ice, try a Taiwanese shave ice that makes use of brown sugar and condensed milk. I recommend City Cafe on Makaloa Street.
Where to eat it: Hands-down Shimazu has, in my opinion, the best shave ice on the island. The servings are huge; the consistency strikes just the right balance between fluff and crunch, and the syrups are home-made and inventive — think mojito, crème brûlée, red velvet, even durian.
2. Mochi Ice Cream
What it is: Japanese pounded rice cake filled with ice cream. Traditional flavors include matcha (green tea) and strawberry.
Where to eat it:Bubbies is probably the most famous purveyor of mochi ice cream in Honolulu. I am going to admit, however, that I preferred Shirokiya. Maybe it is just the ambiance of the Japanese grocery store, or maybe it was the delicate handling of each mochi ball by the counter staff, but selecting a piece or two at Shirokiya, wandering around the store just long enough for it to melt just enough, was one of my favorite food-related rituals in Honolulu.
What it is: Yes, cake. But not any old cake; cake that makes use of those distinctly Hawaiian flavors: lilikoi, haupia and, if you go to Otto Cake, “Big Island Honey Cheesecake.”
Where to eat it: The afore mentioned Otto Cake specializes in cheesecakes; (more that 80 flavors) Ted’s Bakery on the North Shore is home of the famous Haupia Pie, and Hokulani Bake Shop has cupcakes in flavors like strawberry-guava. Little Oven supposedly makes the most amazing cakes in Honolulu but is this place ever open? If you manage to eat here, you are luckier than me.
What it is: Mmmmm mmmmalasadas; originating from Portugal and traditionally eaten on Fat Tuesday, these little deep-fried balls of goodness most closely resemble the humble donut — a Portuguese donut, if you will. Malasadas arrived on Hawaii alongside the 19th century laborers that came to work the sugar plantations.
Where to eat it:Leonard’s Bakery; crispy on the outside, chewy on the inside and available in a multitude of seasonal flavors — mango, pineapple, coconut, chocolate… And they have the best retro-neon sign.
5. Cream Puffs
What it is: A choux pastry ball filled with cream. That’s it.
Where to eat it:Liliha’s Bakery sells around 5,000 of these things a day — for a good reason. Liliha’s fills the pastries with chocolate pudding and tops it off with chantilly frosting. They start baking at 2am every morning.
What it is: Halo-Halo is a a Fillipino dish that features shave ice, condensed milk, and various toppings that can include fruit, kidney beans, rice, flan and yam.
Where to eat it: Shimazu makes a good halo-halo but, I think, only on certain days. Try Mabuhay Cafe and Restaurant in Chinatown.
What it is: In a place with year-round high temperatures, sometimes your thirst needs more quenching than your sweet tooth. You don’t need to compromise though, O’ahu offers some delicious frozen slurpable treats that will satisfy all cravings.
Where to drink it:Rainbow Drive-In‘s strawberry slush float is the perfect blend of sweet and refreshing: a blended strawberry juice topped with a huge heap of vanilla ice cream. Yum.