Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Don’t open the door yet,” my mom yells from the back seat. She and my aunt are slathering their arms, legs and any exposed inch of skin with kukui nut oil. “To keep away the mosquitoes,” my mom instructs, tossing me the half-empty bottle. “Trust me, they’re everywhere here.”
“Here” is Pähoa town, where my grandfather was born. The main drag is all but a few blocks long. Its colorful storefronts and old wooden porches hearken back to a simpler time. As my mom and my aunt pile out of our rental car, it’s hard to believe this is the town our family came from — the three of us “city girls” stick out like a sore thumb. My aunt points down the narrow road alongside a natural foods store. “Pa’s house was down this way.”
I had come to Pähoa because of the lava flow, currently seeping out of Pu‘u ‘Ö‘ö Vent on Kïlauea volcano. My family worried this one “might be for real” and quickly booked our tickets, worrying this trip to Pähoa could be our last. The east side of Hawai‘i island is no stranger to Madame Pele. Past eruptions haven’t just shaped the lay of the land; they’ve wiped out whole towns.
Someone who knows this all too well is Harry Kim, the former Hawai‘i island mayor, who grew up in ‘Öla‘a. “I’ll never forget that day,” he says. “April Fools, 1990.”
That was the day the lava shifted and started heading towards the town of Kalapana. Kim, who was the county’s civil defense director at the time, said by the end of the summer, the entire community was buried. His voice grows quiet as he describes how the lava displaced hundreds of families in the area — many of whom now live in Pähoa, the latest community in Kïlauea’s path. “A lot of them were people who were born and raised, whose parents were born and raised,” says Kim, describing the kind of people who gravitate towards the area. “This wasn’t just a place to live; this was their lifestyle. This was their home.”
When you witness the destruction of an entire town, it changes you, says Kim. Looking back, what he misses most are the memories he wishes he had captured. “I have a lot of regrets on things I didn’t do,” he says. “Not for me, but for the preservation of history.”
Over the past three decades, Kïlauea’s most recent eruptions have forever changed the landscape of East Hawai‘i, with 544 acres of new land created from the slow-moving molten rock that has consumed more than 200 homes. Kim remembers one of them. “This one day, a family came to talk to me and asked me a favor,” says Kim. “He said his house would be covered in lava by nightfall and he didn’t want people gawking and taking pictures.”
Kim says the Kalapana lava flow threw the rural community into the national spotlight. Soon the town was filled with reporters, folks from neighbor islands and others hoping to witness history. He says he understood the families’ wish to mourn privately in peace and quickly gathered the crowd of onlookers, telling them to move along. “I went on my speaker and asked all of them who are not of this place [to] please give these people time alone to say aloha.”
That painful experience of the past gives Kim an interesting perspective for those who may face a loss in the future. “If the worst scenario happens, there are going to be a lot of people who will need to move elsewhere,” says Kim. “This has been going on for millions of years and it will continue.”
Overgrown grass is all that remains on the plot of land where my grandfather grew up. The family home had suffered from years of neglect and was torn down more than a decade ago. “Gramps used to be scared as a kid, walking in the dark, to the outhouse,” my mom said, pointing down the hill.
Our family roots in Pähoa started with my great-grandparents, who immigrated to the Big Island from Hiroshima. Like many young people at the time, my grandfather, Eichi Nakao, dropped out of school in the sixth grade to help raise money for the family, working in the sugarcane fields in Puna. The former plantation town has changed in recent decades, reflecting a more hippie, bohemian vibe. A kava bar serving kombucha on tap remains busy, as does the tattoo parlor next door. Farther down the road, a clothing store called Mystic Closet is holding a moving sale in anticipation of the lava.
But many old-timers still remain in town, unsure when to make the call to leave. That’s something Janet Ikeda is still trying to decide.
Ikeda has a complicated relationship with Kïlauea volcano. If it weren’t for the eruption in Kapoho 60 years ago, she never would have met her husband. He lived in the next town over, but moved to Pähoa after the lava took his family’s home. “My husband’s house was the first house to be covered by lava,” says Ikeda. “I used to call him my manuela boy.”
Ikeda, now 79, has lived in the sleepy town of Pähoa her whole life. Her barber shop is at the far end of the main road in town. She says she remembers helping out as a young girl. Back then, the shop was owned by her grandfather, Riichi Sakoda, who emigrated from Hiroshima in the late 1890s. “When I was around 14, I used to come down and sweep the shop for him,” Ikeda recalls. “And I thought, what the heck, might as well learn how to cut hair.”
And that’s exactly what Ikeda did. She’s been cutting hair here for 65 years now. And the store, Jan’s Barber and Beauty Shop, is the oldest business in Pähoa. Stepping into her shop is like walking into a time capsule. Old-fashioned barber stools line the side and the back wall is chock full of memories. Framed photos of her grandchildren. A collection of Japanese lucky cats waving back at customers. There’s even a photograph from a couple years ago, when the town chose her as the grand marshall for the Christmas parade. Ikeda points to the wall behind her and smiles. “This is my life.”
But all of this could be gone, if the lava continues on its path towards the town. Ikeda says the mood in Puna has grown tense as the lava edges closer, and, for many, turning to prayer is all they have left. “Everybody’s getting nervous,” says Ikeda. “It’s sad to think about it. All my life I’ve been here. Never had anything like this. But I’ll say my prayers and, hopefully, Madame Pele will spare us.”
Other local businesses have already started closing up shop. On the other side of town, Shawn Heard stands outside her store, Puna Style. The bright purple and pink building she’s worked in for the past 25 years is now half empty. Friends and customers in town stop by to wish her well. Heard spent the past weekend filling boxes with friends and moving them into a container. That’s where they’ll stay for now, until she figures out what to do next. “Right now I feel way better than I did. If you had asked me last Friday, I probably would have been in tears,” says Heard. “This is my livelihood.”
Heard says this isn’t the first time she’s had to move from a lava flow. Three decades ago, she lost her home in Kalapana. “I lived in Royal Gardens in 1983 when she went off, so I’ve been through this before.” Even so, Heard seems to accept the thought that she might have to move once again. “You do what you’ve got to do; you go on. If living here has taught me nothing else, it’s literally an island of change,” says Heard. “It’s a new chapter opening up.”
Craig Shimoda pulls up to meet me in his dusty blue station wagon. I hop in and we drive for about a mile off the main road. He’s taking me to see the Pahoa Japanese Cemetery. “A lot of people don’t know this is here,” says Shimoda.
One of his duties as president of the Pahoa Nikkei Jin Kai is to maintain the dozens of graves of Japanese Issei, first-generation immigrants who came to the rural town as plantation workers — including my great-grandfather.
Craig and I turn onto a dirt road and drive past a metal gate. “It’s beautiful out here,” he says as he hops out of the car. “Whenever you come out here, it’s so peaceful.” The cemetery is made up of more than 250 graves, many of them marked as “unknown.” The tombstones that remain are worn, some dating back to as early as 1905.
Craig says people have already started to collect tombstones, worrying the lava will take the graves. Others have come to say good-bye to their ancestors for what they fear may be the last time.
“I was born in Pähoa in 1937 and I went to Pähoa High School. I’ve lived here all my life,” says Roy Sato, who’s come to visit his family grave. “My mom and dad, sister and brother are in this tombstone.”
Roy now lives in Kurtistown, about 20 miles north of Pähoa. Prompted by the lava, he’s come back to spend the day cleaning his family grave. He sits down to light incense and places a handful of bright red ginger in a vase. “That’s why I’m here, to take a picture,” Roy says as he places an apple before the altar. “Because once it’s covered, it’s gone forever.”
Roy’s also in town to see his sister and niece, who still live in Pähoa. He plans to walk down the main road and visit some of his favorite spots, including the Akebono Theatre and his old elementary school. “What Pähoa means to me is, you know, we were born here. To see it go under the lava is really sad. But can’t fight mother nature, I guess.”
As we head back to his car, Craig pulls out two framed maps from his trunk, detailing the burial plots in the cemetery. The maps are intricately drawn by hand on old parchment paper; each grave is marked with a number that corresponds to a list of names.
My aunt Edith and my mom, Annie, scan the map for a Kiyoshi Yoshiwa, my grandfather’s brother.
“Yeah, there it is . . . Yoshiwa,” Edith says, pointing to Plot 84 on the map. “My uncle.”
Kiyoshi was only a baby when he passed away. His twin brother, Uncle Johnny, lived in Pähoa most of his adult life. My aunt used to joke that at age 70, he was probably the oldest bagger at Pähoa Cash & Carry.
Back in town, I walk through the main drag in Pähoa one last time with my mom. “We hardly come to the Big Island anymore, mostly just to see the volcano,” my mom says. “But when we do, we always make a stop in Pähoa. Now that it might not be here, it’s kind of sad.”
As we begin to talk story, it’s clear: Family memories are everywhere. There’s the window Gramps used to sneak into at the Akebono Theatre. And there was the time he and his friend got lost in an old lava tube and the whole village went to look for them. And, while those memories linger, their physical reminders may not.
“If that’s wiped out, your family history is gone,” my mom says as we walk past shops and restaurants, some already boarded up in anticipation of the lava. “Your memories are wrapped up in these physical things. And when you don’t have those, you kind of lose something.”
I ask my mom why it was important that I come with her to Pähoa. “When you were younger, I don’t think it would have made much of an impact,” she says, after reflecting for a moment. “I thought this was the right time to introduce you to your own history. You saw these places and where Grandpa came from — that’s what I wanted to do for you.”
And that’s why this trip is personal. There’s a real purpose to coming back. “Because without those things, you lose that thread,” she says. “And I think that’s why people go back. They want to see those things; they want to touch those things. When that’s gone, I think you really lose a lot — you lose your history.”
History that many, including my family, want to visit while it’s still there.
Postscript: On Oct. 26, just days after writer Molly Solomon emailed her completed story and photos to the Herald, lava began oozing its way into the Pahoa Japanese Cemetery. “So sad to find out the cemetery has been covered as of this morning. I’m so glad I was able to make it to the grave before this happened, but was shocked to hear that it was right in the path,” Molly emailed on Oct. 26. The next morning she flew back to Pähoa to report for Hawaii Public Radio.
Molly Solomon is the general assignment reporter for Hawaii Public Radio, covering a variety of subjects, including education, tourism and food sustainability. Solomon, a yonsei who is originally from California, earned her bachelor’s degree in sociology from the University of California Santa Cruz.