Memories of O-bon Past

Hawaii, japan

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.


Photos by author.


Azabu-Juban Festival. August 2005.


Roppongi Bon, 2007.


Wahiawa Bon (O’ahu), 2010.




Byodo-in Temple, O’ahu


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.


All photographs by author.

Doris Duke’s Shangri-la


Billionaire philanthropist Doris Duke’s former home, called “Shangri-La,” opened up its Damascus Room to visitors this month.

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.

Following photographs all by author.

Pool at Doris Duke’s house, O’ahu

Black Point , O’ahu

Black Point, O’ahu



I would have liked the mule ride.

As the plane swooped along the coast, I saw the zigzagging trail sloping down the cliff face. It’s a two-hour ride each way but April’s rain had washed away the trail so now the only way in was by plane.

Our little four-seater airplane flew over the cliffs and on to the other side of Molokai: it would be quicker to just pick up the other guy now, our pilot explained.

Our group grew to four; seats were swapped to evenly balance weight and we were back in the air for just a few minutes before gliding down past a tall, thin lighthouse and landing in a patch of field.

We met our guide in the Kalaupapa Airport—a building the size of my living room—and waved goodbye to the pilot as he pulled the plane across the grass and out the way.

“It’s rush hour!” The guide whistled through the gaps in his teeth as a truck wobbled along the road past us. He threw a shaka towards the truck driver and then it was just us as far as I could see.

Our near empty school bus carried on along the road, past several cemeteries: the overflow cemetery; the Native Hawaiian cemeteries; the cemeteries where most of the headstones had been washed away by a tsunami.

We made our first stop at a store and bar—though alcohol can only be sold after 4pm. The guide pointed out an old photograph of Kalawao at the time of the leper colony and we petted a cat named Hitler.

“It’s irony,” said the third visitor, an optimistic man from Washington. “You take something terrible and turn it into something happy.”

Mentally I tried to make the connection to our visit to a former leper colony, but it didn’t fit. Looking at the cold shop assistant, I didn’t get the feeling that this had turned in to something happy. The man from Washington looked pleased with the thought, though, and I turned and left him petting and cooing at the cat.


Onwards; past former hospitals and separate residences for boys and girls. On to Saint Francis Church where there was singing; the church hall where there was more photographs and stories, and past the Post Office and General Store—off limits for visitors, out of respect for the former patients who go about their daily lives here.

We got back in the bus and started our way across to Kalawao. A truck passed us and the guide couldn’t resist repeating the joke: “We’re coming into heavy traffic now!’” He grinned. I caught a flash of a girl sitting in the back as the truck drove past. I noticed highlights in her dark hair and it wondered what it would be like to be a young woman here.

We stopped for lunch at the edge of the peninsula, looking out towards the massive cliff faces and conical islets. The driver had been carrying around a tub filled with cat food; he shook some out onto the ground for the kitten that came up to us as we stepped off the bus.

“There’s no children here,” he said, “so the animals become family.

You can’t even visit Kalaupapa if you are under 16.

We sat at a park bench for lunch, the man from Washington tore pieces of his to give to the kitten, petting and coddling it. I thought that animals were family for him too.

I walked away from the others for just a minute and took in the silence. It occurred to me that Kalaupapa is silent. The two locals we had interacted with hadn’t said a word, not even when making a transaction with the others. I considered that Kalaupapa was inscrutable; it wouldn’t breathe a word of its secrets.

We moved on to the neat, simple church, locked now because a recent visitor had removed some artifacts. We stood by Father Damien’s grave–containing only his right hand—then made our way back to the little airport.

As we neared the airport the driver slowed to point out a monk seal; flopped out all alone on his long empty beach.



I am quite lucky to have local friends on O’ahu, because it means I get to go to places I’d never have known about otherwise.

Mu-Ryang-Sa Buddhist Temple isn’t in any of the guide books that I’ve looked at and it’s quite hidden away–well as much as a brightly-coloured building around 70-foot high can hide. We drove up through Palolo Valley, winding around corners until we could see the roof above the trees. The temple is on a steep hill in a quiet residential area, the residents of which, I later found out, had campaigned to get the temple’s peaked roof lowered by six feet to comply with city planning laws. The temple was previously called Dae Won Sa Temple; it’s new name reflects the result of the rule: Mu-Ryang-Sa means “Broken ridge” in Korean.

Mu-Ryang-Sa was quiet and empty except for us and one lady working there. From her cool air, I think they prefer it that way.

A couple of surly figures greet you upon arrival.

Lanterns hanging inside the temple

North Shore Polo


Mercifully I slept through the England- Germany match. I woke up, checked the result on my phone and put it to the far back of my mind.

Onward , then, to a different game.  The rain took a break and the polo was on: Mexico vs. Hawaii at Dillingham Airfield. Now, I’ve never been to a polo match before and can’t say that I’m much the wiser about how the game works, but Sunday at the Polo might become a new favourite thing. You can drive up to the edge of the field, tailgate, barbecue, order cocktails from the bar and, when it gets sticky, walk about 100 metres to the beach and cool off in the, not too choppy, ocean.

They weren’t playing, so I’m not sure why the Argentinian flags were flying; surely not that local Argentina fans wanted to taunt the Mexican players over that morning’s defeat in South Africa. But, the atmosphere was relaxed nevertheless. Probably only a few came for the game really; it was all about the hanging out.

King Kamehameha Day: Lei Draping Ceremony


It seems to me that barely a week goes back without a festival or celebration of some kind going on on Oʻahu. I do try my best, but still only make it to about half of them.

I thought twice about heading downtown to the King Kamehameha statue opposite Iʻolani Palace, wondering how interesting a lei draping ceremony could be.  But those leis donʻt get up there without fanfare; no way, Hawaiians are no slouches when it comes to ceremony. This was a gathering, by turns reflective, solemn and celebratory, filled with colour, dance and music from the Royal Hawaiian Band. A quiet respect was tangible as descendents of the king spoke of his legend, triumphs and even hinted at what today we might call faults. Dignified men and women stood to attention in ceremonial robes, suits and feather cloaks while I sweated and burned in shorts and a tank top. A slight woman with a gorgeous smile performed first hula and then a war dance while the fragile leis were being hoisted with the aid of a fire truck; a scene of both strength and beauty.