hawaii "picture" diary: honolulu

"the big pineapple"

the morning of my last day on molokai, i discovered an email from mokulele airlines informing me my flight had been cancelled and that they had rebooked in the evening. believe me i love molokai, but at this point i had been out in the sticks on maui/molokai for almost a week and was very much looking forward to the excitement of exploring the big city, honolulu. i drove to the airport several hours early to see if i could hitch a ride on an earlier flight, where they told me to call up customer service. after being on hold for 30 minutes, a flustered lady on the other end engaged in a valiant struggle with arcane computer systems determined not to acknowledge my existence and after a heroic effort succeeded in getting me rebooked on my original flight, which i guess hadn't actually been cancelled? odd...

although two out of the three gates were mothballed, molokai airport was a veritable hive of activity compared to most of the places i'd been on the island. the terminal was busy with people coming and going, and five cessna grand caravans and one larger saab 340 landed and parked at the caravansary terminal during the hour i waited. most were from mokulele airlines, which must've represented a significant proportion of their fleet, all gathered on molokai at that time for some reason. when they finally called up my flight, i kind of hoped they take us out to the saab 340 so i'd get to experience a new aircraft, but it ended up being another good ol' grand caravan after all.

"mokulele", i learned at some point, means "airplane" in hawaiian, so i suppose "mokulele airlines" is technically named "airplane airlines". the word was created by combining the hawaiian words for "island" and "hop", and i have to admit that taking off in such a small aircraft really does feel like you simply leap into the air and float away. it's a more intimate experience than flying in a large plane, every seat is a window seat, you fly a lot closer to the ground/ocean, and the wind's minor whims push the plane around. the pilots aren't sequestered in their own compartment either, instead they sit in the front row of seats like in a car, and you can see them up there pressing buttons and talking. intimacy also means vulnerability: at one point i almost jumped out of my seat because an alarm went off briefly in the cockpit, audible to everyone in the plane.

frequent fliers around here will know that i have a fascination with inflight magazines, which have become an endangered species recently. united is the only major airline that still has one, but i was ASTONISHED to discover a small inflight magazine shoved in the seatback pockets of all nine passenger seats, alongside a safety placard that looked photocopied from cessna blueprints. the inflight magazine was for mokulele's parent company southern airways express, which according to the route map (a staple of any inflight magazine) operated a scattered series of short routes across the country that seemed to be the result of acquiring several small regional airlines like mokulele.

many of their routes connected remote rural airports with no other passenger service to nearby hubs, subsidized by the government under the "essential air service" program. the airline's patchwork structure made the inflight magazine content eclectic, almost cursed, with articles about the prospects of the university of hawaii football team running next to articles promoting unlikely tourist destinations like lancaster county, pennsylvania. an article that was supposed to list seven things to do around jonesboro, AR (the fifth largest city in arkansas!) gave up halfway through and only listed three things as far as i could see. the whole magazine felt low-effort, although with a quaint human sloppiness to it that will probably die out as ai writing gains popularity. i wonder if the whole thing was just a cynical scheme to extract money from underutilized advertising budgets of rural tourism bureaus, like that of clearfield county (also pennsylvania) that ran a full-page ad alongside an article about the area. the most absurd thing, though, was that the mokulele's inflight magazine carried the SAME JANKY AD FOR A RANDOM PLASTIC INJECTION MOLDING COMPANY that i remembered seeing in hemispheres, united's inflight magazine. it's got to be one of the most bizarre marketing strategies i've seen, going in heavily on inflight magazines.

the mokulele airlines "terminal" at honolulu international airport was a portable office building in a distant corner of the airport, certainly a far cry from maui's commuter terminal or molokai's entire airport (where they are the only airline). i hopped on a shuttle bus to the main terminal, conveniently synced with mokulele arrivals and already waiting there. my ultimate destination was waikiki, where i had arranged to meet up with an unlikely character who had reached out to me while i was on molokai. no, not kit anderson (he is too busy "in the arena" to go on any trips), my brother, who had somehow ended up in hawaii not even two weeks after i'd rescued him up from an extended stint in a seattle-area "behavioral health" facility. he wasn't doing very well when i picked him up but since then it seemed he got it together enough to take a semitranspacific flight to hawaii for whatever reason (i am not sure he even knew about my own trip). it's a mystery where he gets the money for such shenanigans, i suspect my father is secretly supporting him, though there may be some cosmic trickery going on that occasionally turns his delusions into money on the stock market, which he's always been obsessed with. for example, last year he randomly started babbling about buying "orange juice futures", which sound entirely made up. then, a couple of months ago i looked it up and not only are they real, their price had nearly tripled since he had talked about them. maybe i should start a finance newsletter based on his ramblings, it's not more absurd than some things that have happened, like those japanese bankers during the bubble era that would get investing advice from consulting a toad statue.

i figured that waikiki was one of the top destinations from honolulu international airport so i showed up with absolutely no plan for getting there. wandering around the honolulu international airport baggage claim, i eventually found a bus stop, and confirmed on my phone that there was indeed a waikiki-bound local bus that took approximately 40 stops and an hour and a half to make it ten miles to waikiki. at the very least, the fare was significantly less than an uber, $3, although they do not give change and i only had a $5 bill left after being cleaned out by establishments in rural maui and molokai, so that's what i ended up paying. my eyes were glued to the window the whole time but for the first part of the trip i didn't notice much besides awful traffic, corrugated metal siding being very popular for buildings in the industrial area near the airport, historic chinatown looking really run down next to the skyscrapers in the central business district, and of course i caught a glimpse of iolani palace, the only royal palace on US soil. approaching waikiki, the buildings gradually grew taller and more polished, and i admired a few with unusual designs. this was what had always fascinated me about honolulu, one of the world's most remote metropolises, a dense skyline clinging to the coast of a tropical island, a concrete jungle bordering a natural one.

eventually, the bus crossed the moat into waikiki. the borders of waikiki are very well-defined, perhaps as a scheme to quarantine tourists and prevent them from interfering with life on the rest of the island. it is a sort of a island-within-an-island, surrounded by water on three sides. one side is the famous waikiki beach and the other two are a canal built many years ago to transform the area from a forlorn mosquito-infested swamp into the swanky resort area the world knows and loves today. it's the birthplace of modern surfing and more recently, the soufflé pancake (allegedly at a whimsical restaurant called "cream pot" near the northern tip). you may also know the area from a brief appearance in the video game persona 5.

the bus didn't go all the way in (to spare tourists the indignity of seeing a city bus, i suppose) so i had to get off a little early and head into the tangle of towers myself, searching for the sheraton waikiki, not to be confused with the nearby sheraton princess kaiulani. i quickly identified it as the most massive and curvaceous building in sight, but it proved to be curiously difficult to penetrate. now that it was visible, i tried to take a hopelessly-naive direct route in, only to get lost in a network of parking lots and back alleys. eventually i stumbled by accident into the sheraton's bus loading dock for japanese package tours and sumimasened my way through several groups of tourists before finding myself somewhere that very definitely appeared to be the front entrance of the sheraton waikiki.

my brother didn't deign to meet me in the hotel lobby, he has a very particular reclusive mode of travelling in which he hides in his room most of the time vaping weed and scrolling on his phone (the same thing he does at home most of the time). he only leaves the room to go out and eat at fancy restaurants, never for anything that might be termed a "tourist attraction". luckily the hotel elevators didn't require any sort of keycard authentication, so after i finally found them i headed to my brother's room on the eighth floor, tucked away in the west wing down a long curvy hallway. his room was extremely messy as usual, empty takeout containers and honolulu cookie company packages strewn throughout (he rarely gets housekeeping because he's always in the room). this was a good sign because it meant he was taking at least some of his meds, while not on them he is often borderline anorexic. when i arrived, he gifted me a little pot, by which i mean a le creuset mini cocotte that he had bought on a whim at sur la table. earlier, he had also offered to let me crash in his room for free, but neglected to mention that his room had only a single king bed that he wasn't about to share. fortunately, this proved to be no problem at all because i had a suitcase with a full complement of camping gear with me. even if he barred me from the room itself, the balcony looked big enough to set up a tent on.

having just spent three days camping in rural maui and then three days on molokai, even having been on some of molokai's deserted beaches earlier that day, i felt like a defrosted caveman on waikiki beach, stumbling around in shock when confronted with the crowds and the highrises bordering the beach. hordes of tourists parted before me like the red sea as i shambled along with a faraway look in my eyes, they could sense i was suffused with primal molokai energy. i later discovered the beach is mostly fake, resupplied continually with imported sand because overbuilding erodes it rapidly. one place they go to plunder sand is molokai's pāpōhaku beach, a deserted 3-mile stretch facing oahu, from which at night the faint glow of honolulu is visible in the distance, so close and yet so different.

the main strip in waikiki proper is along kalākaua avenue, which runs parallel to the beach. along the road, shops and restaurants line the sidewalk, several blocks contain actual shopping malls and plazas of various sizes and layouts, and even some hotel lobbies open out onto the road and invite you in to come check out their shops. it all blends together into essentially one huge diverse, decentralized, district-sized mall. apparently, waikiki alone is responsible for extracting 42% of hawaii's total tourism-related revenue. there's an outpost of every designer and luxury brand you can think of, including several that sound made up. the density is impressive, very little space is wasted, every so often you go down a strange stairway or walkway and end up in a new retail experience like a brand-new basement asian food court, or the cavernous "DFS" store with its astral interior and fluffy floor. it seemed to be some kind of duty-free shop (the meaning of DFS?) like you'd see in an airport, catering to foreign tourists looking to get the best deals on luxury products by dodging the brutal 4.76% state of hawaii "excise" tax. i spent a couple of minutes inside looking at exotic liquors bottled like video game potions and examining dubious designer goods such as a teddy-bear-textured marc jacobs tote.

there was a surprising diversity to the tourists around waikiki, i was especially shocked at how many europeans were around (mostly germans for some reason) considering how prolonged the flight times must be. most numerous, though, were the japanese tourists, otherwise rather rare on the mainland. well, i found out why: they are all in waikiki. in fact, the entire area seems built to cater to them specifically: almost every sign is in both english and japanese, every information desk had a "日本語でどうぞ" sign, the malls had special lounges for rakuten card holders, JCB card holders could ride the local tourist shuttles for free, many stores accept yen, and there were many very authentic-looking japanese restaurants. it certainly helps that hawaiian is very easy to transliterate into japanese: ワイキキ、ホノルル、ハワイ、アロハ、マハロ、etc. the sheraton waikiki in particular seemed to be a hub for japanese tourists, containing the aforementioned tour bus loading dock, a jalpak office, a freaking lawson convenience store in the lobby, and every bathroom was equipped with a washlet. it was almost as if the japanese had taken over, succeeding where they failed in 1941...

ubiquitous in waikiki are the "abc stores", a unique fusion of convenience store, souvenir shop, and gift shop. unlike many of those types of stores, they aren't tacky or trashy in any way, kept perfectly clean and sterile with tasteful, modern decor. they appear to do brisk business selling gift boxes of macadamia nuts covered in chocolate, caramel, crisp rice, toffee, etc. to japanese tourists, well-known for their propensity for bringing home boxes of regional delicacies from trips. abc stores claim to operate 75 stores across hawaii, guam, saipan, and las vegas (the 9th hawaiian island, according to a radio ad i heard), and i think 80 of them must be in waikiki because there is literally one on every corner, a location density i've only seen matched by convenience stores in japan. if you're in waikiki and want to get arrested for drunk and disorderly conduct, or perhaps want to land in the hospital for alcohol poisoning, you can play a fun drinking game where you walk around and take a shot every time you see an abc store.

you have to be careful choosing restaurants in tourist areas, in addition to being universally overpriced they often don't try very hard to be good since they don't have to rely on repeat customers. against all odds, however, waikiki has one perfect restaurant that's dirt cheap and makes great food: marugame udon, an outpost of a japanese chain (every pan-asian chain tries their hand at a honolulu location before deciding if they want to enter the US market for real). served cafeteria style, it was just $10 for delicious bowl of udon. despite the low price, they take quality seriously, out front they had a glass window where you could watch the japanese "noodle master" on duty do his work (similar to din tai fung). i can't really call it a hidden gem because they always had a line out the door, luckily they keep late hours so i would show up at 9 pm and breeze through. i believe i went there 5 times in 3 days.

unfortunately my brother only stayed one more night after i arrived, so for my last night in hawaii i was forced to pursue alternative accomodation. prices weren't awful due to the enormous supply of hotel rooms in the area, and i ended up at a comparable hotel for a reasonable price. i say it's comparable because my new hotel was actually the OTHER sheraton in the area, the sheraton princess kaiulani, to which i wheeled my bag down one block and then across the street. it was one of waikiki's original highrise hotels, and was probably so cheap because it's start to show its age. the tower my room was in, for example, still had a mail chute by the elevators. i had a cheap "city view" room, which isn't so bad because at night you get to see gridded glowing lights in all the surrounding highrise towers instead of the boring dark ocean. it even had a balcony, although it was absurdly loud on it because it was right by the roof of a neighboring mall, where a bunch of big boxes labor noisily throughout the day to keep the shop interiors at a brisk 65 degrees.

of course the hotel didn't end up being as cheap as advertised online - taxes and a mandatory "resort fee" i paid at check-in added an additional 40% to the total price. it's a common racket in tourist areas, a way for hotels to squeeze out some extra cash that can't be skimmed by booking platforms, travel agents, and other miscellaneous middlemen. the pretense is that resort fees are for a bunch of extra perks and services, which are listed if you read the fine print and are always stuff that's definitely not worth $40 per day, like the two "free" bottles of water housekeeping leaves in your room every day, or the wristband thing that acts as a room key, or "cultural activities" like the daily lei-making class in the lobby at 4:00 pm every day. i wasn't too torn up over it because i knew every hotel in the area does the same thing, so the cheapest hotel before the resort fee is still going to be the cheapest hotel after resort fees.

reading the fine print, though, i noticed that at the princess kaiulani one thing you could do thanks to the resort fee was borrow a gopro for 24 hrs, which i immediately requested at the front desk. i haven't really used one before so i spent a lot of time fooling around with it, walking around holding it using the specialized holding stick attachment pretending i was filming a "4K HDR 60fps ASMR Waikiki Ambiance Walking Tour (reupload w/ sudden car crash at 8:43 removed)" youtube video. i wasn't the only one content mining in waikiki, i saw quite a few people who looked like "influencers" in the wild, filming videos of themselves walking around or eating at restaurants. most of them were from japan and korea, impeccably styled with perfect makeup and hair, filming everything on phones sporting grotesque outgrowths like additional lights, microphones, stands, and rigs.

i would have posted some of my gopro videos, except that none of them turned out any good. i tried to mix things up by experimenting with some setting called "hyperlapse" and a lot of odd angles (putting it in my pocket facing sideways, putting it in my backpack facing backwards, etc.), but i had no idea how any of them looked until i got back home because my poor little laptop started melting whenever i tried to open any of the massive video files. naturally, the best angle ended up being the most basic, holding it by the stick facing forwards at chest height, which i barely used.

having explored waikiki to my satisfaction while shooting my fake walking tours, i decided to set off on an expedition to a distant destination: bookoff, the japanese secondhand chain with a handful of US locations. as the name suggests, they're primarily a bookstore, something that waikiki seriously lacks within its extensive retail lineup. of most interest to me, however, was the possibility that they might stock used manga in japanese. kinokuniya is the only US store i know of that sells japanese manga (luckily, they have quite a few locations), but they only sell new manga which limits options when it comes to older manga that aren't enormously popular and constantly being reprinted. although i had been to a bookoff in LA's little tokyo a few months ago that didn't have any japanese manga, i had a good feeling about this one because of how many japanese people live in hawaii. plus, the tropics seem like the best bet if you're looking for a good harvest of mangos.

i started my walk along a part of waikiki i hadn't been through yet, along the canal on the backside. i was surprised to discover that people still live in waikiki, and that the backside mostly a residential district: quieter, less touristy, with some lowrise apartment buildings and even a handful of detached houses. there were still quite a few highrises back there, some even rivalling those along the beachfront in height, but they were mostly condos. unlike the painstakingly-maintained tourist area, quite a few of the backside buildings look a little shabby and the rents probably don't run that high at some of them - you can still imagine that perhaps there's a broke surfer bum who lives in one of the rundown apartment buildings back there, waking up bright and early every morning to hit the beach, making a little money giving tourists surfing lessons. there were even a handful of undeveloped lots and small parks, in which i discovered that yes, even waikiki has feral chickens like the rest of hawaii.

bookoff was approximately 3 miles up the coast from waikiki, towards downtown honolulu. on the way, i passed by a club promising "裸の女" in neon, went through an outrageously large mall (the ala moana center) surrounded by enough parking garages to possibly accommodate the entire island at once (an electric display indicated there over 2000 available spots in one area), stopped by whole foods to use the bathroom (despite its distance from waikiki, it seemed to be a popular tourist attraction for japanese tourists), and got lunch at a hawaiian barbeque chain (despite being my first meal of the day after walking 2 miles, the portion sizes were so excessive that it was the only meal i was unable to finish during my entire trip). one difficulty i did encounter is that i may have become a water addict from my maui water binge, i drank and i drank and i drank and it was never enough, i was still thirsty and always hunting down another water fountain or salivating while staring into the beverage cooler of every abc store i passed.

was the trip to bookoff worth it? somehow they surpassed my wildest expectations by having exactly what i had been looking for, and dirt cheap at that. almost everything pictured was $1 apiece, except two of the 「コハマ買い出し紀行」 volumes were randomly priced at $5 for some reason. total cost for everything in the picture: $17. i have no idea how the bookoff pricing system works (their model isn't as transparent as that of, say, the chain "half price books") but it seemed to me like the everything i looked at was either obviously overpriced or oddly underpriced, with very little in between. at least it keeps things interesting, i suppose, you either feel appalled at the ripoff prices or amazed at the great deals you discovered.

the next morning, i went down to the front desk to inquire about a free shuttle to the airport, only for them to tell me that not only was the shuttle not free, it was far too late to make a reservation. this is something i've noticed about "resorts" or "luxury" hotels, you usually have to pay outrageous prices for stuff that is free or cheap at less expensive hotels. the sheraton even made you pay for wifi, which i suppose wasn't included in the "resort fee" because they knew people it was something people would actually use (and thus be willing to pay for). meanwhile, the ramshackle ramada inn i stayed at for a fraction of the price near the seattle airport at the start of my trip offered both free wifi and a free airport shuttle (a generic white van with "RAMADA SOUTHCENTER" printed on several sheets of letter-sized paper taped in the window). i guess expensive resorts know you've got money to spend and aren't ashamed to nickel and dime you. what's another $20 per day for wifi when you're already dropping $500 a day (excluding taxes and fees of course) on the room?

having spent my final $5 on the bus to waikiki, i didn't have any cash left for a return trip (they seemed to be cash-only) and every atm in the area wanted to charge extortionate withdrawal fees (another tourist area hazard, being frugal in a tourist area is like playing on hard mode), so i gave up and used the nuclear option, uber. man, it was so smooth and seamless, i hate it. for a long time i didn't even have it installed, but ever since the oakland incident it's been burning a hole somewhere deep in my phone's memory banks. the uber driver didn't speak very good english though seemed to be in a conversant mood, so i talked very slowly and deliberately about the most relatable thing that came to mind, the horrible traffic, and how i recently found out honolulu is supposed to have the worst traffic in america (an impressive feat). as we pulled onto the main highway, which i hadn't been on yet because the bus took the surface streets, i noticed that the signs still labelled it an "interstate" just like on the mainland, even though it certainly did not go to any other states, let alone any of the other islands in the archipelago.

i arrived at the airport relatively early (a rare accomplishment for me) and at check-in they offered to move me to an earlier flight to maui since the short flight runs so frequently. i figured it was probably best to arrive early in maui, to make sure i didn't miss my connection since it involved switching airlines and rechecking baggage and all. in retrospect, that was a mistake, because honolulu airport had this sweet garden in the terminal past security, along with actual restaurants. meanwhile, the terminal in maui wasn't much to look at (or be in) because it was undergoing some kind of major renovation, and i arrived so early that i had to wait 40 minutes for the check-in counter to open anyway.

the flight to maui was sparsely populated, probably because southwest only has one size of plane (boeing 737) so they have to use it even on short routes where other airlines use smaller planes. as the sun slowly set, i watched honolulu and waikiki fade into the distance from above (the overhead picture of waikiki i used earlier was from this flight), and then i saw molokai pass by on the left. it felt like i was retracing my steps and completing the loop, returning to where it all started at maui airport. then, i thought we flew over maui's northern coast, but it turned out that it was just lanai, the exact same mistake i'd made while looking out from the restaurant in molokai.

thoughtful, poignant conclusion to be added here later (maybe)