Wednesday, November 10, 2010

Mixed Plate: Hangin' Around in Hilo-Town

I recently took some time off to see my parents in Hawaii before the mad dash of holiday travel began. For this visit, I spent the whole time on the Big Island of Hawaii, in the city of Hilo. It doesn't have the bustling energy of Waikiki or the powder-soft sandy beaches of Maui. It's a city with a deliberate slow pace, its rhythm conducted by the people who have lived there for generations and don't seek out big changes. People like my father grew up there, they often went off-Island for work or school, and in their golden years, they return because it's a place that debunks the saying that you can never go home again. Hilo is a small city built by the plantations, rebuilt from several destructive tsunamis, and continues this day to retain its sense of identity in the currents of changing times. Come along with Wasabi for an insider tour of the big little city of Hilo Town.

Fresh leis at the Hilo Farmers Market - Photo by Wasabi Prime

I didn't grow up in Hilo, but spent a lot of time with family during summers. My childhood memories wander the old streets and neighborhoods, residing like ghosts in time, awaiting my return. When I'm there, it's like entering a cocoon of emotional comfort, locked out from the distractions of the modern world, and the opportunity to reacquaint oneself with one's center. It's a place to slow down, allow the day's events to be dictated by delicious meals, and remember the importance of little things. My little things were mundane things like flossing, taking my vitamins and going for daily runs -- all the stuff that had been driven off by false needs like deadlines and the annoying buzz of email. None of that in the no-wifi-zone of my parents' house, and good riddance.

Getting to Hilo, snapshots of a journey - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The Hawaii I know is the small towns and cities of my parents (my mother's hometown is Makawao on Maui), which for the most part have been untouched by the tourism industry that the state heavily relies on. I admit to a love/hate thing with arriving at Honolulu Airport and seeing the throngs of tourists wearing loud Hawaiian shirts and plastic flower leis, being herded off to a canned, shrink-wrapped view of what the outside perception of Hawaii is. It's not just a place where you sit on a beach and order syrupy cocktails and drink yourself into a sun-baked oblivion. That's like spending hundreds of dollars to shove your head in the sand and miss the fact that you're in one of the most culturally diverse and mystical places you'll ever set foot on in the fifty states. You traveled this far to experience Aloha -- for heaven's sake, let yourself be immersed in it before renting jetskis or buying a cheap snowglobe that was made in Taiwan.

The best views and eats in town from Noris and Kawamoto Store - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Getting to know the heart of Hawaii is spending time in small cities that aren't completely invaded by national chains. Steer clear of the usual morning latte break at Starbucks and cast aside that lunch run to the Golden Arches. Hilo is full of small restaurants and Japanese-style comfort food shops, or okazuya, which all specialize in the local tastes and flavors that people have grown up with. Shoyu chicken, Spam musubi, cone sushi, saimin -- try it all, because it's delicious and been favorites of the locals as far back as the plantation days. My childhood still plays in the low tide waters of the Queen Liliuokalani Park, by the edge of Hilo Bay. I have many scraped knees from slipping on the garden's lava rock ponds while trying to gather bait for fishing trips on my grandpa's boat. We would always bring a giant bento from Kawamoto Store on Kilauea Avenue, to keep our stomachs from grumbling too much so as to scare away the fish. The original family no longer runs the Kawamoto Store, but it continues to make ono kine bento lunches that sell out before noon, so my mother orders lunch early, we pick up our box of goodies, and spend at least one sunny afternoon eating local kine grindz on the Bay. There is no longer my grandfather's boat to ferry us to the open seas, where the salt spray mixes with the food, but eating lunch with my parents, overlooking the water and a volcano sleeping in the distance beneath a cover of clouds, it's absolutely true that good food tastes even better when enjoyed outside. And please remember the SPF.

Visiting those who have passed on - Photos by Wasabi Prime 

When I go back to Hilo, it's as much to feed the soul as it is to fill the stomach. While I can only be best described as a jack-Buddhist and Richard Gere will totally achieve Nirvana before I do, I try to be diligent with my parents, to visit the ones who came before us and pay respect to the loved ones who have passed on. Funerary rituals aren't anything new -- everyone has their own rites of observance. In Hawaii, it's as much about co-mingling with the dead as it is with the living; celebrations like O-Bon, the festival for the dead, interjects that need for remembrance and setting a place in one's daily life for those who have departed. It's a weird thing to say, but you'll never see a more colorful and well-kept cemetary than when you visit Hilo, or any other city in the Islands. The dead are never forgotten, and their resting places are a vibrant reminder of the life they led. We did our part to visit the resting places of family and friends, replace the withered flowers with fresh anthurium bought at the farmers market, and wash the black granite family markers so that the sun could dry them to a proper shine. At the risk of having some bad karma chase me down, I took a few photographs in the columbarium where some of my family rests. It's not a somber, depressing place. Instead, it's full of fresh flowers, hanging leis, and private notes from loved ones. It's a place where a little sadness and happiness can come together to mingle with the smell of incense, when the wisps of smoke from the sennenko rise into the air. And best of all -- the matchbooks left near the altar are all usually from Las Vegas. Because even the dead can appreciate a trip to Nevada.

Snacks, quiet morning time, folding gyoza and trips to Longs - excitement abounds! - Photos by Wasabi Prime

If food is love, then I'm very, very well loved when I'm in Hilo. I indulge in snacks I don't regularly get to enjoy, I take advantage of the sale days at Longs for local foodstuffs, and eat the best meals in town, which are always cooked by Mom. I was glad to refamiliarize myself with that magical morning ritual of morning coffee, a pastry of some sort (either a malasada or a crumpet), and the newspaper. Yes, they still make those, and there is nothing quite as heavenly as hearing the birds chirp, the coffeemaker sputter, and feeling the paper between one's hands as you take your time to get settled into the new day.

Tailgate food with Aloha plenty - Photos by Wasabi Prime

I also managed to visit during college football, and more specifically, when the University of Hawaii was playing. Happily the Warriors won their game - Go 'Bows! My parents host game viewings at their house, so UH friends gather, there's plenty of things to graze on and I got to enjoy an old food friend known as the Maui red hotdog. Alarmingly red. Scandalously red. And outstandingly delicious when topped with all the typical hotdog condiments and a hefty sprinkle of smoked pork that the neighbors brought. That addition was my own design, and I highly recommend it. Don't let the bright color scare of you off; they're no different than a crunchy, tight-skinned hotdog from anywhere else, but the bright red makes it distinctively local.

Suffice it to say, Wasabi Mom fed her little Wasabi Prime real, real good - Photos by Wasabi Prime

In between stuffing my face with too much food, I took a very belated visit to the 'Imiloa Astronomy Center of Hawai'i. Don't roll your eyes and think it's just another planetarium or place for space geeks to hang out. This is one of the most unique places to experience the stars and the way humans have felt the influence of the heavens drive one's destiny. It's a museum that is one part science and one part Native Hawaiian culture. And they have cool 3-D movies shown in their planetarium theater.

Visiting 'Imiloa and being blinded by science - Photos by Wasabi Prime

At the risk of sounding like an informercial -- if you're in Hilo, make it a point to visit 'Imiloa. It's part of the University of Hawaii and it's educational in both science and culture, so yes, it's wholesome family fun. It's not like visiting other astronomy museums where it's more about looking up and not looking around to see where the curiosity about the universe emerged. Their exhibits are about enabling the spirit in the heavens and how it brought people to the islands of Hawaii to make it the place it is today. I can't even point to True North, and these guys hopped in a boat and navigated their way to a tiny chain of islands.

Mosaic telling the tale of Hawaiian navigators, one meticulous tile at at a time - Photo by Wasabi Prime

And, as a bonus, 'Imiloa is probably one of the best hidden food gems in town. Their latest vendor who's handling their restaurant is bringing in the crowds for their dinner, so make reservations if you go. We were there for lunch, and their spicy beef noodle soup and signature shrimp were pretty tasty. Science, stars, local culture... and plenty ono salt and pepper shrimp? What more could a person ask for??

Visit 'Imiloa - come for the science, stay for the buffet - Photos by Wasabi Prime

Going to Hilo is never complete without a visit to the Hilo Farmers Market. There's actually several in town, but the largest main one, on the corner of Mamo and Kamehameha in downtown Hilo, is the one most people visit. I like this farmers market because it's a real working market. It's not full of cheesy tourist junk (OK, there's some of that) and the goods aren't outlandishly priced so that makes it impractical for locals to just get their weekly groceries. It's real food, locally grown and priced to sell so that it makes it on someone's dinner table that night. That's it. Nothing fancy. This is the way a farmers market should work, and it gives the national chain grocery stores that barge in their produce underripe and overpriced a run for its money.

Farmers market goodies - musubi, spicy chilis, anthurium and starfruit - Photos by Wasabi Prime

The fruits and vegetables are all things people use on a weekly basis. Staples like green onions, fresh ginger, taro root, papaya and guava. There are uniquely local items like warabi, the tall stalks of baby fiddlehead ferns that grow wild in the Hilo rainforests and are made into salads. Exotic fruit like the fuzzy-skinned rambutan or spiny dragon fruit are everywhere. Funny enough, it's the simplest things that my mom says she misses -- like a crisp apple or pear. Basics like that have to come from the Mainland, where fruit is picked too early and left to ripen in dark holding containers. It's a reminder to be thankful for what we have in our own backyards.

Warabi, rambutan, more anthurium and tart apple bananas - Photos by Wasabi Prime

But I'm still green with envy at the fact that the growing season is pretty much year-round in Hawaii and there's always a treasure trove of fresh goodies at the market. I realize that's probably why they can price out their produce so reasonably. But it doesn't change the fact that I still turn into Gollum, seething about The Precioussss every time I walk the aisles of the farmers market and ogle all the goods.

Your food brain will overload at the Hilo Farmers Market - Photos by Wasabi Prime  

If you're still reading this, I applaud your patience. Or perhaps I should just nudge you, as you've probably fallen alseep by now. Hilo is little town that most visitors to Hawaii would probably overlook as boring or too far past its prime, but for me, it's the ideal place to recharge and refocus. Visiting a place like Hilo is a way to experience a genuine part of Hawaii not influenced by fake grass skirts or hokey luaus, and not a paper umbrella drink to be seen. This is a city where good local food and meals are ritual, treasures abound if you're keen to look for them, and the ghosts of the past walk freely among the living. And there's always time for coffee and the morning paper.

Mahalo plenty, Hilo - I will see you soon - Photo by Wasabi Prime

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  1. I love this! I love Hilo. I'd visit with my exbf to visit his Grandma. Shower/bathe in her furo, fish at Lili'uokalani park, eat good food... mmm cafe 100 and their loco mocos. My bff from college, her parents moved to Hilo (from California) while we were in school and we'd have a blast going to the farmers market, going to the beach... I cant think of the name of it, but we'd go to this little beach park with the most beautiful blue water... looking at the map I think it could be the Onekahakaha beach park.
    Im going back home for a visit (on Oahu) and a wedding (in Kona) for that same friend soon, and I can't help but wish we were going to Hilo instead.

  2. I've only been to Hilo a couple of times, but each time was pleasurable and I've kept the small but meaningful memories close to my heart.

    Thank you for sharing your memories with us.

  3. Thanks for writing about Hilo. Reminds me of my trips to visit my relatives. Also makes me hungry for some farmers market grub! No mention of the strawberry mochi at Two Ladies Kitchen, though?

    Love your blog! Always look forward to your fun and funny posts!

  4. Thanks for sharing your adventures. Definitely traveling and food trip go well together. By the way, I found a food social networking site that has so much to offer to its food loving members. It even has iPhone/iPad application for food enthusiasts like us.

  5. What a wonderful post, and of course the pictures are to die for. I am basically obsessed with dragonfruit...although have never tried it, it's so gorgeous I can't get it out of my mind! I love this glimpse into the real Hawaii.

  6. Great post. I grew up in Kona and always enjoy exploring Hilo when I return home.

  7. So we have to know: how did you get onto the tarmac at Hilo Aiport to take pics of the Hawaiian Airlines jets, and who is making those yummy looking gyoza? I want to go there!

  8. Ha! Can you believe the airplane tail shot was taken from inside the plane?! Got a good shot while at HNL airport, as plane was backing up. And the gyoza is at the exclusive dining establishment of Mom n' Dad's House! ;)

  9. Making my first trip to the Big Island this summer and staying on the Hilo side of the island. After reading this I can't wait to explore it all. Thank you for sharing.


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