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.
A topic of this importance is not to be taken lightly, so I can assure you that I have done some very thorough research before posting this list.
If you visit O’ahu, you will probably be told that Matsumoto’s is the place to visit for your shave ice because, well, that’s where everyone goes. I think, however, that a visitor who only tastes the shave ice at Matsumoto’s is cheated. There’s just so much better out there.
Number 1: Shimazu
Shimazu’s cups come big, bigger and huge (get the smallest; believe me it’s enough). They have a size known as “The Larry,” but no-one I know of has ever attempted it. The flavors at Shimazu are the most inventive I’ve come across: they have creme brulee, mojito, red velvet, even durian (though you may be ordered to eat it far outside the store).
The texture is fluffy like cotton, with just a little crunch, and optional fillings and toppings include standards like mochi and red bean, as well as haupia (coconut cream).
My favorite is the sour apple li hing mui, with mochi — although Shimazu’s mochi could be better, and I don’t like that it is cubed.
The only cons are the usual: almost no parking: long lines.
Number 2: City Cafe
At City Cafe you can choose from regular Hawaiian-style or Taiwanese-style shave ice. This was the first place I ever tried Taiwanese shave ice, and, although Sweet Home Cafe is good, I think it is still the best.
The ice is shaved fine and covered in brown sugar and condensed milk. Toppings include taro, tapioca, pudding and big, firm mochi balls — I think the mochi here is the best.
It’s a small space but I’ve never had a problem finding seating or parking. The owners are quite lovely too.
Wailoa was my favorite for a long time. Their ice is shaved to the finest consistency I have found on the island. The selection of syrups and toppings is small but adequate — I usually get the li hing and lilikoi with mochi. The cups are pretty small for the price and service can be brusque, otherwise there’s not much to fault Waiola.
Honoray Mention: Matsumoto’s
It’s definitely not the best, I find the ice too thick and crunchy, but you have to visit Matsumoto’s at least for the atmosphere. A North Shore institution, it’s been in the same spot since 1951 and is almost always packed with tourists. Braving the long line and finding a spot on the bench outside is just one of those things you have to do on the North Shore.
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.