“First you dig,” Noa motioned driving a shovel into the dirt. “Then you wipe your sweat.” His little hand reached up to mock wiping sweat from his brow. My dance instructor was a five year old. He knew every step to the dance that symbolized working the harvest (or mining coal-I’m not sure which) but he refused to join the circle. He preferred watching the Bon Dance from the sidelines.
This Japanese festival was my first. The Bon Festival, or Bon Odori, is a Buddhist festival that honors the deceased ancestors of one’s family. The event takes place in the summer and varies by different regions, but one thing that remains the same is the dancing. I got to experience my first Obon season in O’ahu where Hawaiians take the event very seriously.
Celebrants wear summer kimonos, yukatas, and move in a type of line dance formation, shuffling in one large circle around the yagura, or tower, in the center of the circle.
Some dances use sticks, fans or clappers, and everyone seems to have their favorite, jumping from their seats and joining the ladies who demonstrate each dance in their beautiful kimonos.
The event is like a summer fair replete with fried food, more sweets than you can shake a tenugui at and plenty of kids and old folks mingling together. Rather than games (though some Bon Dances have them) the main event is the dancing itself. The dances are slow, long and repeat twice, but it doesn’t stop anyone from participating. In fact, the simplicity of them is what keeps everyone on the dance floor, young and old. A newbie like myself could pick up the movements by the second time the song started up and feel like a rockstar when the electric slide comes on.
The whole evening is kicked off by a monk making offerings to the deceased.
Our Bon Dance was capped off by a performance of Japanese drum players, or a taiko group, which seems to be more a mixture of dance and music than pure instrument recital.
As the three day festival comes to an end, the spirits are guided back home with a fire ceremony, putting them to rest until we welcome them back with a dance the next year. As summer comes to it’s own end and autumn falls around us, Halloween nipping at it’s heels and Dia de los Muertos not far behind, ponder the Bon Dance and its festive celebration of the living honoring the dead through song, dance and food. Think about how you honor your ancestors and consider participating in another cultural event to bring mirth and merry into your ancestral remembrances. Try something new or light a candle. Visit a church or pray with a monk. Join a parade or decorate with marigolds. Find a way to enjoy life while you are part of the living.
The waiter looked down at us with our feet up on the metal chairs gazing out over the clear, calm water of Ala Moana Beach park. “You visiting?” It’s not so much a question but an assumption. Sondra shared that she lived on island and we had decided to come in for a drink to cool off for a bit from our time at the beach.
“You should have brought a cooler of drinks with you. Would have cost you half as much as two drinks here.” He walked away to place our order and I laughed. Only in Hawaii would a local literally dissuade you from his own livelihood to find a way to relax more conviently by the ocean. To his benefit we didn’t take his advice as I was trying to tick off boxes of things that I had yet to try in Hawaii that had been noted as the best and we were only visiting Ryan’s Bar and Grill in Ward Center for the recommended Li Hing Margarita. The margarita arrived with a lip brimming over with red li hing powder, a taste I had only just discovered a few years back the last time I was on O’ahu. Li hing mui is salty dried plum that is popular in Asian cultures and therefore highly prevelent in Hawaii. The li hing infused tequila flamed like sunset in a glass and sang on my tongue but not necessarily my favorite song. In the summer heat of the island it needed to be colder, like a frozen plum rolled in salt but instead it was just a tepid bath.
Over the course of the next week, this was my least enjoyable “best of Hawaii” purchase and it was in no way bad…just not as good as a poi doughnut and porchetta sandwich.
Ed Kenney is probably one of the most popular and influential chefs in Hawaii right now. His first restaurant, Town, opened in 2005 and since then he’s opened two new hot spots in Kaimuki, a district half way between the overcrowded streets of Waikiki and my snowbird suburb of Hawaii Kai. I had to try them both after my fond memories of eating at Town for a birthday a few years back. Kaimuki Superette’s tag line is SEAsonal SANDwiches and SUNdries so I needed a sandwich for my sun and sea. I drove my warm porchetta sandwich like it was a newborn baby, tenderly and making sure it was safe buckled into its passenger seat. Only this baby made my mouth water and my stomach grumble as I halted and lurched through Honolulu traffic.
Finally at Kapiolani Beach Park, my mouth sunk into the crunchy outer layer of fried pig and landed into the soft underbelly of pork fat that, literally, seemed to melt when it hit my tongue. I was in Paradise and not just because I was in Hawaii staring down the line of famous Waikiki hotels lining the glimmering beach. The sandwich was large enough that I probably only needed half but I tore through that whole thing without a second thought and then waddled to the bathroom to squeeze myself into a full piece swimsuit that now felt more like a corset holding all my organs into place after the porchetta displaced them.
The next day I met friends at Mud Hen Water, the sister restaurant to Kenney’s Superette. We sat at the white marble topped bar and watched our platinum haired, tattoo-covered Aussie bartender whip us up some drinks. I had the Vishnu’s Vice which was made with Opihr Gin, juiced turmeric, honey, orange blossom water and topped with peppercorn. If it didn’t have alcohol in it I would swear I was detoxing in the most delicious way. It was spicy, hardly sweet in a good way and not too much kick on the alcohol side either which I can appreciate when I’d actually like to remember my meal. We ordered a couple starters to share and landed on the fried chicken and the I’a Lawalu for our mains. The latter was a white fish buried in coals to cook in a banana leaf with vegetables and coconut milk. The fish was buttery soft, the peppers were smoky and we devoured it like starved shipwreck survivors. For dessert we couldn’t narrow down the choices so with both bartenders prompting us to go for it, we ordered three, a pineapple polenta upside down cake with coconut gelato, doughnuts with espresso ice cream “like breakfast for dessert,” as one bartender put it, and finally, because I insisted we have it, two scoops of black sesame ice cream. The pineapple and black sesame won out as favorites and Sondra and Patrick told me all about their favorite doughnuts from Kam bakery, purple poi doughnuts. Seeing that our doughnut dessert could not match up, they promised to pick some up before our hike in the morning.
Kamehameha Bakery, better known as Kam Bakery, has been serving up baked goods since 1978 and the poi-glazed doughnuts are worth all the word of mouth. Even as I write this I wish I had another one in front of me to eat and can’t believe I may have another year to wait until I get one. As you bite into the purple confection, the doughnut smushes together like resting your head on a feather pillow and then expands again in your hand as you pull your mouth away, the dough rising again in long sugary strings, puffy and light from pockets of yeast. We had just spent the morning exploring ruins in the jungle on the one downpour of the week and decided that the only way to warm up was with hot tea and baked goods. I thought I could stop with one but had to try both original and the strawberry flavor which was an electric pink color.
“Pau Hana” is the Hawaiian equivalent to “happy hour” but means literally “after work.” Most people think of enjoying a tropical drink by crashing waves in Hawaii. I like to think of Hawaii for its food and for my end of the school year holiday, I couldn’t think of doing anything after work other than eat my way through the island and this was just a sampling of some of the treats I found there. To see more of my food porn and get suggestions for your own Hawaiian travels check out my Instagram @goodetravels.
When I saw the sea turtle for the first time, I was floating above it, attracted to where it was by the commotion of the other snorkelers bobbing in a circle and pushing towards the sea floor in short, truncated dives. I was directly above them in their misguided attempts to reach the turtle and touch it and somehow this proximity to their foolishness made me feel like I just walked into the turtle’s bedroom with its pants dropped to the floor.
I decided to let the tide pull me away and give it some space, but the wonder of seeing a real live sea turtle in the wild, didn’t keep me from turning away for long. In the half minute it took me to circle back in it’s direction, the turtle had decided to ascend to the surface of the water, perhaps due to the actions of the tourists.
Where it was once napping on the sandy bottom, it was now perpendicular to the sea floor and rising slowly in one straight line, it’s cream belly facing me and its green head pointed toward the surface like a geiger counter. In my memory of this moment, I like to imagine the turtle slowly spinning as if it were on a pedestal in a jewelry box, but I know that it wasn’t. It did feel as though time had slowed down somehow and it was only the turtle and I in this giant expanse of water. The turtle had been 40 feet below me at first glance so as it glided upwards, it’s presence became more real, more solid, even as I knew that it would also slowly be moving away from me and outward into the greater ocean.
But this didn’t matter to me at the time. All that mattered was that I was sharing the ocean in a slow motion freeze frame with a sea turtle in ascension. Many people have seen sea turtles in their travels, but this day was special somehow, more magical, as if the sea turtle had bestowed something on us, as if he had given us a gift from the sea.
This was my first time out to Electric Beach on the leeward side of Oahu. I had lived on the island for six months and spent every vacation out there since the age of 12 but I had never gone swimming below a power plant just for kicks. In return, I repaid my new friend, David, for this snorkeling trip by showing him the tide pool at Makaha.
My cousins had introduced me to it a few years before when they took breaks between surf sets and to my hearts chagrin grabbed purple sea urchins and broke them apart to feed to the fish in the tide pool. Yes, I would eat sea urchin if cooked for me and yes, other animals eat them too, but somehow it made me so sad to see their purple spikes torn apart and their insides scooped out just for our pleasure.
The tide pool creates a small swimming hole in a break in the reef that locals often come to soak in. On this day, that was not an exception. A family of four Hawaiians were jumping from the rock ledge into the pool. Their sarongs hung from the rock wall bordering the water like flags announcing their heritage. They were all rotund and a deep brown, their long hair tied to the tops of their head. One woman had a large gap in her front teeth and a big smile to match. They were friendly and spoke such a deep pidgin of Hawaiian and English that even with my “local haole” status, I couldn’t understand much of what they said.
The tide was in and I wouldn’t normally go swimming in the natural pool with the water as deep as it was and the waves coming in as fast as they were, but with the locals there in the pool, I couldn’t lose face and turn around either. I turned to my friends and said, “This is it. Ready to jump in.” And what were they going to do, say no. We walked up to the rim of the diving ledge and looked down at the water frothing over the top of the reef. At least we knew it would be deep when we took the plunge. One after the other, we all made it into the pool, the locals clapping and cheering us on.
The waves came with a speediness that rubbed me up against the reef a time or two, but I was able to keep my balance well enough that there weren’t any major accidents or injuries. The time had come to move on though and our driver announced…“Well we’ve seen sea turtles and swam in a tide pool, now how about some sting rays?”
We were off to Ko’olina on our way back towards Hawaii Kai at the south of the island. Ko’olina is known for its calm beaches lined with large hotel chains. It’s no Waikiki, more family centered and less surf, but for sting rays and a tropical drink during sunset, it was worth a stop. David took us to the Marriott and expertly weaved his way through the hotel until we came to a man-made shallow pool full of stingrays floating through the water in a graceful balletic dance. I was mesmerized by them, watching them glide, swerve, speed over the top of one another. While it wasn’t a wild sea turtle, there was still something enchanting about it. We made our way to the bar and ordered drinks with fresh pineapple, putting our feet up on chairs and watching the sun set over the Ko’olina lagoons.
We have no pictures from this day, only the memories imprinted on us. The sea turtle spinning through the ocean, the Hawaiians bobbing in the water, the sting rays gliding through sunset-tinged streams. It was the perfect Hawaiian day. A little bit of magic and a whole lot of Aloha.