Invited Beneath the Surface of O’ahu for Seven Weeks
A summer in Hawai'i fell face first into my lap one afternoon in early May over coffee. As usual, my partner Josh and I had waited too long to make summer plans, living in a state, both literally and figuratively, where everyone seemed to already know what they were doing for the coming summer before they'd even picked out their Halloween costume or gotten through the New Year. Sipping coffee on the sidewalks of the East Bay with my friend Jules, I was complaining over the irony of having to plan out fun an absurd amount of months in advance.
Wishing I could spend the summer somewhere like Hawai'i, Jules' eyes lit up. A couple she had become acquainted with during her long stint in O'ahu a year prior had sent a rogue text back in March saying they were planning to leave for the summer and were looking for someone to take over their lease and rent their car. Jules, one of the loathsome and responsible many having already planned out a summer in the Pacific before her Thanksgiving turkey was carved, had turned down the offer herself and shelved the thought...until now. One text message introduction and one FaceTime home tour later, alongside a small leap of faith from us both, and off we left to spend seven weeks in O'ahu, just a couple blocks from one of the most beautiful beaches in the world, Lanikai.
Hawai’i has to be the destination I’ve heard the most about prior to visiting. The word “paradise” gets thrown around as a sort of obligatory slogan from visitors past, quickly followed by mentions of sea turtles and rainbows, and caps locked texts of "I LOVE HAWAII.” It’s the sort of place I admittedly worry about disliking solely based on the sheer volume of people who flat out love it; finding the same anticipated, and perhaps misplaced, disdain for Disney World and peanut butter jelly sandwiches.
What I find in my first couple weeks on the island is this: the beaches and water are indeed jaw dropping, and the spirit of Aloha is real. I’ve found daily poke and acai bowl spots, and have figured out which beach walkable to me consistently has the smallest crowds and best views (Lanikai Access #7). I now know how long it takes an influencer to get the shot; either 4 minutes or 2 hours; nothing in between, and am honestly surprised they never stay to actually enjoy the beach after the photos are done. I’ve learned to bring a small container of vinegar with me to the beach for jellyfish stings, and can now spot the difference between a baby man-o-war and a blue button from fifteen feet away. Now familiar with the shape and location of rocky coral outcroppings from my local beach shores, I can tell whether a shadow in the distance is a natural formation or a school of fish simply by whether or not it belongs there. A winning combination of watching people swamp their belongings at high tide day in and day out, and learning what time the winds pick up and teeth chattering begins has educated me on paths of the sun, tides and temperatures, and I now feel confident in my ability to maximize the best spot on the beach for any five hour stint within a foot of accuracy when on the shores of my backyard beaches, Kailua and Lanikai.
I’ve rescued an injured zebra dove and I am therefore now a member of the local bird rehabilitation community, whether by intention or not, emphasis on the not. My phone and address are currently listed in the dark web of enthusiastic aviary groups I’m not privy to, and as of recent I’ve been getting calls and texts from neighbors asking if I need help ungluing the poor creature; its wing soldered to itself from a rat glue trap. I don’t, since I’ve squirmed my way out your run of mill injured animal drop off turned sideways when rehabber, Reuben, suggests I take on a “fun summer project” and give ungluing a wild, delicate and upset animal from itself a shot through alternating rounds of Pam cooking spray and Dawn dish soap back at home in my kitchen sink. Reuben has recently followed up post ungluing saying the bird lost a few flight feathers, and has suggested I now foster the dove on my lanai so it can recoup near its home and be released in one to twelve months where it was found, and I seriously consider his logic—perhaps the landlords will be excited to come home to a “fun summer project?” Although currently I am considering flying the coup myself when after agreeing to take the bird back for the rest of my trip, I receive another Reuben ambush saying I actually now need to foster a few pigeons in addition to the zebra dove for the rest of my time here because it 'needs company.' So all in all it feels like I’m doing a decent job of falling into the rhythm of a local and somewhat quirky community of ex-mainlanders and/or aviary Ponzi scheme.
Despite being wrapped up in wild bird drama, I find I still have the time for a very important and pressing problem; my failing approach to the local food scene. Outside the poke bowl I regularly worship and a couple tucked away gems I’ve found on my own, the food we eat here is largely fine, but I am positive by and large I am not eating how Hawaiians eat. Everyday I notice parts of Hawai'i that culturally and aesthetically mirror areas of the mainland's rural Southern states, and I am certain straight forward heartwarming food and simple pleasures must go hand in hand here too.
I explore the island more by the day, beginning to assume all the uncrowded seaside nook and cranny coves locals keep to must be kept more hush hush so tourism doesn't ruin them, and I get that. But to my surprise the Hawaiians I meet share short lists of favorite spots whenever we strike up a genuine conversation; from the guy I meet at the used bookstore who chats me up over a cardboard box of freebies, to my pharmacist who adds three syllables to the way I (mis)pronounce my street name and uses my first name so many times in our ten minute chat that I leave assuming I can invite him to my 4th of July barbeque and he will show up. A local jewelry maker I meet carving Hawaiian symbols from cow bones (the modern day whale bone) teaches me the name for the hue of blue I spot in the water off Makapu'u Beach which I’ve never seen before in my life and for some primal reason stirs my soul; "Hawaiians have always loved that blue, so much so that there's a name specifically for it; kai uli. But don't swim in it when you see water like that...even I don’t and I was born here. That blue means the water is deeeeeep.”
The Hawaiians, seemingly curious as to where I'm from, usually respond with a "I LOVE CALIFORNIA. It's too hot here but the weather is perfect there, and Northern California is just so beautiful,” the Hawaiians shockingly not immune to the feeling of the grass being greener. Their overt friendliness is disorienting, and I find myself having a legitimately difficult time deciphering whether Hawaiians are extremely friendly compared to Californians, or if I’m constantly being flirted with (an anomaly since moving to the west coast). Another consideration I contemplate is perhaps Italian women just test well here. I text Jules, another Italian-Californian, asking her to help decode, and she shares that her surf instructor and a local dolphin both were flirting with her this week as well, her seeming just as confused as I am on the subject.
Locals in their chattiness always inquire what I think of the island, and I share I find the natural beauty stunning but admit I'm a bit horrified for the Hawaiians by the gargantuan number of tourists on such a small piece of land; the volume visibly taking a toll on the island and its waters. Shark's Cove’s is wonderful to see, but I leave feeling more sad than wondrous due to its oily sunscreen sheened surface from its volume of visitors, tail between my legs fully owning to the blatant hypocrisy of being one of the many travellers there myself. Agreeing with my insights, locals surprisingly openly divulge unlisted beaches they regularly take their own families to, "I was just there yesterday with my kids; they’re the best tide pools on the island” and tips on lesser known spots, "the water is incredible there but face the ocean and walk three coves to the right and you'll find a smaller nook that has much better snorkeling and almost no one there, it's a bit more open ocean though, just check the tides before you go" with 90’s era landmark denotations like "If you hit the shrimp farm you've gone too far.”
I begin to see how much more expansive and deep O’ahu is for its locals than its visitors as the people I meet along the way reveal how alive the island is outside and underneath the surface of where most travellers think to, and are capable of, going. The welcoming spirit of Aloha, which is easily found at first glance in any market of the island or driving the roads of Kailua where cars who have the right of way regularly yield to cars who don’t, begins to feel more profound by the day. The magic of Hawai'i fully reveals itself however, when, by a stroke of luck and incredible timing, one of my best friends, Sara, whose Japanese side of the family has lived and grown up on the island for generations, tells me she has booked her ticket and is moving to O’ahu with her family; our timelines overlapping for the last three weeks of my stint.
Since the moment I stepped foot on the island Sara has quizzed me on where I'm going and what I'm eating. She doubles down hard when I admit early on it feels like I’m not experiencing the food scene the right way, and begins sending me lists of questions and to-do’s almost daily:
“Have you tried any Limu poke? Huli Huli chicken? Are you eating loco moco?” She slingshots me a heady checklist of food to find and things to eat every few days, “spam musubi from 7-11. Yes, I'm serious. Everyone eats it there, don't be a priss." "Find some Ono or opah and just do a simple pan fry with furikake at home or order butterfish misoyaki style. Have you eaten Saimin yet? What? Why not??" "Don't forget to grab some hurricane popcorn for the kids while you’re out." “Go to Tamura’s and get the smoked marlin poke and cold smoked beef pipikaula for a beach lunch. You may get the side eye as you’ll probably be the only haole there, but you’re good.” “Have you gone to FoodLand for poke and edamame to take to the beach? Are you eating meat juhn and kalbi? You’ve tried malasadas and had coco puffs already, haven't you?" "How much butter mochi have you eaten? The stuff from church groups selling it up and down the beach is actually legit because it's homemade."
I text her questions like "Why aren't there many seafood markets?” and “where do I get fresh fish?" and she answers back "find a friend with a fishing pole."
When Sara arrives she hits the ground running. We begin with one of her favorite childhood restaurants near Honolulu. Out front, we gaze upon a no-frills strip mall of local restaurants housing impossibly delicious looking cajun seafood, ramen, Huli Huli chicken, Korean fried chicken, manapua, and a plethora of local finds encompassing Thai, Korean, Japanese, Chinese, Vietnamese and more. Within a millisecond I am certain I could eat solely in this parking lot for the rest of my trip, and quite possibly my life, and be thrilled silly about it. We head inside, weaving through the diner-like setting and sit down at a large table in the back corner.
Sara glances around pointing to old photos of her grandfather on the walled frames with the owner of the shop; the restaurant outliving both of them but visited by Sara and her family for decades. She begins explaining to us the art of Saimin; a Hawaii specific noodle ordered in a light broth or pan fried. Accompanied by any number of modifications in it; spam, eggs, wun tun (wontons), kimchee, chicken katsu, pork stew, luncheon meat, fishcakes, char siu, or even miso or oxtail or spicy broth substitutions or trading Saimin noodles for udon; it is almost endlessly customizable. Sara prefers hers in the slightly sweet dashi it’s known for, and as ramen obsessors, we all follow suit but deviate according our own whims, some of us veering towards more Japanese iterations, others towards Portuguese sausage and cabbage additions. The most clever, though, order the number 62, which arrives with wun tun and ‘one good-sized lau lau,’ which must somehow translate into; ‘ti leaf wrapped gift of perfection and beauty’. Its contents again can vary by protein, but tonight it is pork and fish wrapped in its traditional deep green luau leaves from the taro plant of a local family farm, all packaged into a large ti leaf tied into a bow with cotton twine for steaming. It is the most perfectly unctuous, salty and unspeakably delicious answer to a day at the beach, and quickly my favorite thing to eat on the island. We dive into our Hawaiian comfort food and stuff ourselves to the brim, our party of 10 getting out the door with waistlines bursting for around $10 a person. This is the Hawai'i I have been searching for.
One particularly trafficky day on the North Shore, Sara can't make it to the beach to meet us; the usual 30 minute jaunt through the main artery of the island is going to take her over 2.5 hrs. Instead, she invites us to about-face for a visit to her late grandparents' house.
Sara’s grandfather and grandmother, Tatsumi (familiarly known as Buster) and Masako respectively, both moved to O’ahu from Japan in the early 1920's when they were less than 5 years old. They met during WWII and were married for 60 years before he passed away, both living on the island their entire lives through Pearl Harbor and the scrutiny and prejudice Japanese Americans faced, however patriotic and however American they may be. Masako's father built the house that still stands today with his own two hands from recycled WWII barracks teardowns at the Army airfield down the street from them, Schofield. After Buster's passing Masako lived here on her own until she passed away just last year at 102 years old. Sara's mother Pearl was born on the island and grew up in this family home, living here until she moved away for college.
Growing up in California, Sara often visited her grandparents in Hawai'i, reminiscing about laughably going to the beach just one or two times per visit on trips bordering a month despite the North Shore sitting a stone's throw away. The Hawai’i she grew up in was the simple day-to-day small town life in the heart of O'ahu, largely spent in the universe of her grandparents' backyard; picking fruit, catching geckos with her brother Stevie, and helping Tatsumi tend to his orchid garden. Sara grew up visting Matsumotos when it was just a small stand in a modest gravel parking lot so her grandfather could catch up with his pal, Mr. Matsumoto; the shaved ice was just a plus. On the North Shore in winter months she still recalls how massive waves would make the ground rumble and shares local hero lore with stories of Eddie Aikau's life, always watching out for "Eddie would go" stickers around the island over the years on her visits.
We show up at the quaint and well-kept stilted one story entrance of her grandparents' house. Leaving our shoes at the door we step onto the yellow bedded down carpet and seemingly back in time. It’s impossible to not smile and feel comforted here amongst the universal grandparent home smell, and decor of ‘everything matters,” where irreplaceable generations old antiques and ornate buddhist statues sit next to grandchild handmade hot gun doodads, both displayed with equal importance. Handwritten fat markered letters from Masako's great grandchildren still adorn her kitchen cabinets, and framed photos of Sara and Stevie growing up sit alongside Sara’s Senior year portrait on quiet wooden bedroom dressers.
Having lived through The Great Depression, Masako was notoriously never one to waste anything; not food scraps, newspapers, plastic bags, you name it. Her kitchen open shelving is home to perfectly cleaned and neatly stacked plastic to-go containers reused in perpetuity, beautiful chopsticks and ornate Japanese dipping bowls, and an assortment of coffee mugs and corningware we all recognize from our own 90’s kitchens and feel half certain was recalled years ago for containing lead. Her sewing room hosts an armoire of handmade shirts and dresses, where she sewed kimonos for Pearl, Sara, and later on her great-grandchildren.
As we wander outside so Sara can show me Masako’s infamous Furo, her Japanese spa, a neighbor spots Sara out the window and comes out to catch up. Reminiscing about Masako and her quirks, she assures Sara that even though the neighborhood hasn't changed for the better, the block always kept a collective eye on her grandmother while she was alive, especially her own family who she laughingly says no one messes with because her husband is a massive Samoan and her half-grown teenage son almost his size already. After exchanging the scoop on new pie shops on the North Shore and old haunts in town, Sara, my blonde haired blued eyed friend who is adopted, tells the neighbor about her growing up oblivious to the fact that she wasn't actually Japanese, not realising it until she was much, much older. Her neighbor looks at her at hearing this, drops her voice and says, “Sara, my mom is a tiny, pale, blonde 100% German woman. She's inside, you can go see her yourself if you don't believe me. But you would never think she is my mother, and you would never think I am half German, but I am. It doesn't matter what we look like on the outside. It honestly doesn’t matter what runs through our blood. Look at your family. Look at yourself. You are Japanese, Sara."
Later, as the sun begins to set, Sara orders us saimin (pan fried this time) and loco moco from her grandmother's favorite restaurant around the corner, and grabs us chocolate pies from the shop down the street. We bring home the meal and eat on Masako's plates as one large family around her kitchen table, just like she would have wanted. We leave with our hearts full to the brim. Despite a decade of friendship, I had always understood how important Hawai’i is to Sara’s heritage, but I never fully comprehend it until now. After visiting her house many times throughout the years, it’s something else to finally see her home.
Over the next couple weeks Sara takes me to local markets, small family restaurants, historic bakeries and lesser known beaches. Anytime I text her apologizing for us getting out the door embarrassingly late she replies “No worries, we’re on Hawai’i time,” and every time we part ways after another delicious meal, she smiles contentedly before hugging me goodbye and says, "This was your lesson for the day.” The places we go, like Sara’s Grandmother’s home, aren’t showy or flashy but they are something much better and truer than that; they are wholesome. They are Hawai’i.
It’s our last day in O'ahu and we’ve travelled to a part of the island we’ve been told to visit; a beach with a marked difference in feeling than other parts of the island that have been run over with tourism. Maybe it’s energy here, or the late afternoon light, maybe it's our anticipated nostalgia for our last day here and the magnetism of a seemingly expansive and near empty beach on a very inhabited island; whatever it is, there is something undeniably spiritual about where we stand.
We spend the most perfect afternoon playing in crystal clear water near families of Hawaiians, sea turtles almost incessantly popping their heads up around us two to three at a time, gliding by within feet of us, snowflake eels in their mouths as they chomp down dinner, the locals playing with their own children feet away in the same waves, playfully speaking Pidgin to them, and calmly and lovingly taking their small babies up and over the waves.
Families who have sewn seeds of generations here and indigenous Hawaiians are right to protect their land and heritage with such fervour and ferocity; one not need be Hawaiian, or spiritual, or local to feel its sacredness, experience its welcoming spirit, and sense its simultaneous strength and fragility. I find myself in awe of the earnest and enduring spirit of Aloha, and am humbled to be invited onto the sands of the beaches whose names are passed by word of mouth, into the restaurants of their family's friends, and into the homes of their grandmothers, to sit at their kitchen table and eat from their plates. It is a privilege to be given passage to see O’ahu in this way.
We head to the car to change into dry clothes so we can grab a farewell saimin and lau-lau at Sara's grandpa's favorite shop before it closes. Digging my feet into the sands of O'ahu one last time, the only thing I take with me is a wish for places like this to remain just as they are, as it is undeniable that after seven weeks on the island it seems we have truly and finally found paradise.
I feel as if I would be taking something from Hawai'i that was never mine to share by passing on the names of the very special places shared with me from local Hawaiians and my friend Sara.
I do however encourage everyone who visits O’ahu to try to get past the surface of the blogs, the endless top 10 lists, and the luaus. Open yourself up to truly connecting with locals and their island, allowing them to share with you the pieces they feel ready to. If you are fortunate enough to be invited to experience the O'ahu that lies beneath the surface, I assure you the natural beauty of the island, its people, and the spirit of Aloha will nourish you mind, body and soul.
Written and Photographed by Allie Brown