For Colin Yamamoto, They are All Historical Treasures

Melissa Tanji
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

A seat belt from Aloha Airlines Flight 243, a car speaker from the old Kahului Drive-In, plantation kaukau tins, handmade potato peelers and vegetable graters from the 1930s and ’40s. These pieces from Maui’s past are just a fraction of the memorabilia that fills every nook and cranny of Colin Yamamoto’s home in Wailuku.

The retired Maui County Fire Department battalion chief has been collecting remnants of Maui’s plantation past and local history, as well as Japanese antiques, for about 40 years.

“This is my museum,” he said as his eyes scanned his living room. More than a half dozen 8-foot-tall glass cases filled with antiques line the walls next to photographs of his children. Yamamoto describes himself as an “amateur collector” with “choke stuff,” as he puts it.

Yamamoto’s collection, which he estimates to be thousands of pieces, ranges from the mundane to the historic to the quirky.

Like many Hawai‘i collectors, he has hundreds of old glass soda, milk and beer bottles.

What others don’t have, however, is the old Ooka Supermarket bathroom key that was chained to a large green chorizo can — empty, of course. Ooka, the beloved mom-and-pop grocery store in Wailuku town, closed in the summer of 2005.

While not worth any money, the key brings back fond memories for Maui residents.

What made Yamamoto amass such a huge collection?

“Because I’m interested in preserving memorabilia, preserving the past, because I appreciate the days of the plantation era,” he said. “I appreciate how everybody had to work together to basically survive. To me, that is precious. I don’t want to lose that memory.”

Of his massive collection, two items rank as his favorites: a pop-tab can opener that Hansen’s disease patients at Kalaupapa on Moloka‘i used and a hand-woven tatami mat from Japan.

“It is only found in Hawai‘i,” he said about the can opener. “It is only found on one island in Hawai‘i.” The can opener is a slender piece of metal about the length of a hand. One end is similar to the mouthpiece of a whistle. The patient would position the opener in his or her palm and have the metal opening help to lift the tab off of a soda or beer can.

“I treasure this so much,” said Yamamoto.

The father of one of his classmates had an uncle who lived at Kalaupapa. The family would visit the uncle every summer. The father managed to get three can openers — he kept one for himself, gave one to his son and gave the third to Yamamoto.

“I was just blown away,” Yamamoto said.

Another item near and dear to Yamamoto’s heart is a hand-woven tatami mat from Japan. It was woven by Junpei Kitayama, who learned the art from Fumiko Teraoka. Sometime around 1995, Yamamoto saw an episode of the popular Japanese television series “Soko ga Shiritai” that featured Teraoka-san and her weaving. It noted that she was the last person in Japan to hand-weave tatami mats with a loom.

Yamamoto is a huge fan of the show — he taped some 250 episodes and used them as his guide on trips to Japan, searching for some of the treasures.

The show that featured Teraoka-san said she was in her 80s and lived in Hiroshima. She was shown working tirelessly, hand-weaving the mats for very little money, although she knew that people were selling her mats for much more.

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Melissa Tanji has been a reporter for The Maui News since 2000. The Maui native earned her bachelor’s degree in journalism from the University of Hawai‘i at Mänoa.

 

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