Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
I was born on the Big Island and lived in Hilo until I was 12 years old when my family moved to O‘ahu. Almost 60 years later, it still feels very much like my hometown, or furusato in Japanese.
This article is about my recent visit to Hilo for the first time since the pandemic began. It gave me the opportunity to visit many of the locations that my family and I frequented. The visit reinforced my feelings of belonging to Hilo despite my long absence.
Early Life on the Big Island
My parents were living in a teachers’ cottage in the plantation village of Pepe‘ekeo on the Hämäkua Coast when I was born. My mother was a teacher at the small school there. The plantation mill had already been closed but the residential portion of the camp remained. Besides the school, there was a small church and gas station, which us kids would scrape together our pennies to buy candy and sodas.
Near the time when I was in the first grade, we moved to the “big city” of Hilo into the neighborhood known then as the Kïlauea Homestead. I’m pretty sure that younger generations would not recognize that name anymore. I am guessing that it was a remnant from the plantation days, when many of the former plantation residential areas were still designated by numbers, such as Camp 4 or 6. Most of these homes are long gone by now.
My father, Victor Isao Yamashita, was a Nisei veteran as I have written about in the Herald before, a former member of the 100th Infantry Battalion and the 442nd Regimental Combat Team. Like many of the Nisei veterans, he used the GI Bill to get a college education and taught at both the elementary and high school grade levels in Hilo. He then earned a master’s degree in education administration from the University of Hawai‘i through correspondence courses and one summer session, while he anxiously waited to get into the administrative level of the DOE school system.
We moved to O‘ahu in the summer of 1963 so my father could pursue his goal of becoming a school principal. We settled in ‘Äina Haina and I graduated from Kalani High School along with my three younger brothers.
A Sense of Place
Having grown up and spent most of my adult life on O‘ahu, I have met many former Big Islanders who left to find better educational and employment opportunities. Even having left at a very young age, I still feel that Hilo is my hometown, just like those that attended high school before leaving.
I have many fond memories of my childhood growing up in a neighborhood where the kids played until it got dark and our parents didn’t worry about where we were. We formed teams and played football and baseball in some of the larger yards and the older kids looked out for the younger ones. To my knowledge, I can’t recall any major conflicts during that period. It was quite an idyllic childhood.
In my later years, I enjoy visiting the old locations because there is a feeling of constancy in Hilo due to the relatively minimal changes that have occurred over the years since we left. It gives me great comfort to see many of the places that I spent time as a kid looking and feeling very much the same as when I left.
Don’t misunderstand, there are many things that have changed since I left Hilo in 1963. Back then, the population was around 25,000 and it is currently around 45,000 based on the 2020 census count. As you can imagine, the traffic is much denser and there are now shopping centers and malls that did not exist in the early 1960s.
The point I’m trying to make is that despite these changes, the character of the town and many of its features still resonate with my memories as a young boy growing up there.
During my recent visit, I took the opportunity to visit some of these locations and my hope is that this article will remind many former Hilo-ans of their childhoods there as well.
These locations provide what urban planners refer to as a “sense of place” to me.
Our family’s main recreation was going to Onekahakaha Beach on the weekends. The beach has a natural barrier of lava that serves as a breakwater and forms a calm area for young children to swim and play in. The lava barrier has been augmented by large boulders over the years to provide a safe swimming area for families.
Our neighborhood kumiai picnic was held there each Fourth of July. We did three-legged races and water balloon tosses, the usual picnic activities, but the main attraction was the beach.
Note: For those unfamiliar with the term, kumiais are neighborhood or community voluntary associations found primarily among both rural and urban residents of Japanese ancestry. In our neighborhood, we had a few Hawaiian and Filipino families that were also members of our kumiai.
Another location that I frequented was the Kai Store on Kïlauea Avenue, just a couple of blocks from our house. Like the old plantation stores, they kept family tabs that were paid at the end of the month.
At that time, the Kai Store was a general grocery store and provided daily necessities for the neighborhood. Today, it mostly sells snacks, drinks and local specialties like poi and smoked and dried fish.
The Cafe 100 drive-in was a place that we went to for a special treat. This was before the development of the loco moco plate lunch so I remember eating hot dogs or hamburgers served with French fries in pink plastic boats that we later would play with at the beach. Nisei veteran Richard Miyashiro named it after the 100th Infantry Battalion, the all-Japanese American segregated Army unit that he served in during World War II.
The current location is the third incarnation of the restaurant, the previous buildings were destroyed by tsunamis in 1946 and 1960. Today, it is frequented by locals and tourists alike.
The Lili‘uokalani Japanese Garden still provides a beautiful picnic spot and place for contemplation. My father and I would stop here to catch shrimp to use as live bait on our way to the breakwater.
The Suisun Fish Market survived both tsunamis despite its waterfront location. Although a little worse for wear, it still looks very much the same as it did when I was a young boy.
Hilo’s historic downtown shopping area was repurposed to restaurants and tourist shops as the former customers flocked to the shopping malls and its architectural character provides a unique insight into what a territorial town looked like.
All these places provide a sense of belonging that stoke my memories as a child growing up in Hilo and reinforces its place in my mind as my hometown even after all these years. I hope that you will be inspired to visit soon.
Byrnes Yamashita is a retired engineer and is the vice president of the Nisei Veterans Legacy. The mission of the NVL is to preserve, perpetuate and share the legacy of the Americans of Japanese ancestry who served in the U.S. armed forces in World War II: the 100th Infantry Battalion, 442nd Regimental Combat Team, Military Intelligence Service and 1399th Engineer Construction Battalion. To learn more about the NVL, visit their website at nvlchawaii.org or follow them on Instagram.