Stacy Lee
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

It’s definitely a no-brainer. Like many Japanophiles, foodies, whiskey aficionados, manga fans, onsen lovers, cosplay enthusiasts or people who just can’t get enough of Japan, I am so there! For almost two years, many could only experience Japan by engaging in such activities as longingly watching an informative NHK World travel documentary, getting a Japanese snack fix from a Boksu subscription or following our favorite Japan vloggers on YouTube. And although those who live in Hawai‘i are fortunate enough to be able to get some pretty decent soba and sushi to satisfy our cravings, nothing. Repeat. NOTHING compares to actually being in Japan. 

When the country does open up, many will, no doubt, flock to the land of the rising ramen. But since strolling down the aisles of department store food basements, gliding down powder on the snowy slopes of Niseko or visiting a sake distillery in Niigata are not yet a possibility, there are ways to get a Japan fix right here in Hawai‘i. Some might take a bit of effort, some driving, and a little bit of cash, but many are available at little or no cost, or can be done from the comfort of home. 

Shopping

Don Quijote on O‘ahu (Honolulu, Pearl City and Waipahu) is a great place to shop and create your own Japan experience without having to get on a plane. (Photo by Jodie Ching)

Whether or not one chooses to trek around Honolulu to satisfy a Japan fix, or remain at home, one morning of shopping is necessary to feel like you are in Japan for even a few hours. DON QUIJOTE (aka “Donki”). If you choose just one store, make it this one. To achieve just a few hours of feeling like you are in Japan, this store is a must. Shopping there is in and of itself almost like being in Japan. After all, there are Don Quijote stores throughout Tōkyō and other large cities in Japan. 

Many Hawai‘i visitors to Japan make it one of their required stops to load up on items to bring back to the islands. The Kaheka Street location, while not having the same variety as those stores in Japan, is definitely enough to satisfy most snack cravings or facial care fixes. While there are definitely other stores in Honolulu to find Japanese snacks, Don Quijote also has dozens of face care items. From silky, light body lotions to dozens of face masks, and even foot relaxation sheets, its selection is wide. 

Products like Hatomugi Skin Conditioning Gel are No. 1 best sellers in Japan. It’s easy and fun for women, teens, and yes, even men to spend time wandering the face care aisles. For an at-home Japanese bath/spa experience (to be discussed later), toss a couple products in your cart: a facial mask (Lululan is a popular brand), Hatomugi body lotion, a foot relaxation sheet, and if available, Japanese hot spring bath salts or powders.

LuLuLun face masks can be found in the beauty section of Don Quijote. (Photos by Stacy Lee)

Don’t leave the store just yet. The face and body aisles are only part of the shopping experience. For those who want to create their Japan experience at home, pick up the necessary ingredients you need to make a Japanese dinner at home using a recipe from cookpad.com or justonecookbook.com. When using the Cookpad site, you may prefer to stick to recipes that are from cookpad.japan which are closer to ones found in Japan. 

Can we talk snacks? If you are willing to spend just a bit more for authentic, slightly decadent Japanese snacks, proceed a few blocks south to Ala Moana Shopping Center’s H.I.S. Travel. Although senbei arrived in Japan from China during the Tang Dynasty (618-906), senbei evolved into a typical Japanese snack during the Edo Period (1603-1868). At this time, senbei crafters began to make them with rice and shoyu. Shoyu, nori and goma flavors are classics, however there are other exciting flavors as well.

You can get many Japanese comfort food recipes like this omurice from justonecookbook.com. (Photo courtesy of justonecookbook.com)

Recently H.I.S. Travel began selling artisanal senbei from different prefectures throughout Japan. Not your average kakimochi to mix with popcorn, just one bite of the piquant tako (octopus) or ebi (shrimp) karaage senbei from Fukui Prefecture is enough to transport you to a small town near the Japan Sea. Another senbei sold at H.I.S. is the “Whole Oyster” senbei. Yes, that’s right, oyster on each senbei. If sweet is preferred over savory, there is the miso and raw ginger senbei from Gifu Prefecture. As a snack to take along on a bento picnic, or a munchie, it’s certainly worth the few extra dollars.

Nearby tea shop Lupicia sells the perfect complement to these senbei- Kaga boucha. Boucha is basically hojicha or roasted green that is produced by using the stalks rather than the tea leaves. Kaga bocha is crafted in the Kanazawa area of Ishikawa Prefecture. As the twigs are roasted at a high temperature, the resulting tea gives off a deep, rich and pleasing aroma that permeates the senses. One whiff of Kaga Boucha’s tea is like experiencing Japan through the nose. Although created during the Meiji Era (1868-1912), sweet, roasted Kaga boucha was served in 1983 to the Showa Emperor when he visited the Kaga area. Often difficult to find, Kaga Boucha is sold at Lupicia.

Experience

There is no substitute for enjoying a quiet moment at Kyōto’s Ryoanji temple’s Zen rock garden or gazing out over the city at Kiyomizudera especially when the cherry blossoms are in bloom. And while it is impossible at the moment to visit a Shintō shrine like Ise Jingu in Mie Prefecture, one may still journey to Japanese religious places here in Honolulu: Buddhist temple, Byodo-In Temple, and a Shintō shrine, Izumo Taisha Shrine. Located across the river from the Chinese Cultural Plaza, Izumo Taishakyo, one of the oldest active shrines in the United States, holds cultural and religious significance for many Japanese Americans in the islands. 

Its history began in 1906 with Bishop Katsuyoshi Miyao, who immigrated to Hawai‘i to work on the plantations. Having received training as a Shintō priest, the Bishop held Shintō services for Japanese immigrants. The Hawaii Izumo Taisha Shrine is a branch of the Izumo Grand Shinto Shrine located in Izumo City, Shimane Prefecture. Besides observing the traditional shrine features such as the torii gate and chōzuya wash basin, one may purchase traditional omamori (amulet) and ofuda (talisman) for protection and blessings for a variety of purposes such as health, scholarship, travel or the home. Visit on an auspicious day such as shichigosan in November or Oshogatsu on January 1st, and you may be able to witness traditional Shintō rituals.

Hawai‘i is also home to a number of Japanese Buddhist temples. As a result, many look forward to attending traditional bon dances that take place at various temples in the islands. Since it’s not quite summer, one place that is sure to be reminiscent of temples in Japan sits at the foot of the Ko‘olau mountains. Byodo-In is located at Valley of the Temples Memorial Park. A smaller replica of the 900-year-old Byodo-In Temple of Kyōto, it is a non-practicing Buddhist temple built in 1968 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of Japanese immigrants in Hawai‘i. 

Go ahead, ring it. The temple’s bell house, or kanetsuki-dō, contains a five-foot-high brass bell that visitors may ring. According to Byodo-In’s website, the tone ushers in a sense of “deep calm and peace, cleansing the mind of evil and temptation.” Besides ringing in the calm, visitors may see the nine-foot Amida Buddha, or take a few quiet moments to reflect at the meditation pavilion. Since we need all the calm we can get these days, you might also like to wander near serene bamboo or observe the koi pond. 

The Byodo-In Temple is located in the Valley of the Temples in Käne‘ohe, Hawai‘i. (Photo by Jason Jacobs/flickr.com)

Finally, a place to enjoy the quiet while being immersed in Japanese art is the Honolulu Museum of Art. A quiet gallery stroll at a museum that houses the third largest ukiyo-e collection in the U.S. is a wonderful place to spend an hour or two. HoMA regularly rotates prints from its large collection. From now through May 5 the new rotation will feature Hishikawa Moronobu, ukiyo-e artist of Edo Period. 

Trained in his family’s textile business, Hishikawa applied his knowledge of fabric and design such as embroidery to many of his woodblock prints, which focus on the theme of beautiful women. Many of his prints depict courtesans as well as kabuki actors. In 1948, Japan’s Postal Services used one of Hishikawa’s most famous prints, “Mikaeri Bijin – A Beauty Looking Over Her Shoulder” on a postal stamp. As an alternative to visiting the museum, one may easily go to the Google Arts and Culture website and peruse Hishikawa’s art.

Chill (in Japan) at Home

With the COVID-19 Omicron variant not quite gone, some might still prefer to experience Japan from home. No problem. Although it requires a trip to Don Quijote, or at least a few items from Amazon, the experience of being in Japan can easily be accomplished at home.  

When it comes to meals, from breakfast to dinner, you can create a Japanese meal at home. Japanese recipes from the New York Times Cooking site or the above mentioned cooking sites are a good place to start. Not sure which recipe to choose? Start with an egg. “Quick and Easy Onsen Tamago” because just about anything is good with a luscious onsen tamago on it – That hamburger patty? Pasta? Pizza. Hai. Hai and Hai.  

Not daft in the kitchen? Venture past your kitchen for take-out. For an at home takeout breakfast, try a musubi from Mana Musubi with instant miso soup. Lunch: while no egg sandwich compares to the Kami-sama’s gift to mankind, Japan’s 7-11 and Kaimukï’s Coco Bloom egg salad sandwich comes pretty close. Their menchi-katsu burgers are pretty awesome, too.   

An at-home dinner? Try J-Shop’s bento. Their bento are not made until ordered. The wagyu yakiniku is like unctuous meat butter in the mouth. J-shop’s fish choices like grilled saba or chirashi bowls are also tasty. And, if you prefer vegetables, they have amazing just-like-homemade side dishes, like stewed eggplant or nishime. 

Activities for an at-home Japan day? Surf the net. Binge-watch a Netflix series or YouTube vlogger. You can spend hours surfing the net for anything Japan. Catch up on Japan’s current events? Japan Times. What’s happening in Tōkyō? Time Out Tokyo or Tokyo Metropolis. Art? Google Arts and Culture where you can lose yourself for hours viewing virtual exhibitions such as Tezuka Osamu’s Manga Museum, or  Made in Japan – a showcase of crafts, traditions and the untold stories behind them. 

Keep your Japanese snack stash or bento near as you binge watch “Midnight Diner” on Netflix. Watching it at night with the lights off transports you to a back alley somewhere in Tōkyō. This series will ignite your appetite and you’ll miss Japan even more. 

Those who prefer shorts might turn to YouTube for Japan vloggers such as “Paolo from TOKYO” or “Abroad in Japan.” History buff? Check out some Japan focused videos on the YouTube channel Rare Earth or better yet, download the NHK World app and watch documentaries like the Begin Japanology series. You can even go to Airbnb.com and participate in an online virtual Japan experience like A Japanese Samurai Town History Walk.

Finally, what better way to enjoy videos than in the epitome of chillin’ Japanese style in a bathtub. Admittedly out of all the suggestions on this list, there is absolutely no way to reproduce the actual experience of an onsen. Just thinking about it, and Ahhhhhhh is the only response. The thought of lounging in a rustic, cedar bathtub in a mountainous, countryside retreat with the steam wafting, muscles melting, the sound of trickling water, bathed in warmth, the promise of a cold beer afterward … Ahhhh.

Ok, so the true onsen experience can only be in your imagination for now, but you can try to create the experience at home with those bath salts, and facial masks from Don Quijote or Amazon. Create a semblance of similar ambience by setting up your iPad to play YouTube videos that feature ASMR onsen sounds. The winter one is quite nice with the echo of rippling water and drips of icicles melting into the bath. There’s also an ASMR video filmed at an open air, riverside hot spring. While lounging in the bath, take the opportunity to lose yourself in Japan through its literature. 

From architecture, product packaging, meal presentation, gardens, to even toilets, almost all aspects of Japanese culture are shaped by traditional aesthetics. Many, like the qualities of shibui, sabi, and wabi are captured in modern author Junichiro Tanizaki’s essay, “In Praise of Shadows.” The essay is an informative discussion of traditional beauty and Japanese aesthetics. And, while your jaunt to Japan’s snack paradises of Lawsons or 7-11 will have to wait, you can read an award winning, short novel set in a fictitious convenience store. Sayaka Murata’s poignant, and entertaining novel “Convenience Store Woman” delves into an individual’s quest to fit into contemporary Japanese society.  

Eat

Hawai‘i abounds with a plethora of tasty and authentic Japanese restaurants; it is daunting to narrow it down. When it comes to a traditional Japanese breakfast with grilled fish and miso soup, not many places serve this comforting traditional breakfast anymore. The Hawaii Prince Hotel’s 100 Sails seems to be one of the only options. The breakfast menu lists a Hapa breakfast which includes miso soup, grilled fish and tamago-yaki. 

That being said, if you are going to dine at the Hawaii Prince, it might be a more worthwhile experience to wait for lunch or dinner at Katsumidori Sushi. As far as kaiten sushi places go, this one makes you feel like you are in Japan. In fact, there are Katsumidori Sushi restaurants throughout Tōkyō. Sure, there are other excellent, high-end sushi places like Sushi Sho and Sushi Ginza Onodera, but for value, as well as taste, and the kaiten sushi experience, head to Katsumidori. Can’t decide? Katsumidori’s Yokozuna set is a solid place to start. 

Lunch places: While there is teishoku at Rinka, Rokaku or Suntory (recently reopened on March 27), why not partake in the subtle joy of handmade soba? Inaba Soba is the place to get your slurp on. Besides handmade soba, Inaba offers a variety of good tempura and sushi. Ordering the tempura soba set allows you to try both, but for the more adventurous, there is Hana Soba with toppings like ikura and uni. 

If healthy, yummy slime or neba-neba texture is your thing, build your own soba with natto, tororo and nametake mushrooms. The benefit of having a square of zaru soba is that it might leave you with room for dessert. Or, you can rely on what the Japanese call betsubara, or “separate stomach.” It basically means your other stomach where dessert goes even when you are full. A place to feed your betsubara is Matcha Café Maiko. In addition to matcha soft cream, they also churn out tantalizing parfaits, floats, frappes and other Japanese tea drinks. Any one of these will give you the feeling of having dessert somewhere in Japan since they use matcha powder from Kyōto.

For dinner, Hawai‘i has its share of katsu plate lunches, but there is katsu and then there is tonkatsu. Whether chicken or pork, we are all familiar with the popular plate-lunch choice. Honolulu is fortunate to have two restaurants that feature the authentic golden, panko-crusted pork cutlet. Attention to detail and superior ingredients contribute to pure pork perfection. Ginza Bairin Hawaii and Tonkatsu Tamafuji: both restaurants originated in Japan, and have a history of serving high-quality tonkatsu using superior pork. If you would like a more varied and aesthetic dinner similar to a kaiseki meal, try Nanzan Giro Giro, Akira or Yoshitsune. 

Ono-Ya Ramen on Kapahulu Avenue is reminiscent of ramen shops in Tōkyō.

Finally, you can’t experience Japan without having at least one bowl of ramen. Luckily Honolulu is not short on choices: Wagaya, Tenkaippin, Golden Pork Tonkotsu, Goma-tei, Noods Ramen Bar and more. The harder to find tsukemen is even found at Momosan and Bario. Everyone has their favorite. Ono-ya Ramen on Kapahulu Avenue is especially reminiscent of ramen places in Tōkyō and has a wide variety. At the entrance to Onoya a neon sign proclaims. “True love is hard to find; good ramen is even harder. Lucky for us, not so much in Hawai‘i.

Whew. What a list. And there isn’t even a mention of Izakaya, Japanese cheese cake, stationary shopping or other Japan related activities one can do in Honolulu. Did I mention sake? The Sake Shop. Or Japanese whiskey for that matter? Bar Leather Apron. Cherry blossoms in Wahi‘awa in February. Japanese stationary items at JQ shop near the Japanese Grocery store, Nijiya on Pi‘ikoi. There are shiatsu places, acupuncture places. We have so many choices that make Hawai‘i a decent place to fulfill a Japan fix. Where are you going to get yours?

Stacy Lee is a writing tutor and an Asian history teacher at Punahou Summer School. She is a lifelong Japanophile and devotee of author Natsume Sōseki. Her years of living, studying and working in Japan have taken her from urban Tōkyō to a traditional onsen inn in Kanazawa and made her an avowed fan of all types of Japanese cuisine.

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