Hawaii travel report 2023 (a Japan away from Japan) [Part 1/5]

By | August 8, 2023

My family and I had plans to travel to Japan a few years ago, but those were put on hold due to the COVID situation. Now, in 2023, the doors to Japan have opened again and we were hoping to finally make it back there, but (likely due to the high demand) the new tickets were over twice their original cost. After some consideration, we decided to go to Hawaii instead.

Hawaii is a relatively short flight from Portland, not to mention the ticket prices were close to those of our original Japan trip. But the other reason we chose Hawaii––more properly written as Hawai’i––is because of its large element of Japanese culture.

I’m going to write about a variety of topics across a few posts, and at the end I’ll put a bunch of selected pictures from our trip. This is the first post of a total of five planned posts.

Travel Details

Our trip lasted around a week, half on Maui and half on Oahu. We ended up purchasing tickets directly from the Delta website, and both flights had a brief layover in another airport (Seattle and Los Angeles). We used a plane to get from Oahu to Maui, via Hawaiian Airlines. In Maui we rented a unit in a condo for a few days, which ended up being very convenient, and in Oahu we stayed in the Aqua Palms Waikiki Hotel. For traveling back and forth we used mostly Uber, except one day when we leveraged a city bus via a day pass (these are only available in advance at the ABC convenience stores that are all over Oahu).

Originally our return flight was scheduled for a very inconvenient time (around 9pm on Saturday night), which we had chosen due to a significant price difference compared to more pleasant flights. But the day before our return home I decided to try my luck at changing the flight to a more reasonable time. It took waiting online for over 2 hours, but in the end we got a much better flight without any change in cost.

I might as well talk about the worst part of traveling in Hawaii, which is the high cost of the majority of things you buy on the island. While the plane tickets and lodging was somewhat reasonable, the cost of things like food and other consumables is pretty extreme. To give you an idea, the price of a hamburger at Burger King was around $14.00, and one of the more expensive coffees (a basic medium-sized Latte) was $10.00. Stuff in grocery stories is pretty expensive, and one local quoted me the price of bread being roughly $10.00.

Given that Hawaii is a pretty huge tourism area the expensive prices are not that surprising, however several people reported that the prices in Hawaii have jumped in the last few years, apparently as a result of things related to COVID and import of goods to the islands. Part of it is due to the fact that the vast majority of goods on Hawaii have to be imported from off the island due to lack of production of those items locally. Having said that, if you search around you can find cheaper prices in surprising places; for example, one of the most famous coffee places, Kona Coffee in Waikiki, charged $6.70 for their larger size. Actually it seems that the prices in Waikiki are in general lower than some other places, perhaps due to the high competition for tourists.

Japanese Culture

I mentioned about the large degree of Japanese culture in Hawaii, so I wanted to discuss that briefly. According to one statistic, around 25% of people are of Japanese descent, though this doesn’t mean they necessarily speak Japanese.

The Japanese influence is evident as soon as you get off the plane, where some of the signage in the airport is in bilingual Japanese/English. Japanese culture pervades into the popular foods served or sold on the islands, which is especially visible in grocery stores where you can see many Japanese-made food products. Some words from Japanese have even become common in everyday Hawaii, such as “furikake”. Sushi restaurants are quite popular, as well as other types of Japanese cuisine that are not common in most of the rest of the US. One great place is Marugame in Waikiki (on Oahu), which is a famous Udon shop. Generally they have a long line right after opening, but you can actually order takeout on the window to the far right, and that took only around five minutes to be prepared compared to what would probably take at least an hour to wait in line and then order.

By the way, the mall near Marugame (International Marketplace) has a Mitsuwa store carrying a large assortment of Japanese foods, and much of it is surprisingly cheap. There is also a Book Off store in Waikiki that has a great selection of used Japanese books, as well as other cool stuff like classic console cartridges and anime figures. Their prices for used stuff were oddly low; for example, one of the used books I bought about improving Japanese vocabulary was only $1, and it was in great condition.

There are a large number of Japanese tourists, especially in Waikiki (Oahu) where you can often catch bits of Japanese conversation just walking through the shopping areas. It’s not uncommon to find stores that have signs about speaking Japanese or translations of their ads in Japanese. Maui, which feels much less touristy in general, had a significantly smaller number of Japanese tourists.

I found it fun to compare the various Japanese translations in different places. To give an example, two different hotels had very different translations for the phrase “Slippery when wet”.

  • 水濡れ時すべります
  • 足元にご注意ください

One of these is much more natural, can you tell which?

The answer is that the first is basically an awkward literal translation, whereas the second is much more natural, meaning something like “Please (use) caution below your feet”.

One thing we did notice is the large influence of Korean culture as well. For example in the Book Off store, some (quite annoying) K-pop group was playing loudly on the speakers; I almost suggested to the employees to try J-pop instead, but held my tongue. In another place, after we entered a Sushi shop and were about to order, we noticed there was some Korean ramen on display at the register, and sure enough of the employees was Korean. Ultimately the rice with our sushi wasn’t proper sumeshi, and even the tare with my Unagi Don was a bit too sweet, maybe closer to bulgogi sauce. 

It’s not that I have anything against Korean culture––we actually had a pretty decent meal at a Korean restaurant near our hotel, with delicious Korean Ramen––it’s just that I find it awkward when their culture gets mixed up with Japanese culture. In a place with a large number of Japanese people, ideally I would prefer native Japanese speakers to be involved with places that serve Japanese food. There are some more official combinations of these two cultures though, such as “Han no Daidokoro” (韓の台所) which is a Japanese-style Korean BBQ restaurant.

Overall, while calling Hawaii a “Japan away from Japan” is a bit of an overstatement, it’s still one of the places outside of Japan with the largest percent of Japanese and Japanese-speaking people.

Hawaiian Language

While traveling in Hawaii I couldn’t help but become interested in the Hawaiian language. One reason is that its vowel-heavy structure with no consonant blends makes it very similar to Japanese, and I wonder if some of this is due to direct interaction of these two languages from centuries back. There is also the idea of lengthening vowels to modify the meaning, another element shared with Japanese (i.e. “kyo” vs “kyou”).

Hawaiian words tend to have a lot of repetition of sounds (a good example is “Kamehameha”, which itself sounds like a Japanese word and was actually employed in Dragon Ball for effect). Many words also seem to be quite long, possibly because there are less total words in their alphabet compared to English. 

The condo unit we rented supplied us with a page of Hawaiian vocabulary words, where I learned about some words I had already heard before like “Akamai”, which means “intelligent”. Just traveling around Hawaii you will be exposed to some frequent phrases like “Aloha” (“hello”, “love”), “Mahalo” (“thanks”) and “A hui hou” (“see you again”), though those seem to be used for more effect than anything. You can find Hawaiian-language children’s books in gift shops, and even see things translated into the language in places like airports. 

But the question is how many people actually fluently speak the Hawaiian language. After speaking to a few locals I get the feeling that such people are quite rare. In one case, I was told that two generations ago the Hawaiian language had been banned by the government, only allowing it to be spoken in homes, which contributed to a significant decrease in usage.

Fortunately it seems there are some schools that offer Hawaiian immersion to get children to keep the language alive, so I don’t expect it to die out anytime soon. But still I think the number of native speakers is gradually decreasing, and there is little reason for it to ever increase. Regardless, I think some aspects of the language will be retained for the foreseeable future in terms of road, place, and building names. 

Related to that point, I imagine the number of native Japanese speakers in Hawaii is also decreasing over time, as the new generations are gradually forgetting about their culture. But with a thriving tourist industry perhaps there are still many Japanese-native speakers who move to Hawaii.

(continued in Part 2)

Other parts: Part 3, Part 4, Part 5 [photographs]

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2 thoughts on “Hawaii travel report 2023 (a Japan away from Japan) [Part 1/5]

  1. Pingback: Hawaii travel report 2023 (a Japan away from Japan) [Part 2/5] – Self Taught Japanese

  2. Pingback: Hawaii travel report 2023 (a Japan away from Japan) [Part 4/5] – Self Taught Japanese

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