Hanabata Days

“The ache for home lives in all of us, the safe place where we can go as we are and not be questioned.”

~ Maya Angelou


“Is it time to go home yet? I keep clicking these damn shoes, but nothing happens.”

~ Robin Hecht


I grew up in Honolulu. Moved there with my family when I was eleven years old, spent a few years away, then lived there with my wife and kids until I was in my mid-thirties, when Hollywood started calling.


Moving away from Hawaii was difficult for all of us. I’m not a talented enough writer to describe the feelings we had then or the feelings my wife and I have now whenever we think of Honolulu, other than it is simply “home” to us. It is, as Maya Angelou says, a “safe place.” A source of comfort.


We try to visit every year and stay with family, but because of a whirlwind of conferences over the last few years, it had been a while since I’d visited. So this year I decided to forego ThrillerFest and RWA and go home with the wife and kids. I spent a lot of time doing nothing – which is just the way I like it.


But I also discovered, for the first time, I think, that the old adage is true: you can’t go home again.


There’s an expression in Hawaii, a term used to describe the good old days and the feelings of nostalgia that arise whenever we think of them. We call them hanabata days. “Hana” is Japanese for nose, and “bata” is pidgin (local slang) for butter. The days when we were little snots and all was good with the world.


During this last visit, as we drove around town, I was constantly reminded of those hanabata days, and how much things have changed since then. The most disconcerting thing, besides the horrendous traffic that makes a six mile drive last an eternity, was just how many of our favorite old eating establishments had disappeared. Ones we grew up with.


There was a time, not long ago, when we could get up early in the morning, take a short drive into Kaimuki and stop in at Kwong On, a little hole in the wall Chinese delicatessen that sold the best baked manapua and chow fun you could ever want. You’d walk in, take a number and wait quite a while to get served. That’s how popular it was.


But when the owner got sick – or so we’re told – his children decided not to continue with the business and closed the doors. We spent several days hunting for a replacement and soon discovered that there is none. Kwong On was one of a kind. Gone, just like that.


Another favorite place, Washington Saimin, disappeared a couple years ago. This was a terrific little restaurant where you could slide into a booth, order a large bowl of saimin (a local version of Japanese noodle soup) along with a couple of barbecue sticks, and soon be in nirvana.


But it’s also gone, without a trace.  As is Alex Drive-In, where the waitresses would take your order as you sat in your car, bringing your food on a tray that they mounted on your window.  Or many of the Chinese crack seed stores, full of industrial-sized jars containing dried mango and lee hing mui and other delicacies.


Like many places around the world, Honolulu is slowly losing its character – character that’s been replaced by cookie cutter strip malls and shopping centers. The same corporate megaplexes and fast-food psuedo-restaurants we see wherever we go nowadays.


Call me crazy, but I just don’t feel quite the same getting a bowl of saimin from McDonald’s as I did getting one from Washington Saimin or Tanoue’s, another favorite that has disappeared. These were places were you could sit down with your family and feel the spirit of old Hawaii, a spirit that is rapidly losing ground to that runaway train called progress.


Don’t get me wrong. I still love Hawaii and always will. But there was a time when my wife and I were certain that we would one day retire there. Go back home to grow old.


But this last visit had me wondering if I’d ever want to live there again. It isn’t just about missing restaurants, but that feeling that no matter how we try, we’ll never be able to recapture those hanabata days.


They’re gone for good.


And I’m sure it’s the same for many of you.  You’ve gone back home — wherever that may be — only to discover that it’s changed to the point that it’s become a place that you almost don’t recognize.


So tell me, on your trip back, what did you find missing? What do you long for that you’ll never be able to recapture?

19 thoughts on “Hanabata Days

  1. Alexandra Sokoloff

    It’s hard to be in LA now that it’s become so crowded that rush hour is 24/7. There used to be orange groves within driving distance. I get a pang every time I see a grove somewhere else and remember that we used to have those, too.

    I just feel crowded out of my own town.

  2. Wilfred Bereswill

    Really nice post, Rob. Funny thing is, I don’t have to leave to know that my home is changing around me. I’ve pretty much grown up and lived in St. Louis most of my life. In fact, except for being away for college and then living 4 years across the state in Kansas City, I’ve lived in 5 homes within 10 miles of each other.

    The old ball field I played on as a kid is now a Lowes. The park I used to play in is someone’s basement. The lake I used to fish in was filled because the highway expansion nearby poisoned the water and killed the fish. The streets I used to play on are now too dangerous for children to play in.

    I’ve gone back to KC and was astonished at the changes, Arthur Bryant died and the family commercialized his fantastic BBQ hole in the wall, and so many other things just aren’t how I remembered living in my first house right after college and marriage.

    Here in St. Louis, a lot of people cling to some of what makes St. Louis, St. Louis. Your post reminds me why we should. Thanks.

  3. Stephen Jay Schwartz

    I held out a long, long time for Albuquerque. It was "home" in my mind, since I grew up there. I left when I was eighteen. I was around 35 when I realized that I couldn’t go home again. The Albuquerque in my mind existed there only. And then, gradually, Hermosa Beach replaced it. It happened with having children, watching them grow up in Hermosa, eating at the same restaurants year after year, saying hello to the same characters every weekend. Still, I’ve also watched the Hermosa of my mind disappear. The greatest bookstore in the South Bay, the "Either/Or", closed down after 30 years in business. Along with the Bijou revival film theater.
    I know I’ll be one of those codgers, one of these days, who talks about when times were grand.

  4. Brett Battes

    Interestingly, my hometown is not that much different than it was when I was a kid. Sure there are some more stores, and Walmart has moved in, but it’s an isolated place with a population that hasn’t grown much in the last thirty years. But, that said, I’ve been living in the big city so long, I don’t know if I could ever return for any serious length of time to a town of 25,000 that was 100+ miles from any city that was larger. I’d go stir crazy.

  5. Karen in Ohio

    The whole world is becoming homogenized, sadly. In France, Italy, and Australia there were McDonalds everywhere. Now, I’m not saying the food was like it is here in the States, but just seeing the ubiquitous arches was jarring enough.

  6. Dana King

    I spent last week visiting my parents in Western Pennsylvania, in the house I grew up in. Business have changed, but the town itself has changed remarkably little. The people are about the same, though Mom and Dad look a little more frail every time i go back.

    This trip I focused on the things that do allow me to go home again. Glen’s frozen custard is exactly as i remember it as a kid, as is Lemon Blennd. (They spell it with 2 n’s.) Isaly’s barbecue sauce is still the perfect match for chipped ham. So, for a week at least, I could go home again. And it was great.

  7. Louise Ure

    Rob, I’ve had a similar epiphany about Tucson this year, but it was not the disappearing restaurants that caused it. On previous return trips, I saw only the specialness of the place whether that was my favorite local dive or the place where I was first kissed. But this year I seem to see only the sad places. The funeral home. The hospital. The first place I ever crashed a car.

    Maybe it isn’t Tucson that’s changed so much as it’s me.

  8. pari noskin taichert

    Albuquerque has changed tremendously, but there’s still enough of what I love about it to keep me here.

    DC seems to be the same even though the restaurants change; there’s just something so . . . I don’t know . . . consistent about its feel.

    But I don’t know if I could bear to go back to Ann Arbor where I lived for nine years — undergrad and grad — because it’s so idealized in my mind. Those years in my late teens through mid twenties are the stuff of myth now and many of the places I adored: The Blind Pig, Trattoria Bongiovanni, The Brown Jug, Dominic’s — if they’re not gone, they’re sure to be too different now.

  9. JD Rhoades

    I moved back to my home county several years ago. The kids soon got tired of hearing me talk about "you know this strip of car dealerships and fast food restaurants used to be woods all the way down the highway between Southern Pines and Aberdeen."

    What’s really sad is how many of my old running buddies I now see around the courthouse for drug and alcohol charges, nasty divorces, etc.

    I get the nostalgia for old eateries whenever I go to Chapel Hill, where I lived during college and law school and several years in between. Hector’s is gone, The Porthole, the Continental Cafe, Landlubber’s, Golden Dragon…it’s all fast food joints and trendy coffeehouses. And yet, Spanky’s, the place with the most undistinguished food and the worst service in America, remains.

  10. TerriMolina

    Nice post, Robert. So sad.

    I’m from Port Arthur Texas—yes, home of Janis Joplin for those who care. I moved away when I was 18 then moved back when I was 25. The town hadn’t really changed much in those seven years.But when I got married five years later and started moving all over the place (my husband was in the Coast Guard) we noticed a significant change in the town when we’d return to visit but noting major. Then Hurricane Rita hit and the town hasn’t been the same. There were three high schools at one time, now they’ve been consolidated to one, under a new name to appease everyone. (Although I think combining the schools was more to desegregate the town. Port Arthur is a very big multicultural community that was divided North / East / South/ West…which area you lived in determined your "status"–wow, wouldn’t that make a great opening line for a novel. heh.)
    A majority of the businesses that were damaged or destroyed never came back and stayed closed. The large mall they built years ago has only a handful of stores left and the major street it was built on is practically empty too. Port Arthur is slowly becoming a ghost town and no one seems to care.
    Most of my family still live there and won’t leave because it’s home. We plan to visit this summer as a graduation gift for my daughter, she wants to ‘party’ with the family and for all she’s been through in her life, it’s the least I’ll do for her.
    Even though the town isn’t what I remember, I still use the area in my novels because it’s what I know.

  11. Rob Gregory Browne

    I think Louise may have it right. While Honolulu has certainly changed, I think it’s me that has really changed. Maybe it’s living in a small town that has spoiled me. No traffic, no hassles. I’m close enough to the city that I don’t go stir crazy.

    I also think changing my "identity" has helped change things, too. Now that I’m writing books, I feel different somehow. Hard to explain. Not better or worse, just different.

    So I’m definitely going home in a slightly different guise, with a slightly different frame of mind, so maybe that’s the real reason for the post… 🙂

  12. Venus de Hilo

    If you’re looking for that "old-time Hawaii" vibe, come to Hilo!
    Everyone here complains it’s not like it used to be, too, and some consider Hilo "way too Local," but we’ve still got crack seed shops and little Chinese hole-in-the-wall noodle places, plenty of shave ice, and enough loco moco to trigger a dozen heart attacks.
    (Not that I eat that stuff; I prefer fresh organic produce from the farmer’s market.)

  13. Rob Gregory Browne

    Terri, that’s so heartbreaking. It’s sad to hear about a town going downhill because of a natural disaster like that. We really need to be rebuilding these places. Aren’t they what America is all about? Or at least should be?

  14. Rob Gregory Browne

    Venus, I love Hilo. But I think my problem is that I feel too isolated there. I’m sure I’d get used to it however.

    There’s something about the city of Honolulu that gets my blood racing. But then I guess everything has to change, right?

  15. Catherine Shipton

    Years ago, I could feel the town I grew up begin to shift in ways I did not want to.

    As with many other towns the world over, the commerce started from small business to incorporate bigger concerns. At the time I felt this was the beginning of a loss of connection to people, and how they interacted. I was concerned with the rapid population growth.I headed for the hills, literally. Back into a town where every still knows each others business, which is a blessing and a curse…

    My old home town still has the same store opposite the Surf Club where I used to play Frogger. The Burger Barn where I used to play Space Invaders has long gone. The local movie theatre has been turned into a bank and now the multiplex is stationed in the shopping centre that moved on the little old man with the goats.

    I probably should point out that like JD, some of people I knew growing up have made the news for reasons other than success. The guy who used to pick me up and put me on his shoulders at concerts turned into a coastal drug king pin….a strange son on the fringe of my parent’s theatre group attacked grandmothers. The dark roll call could go on…so while I see my beginning as steady, it wasn’t always the case, sadly for all.

    Now I’m older I find that I can connect with people anywhere. I managed ok in LA. I have an enormous soft spot for some of the people I encountered there a few years back. Like the befuddled English tourist that approached me for help, and then the little elderly Korean ladies that took us under their wing. That almost everyone I spoke to knew someone in Sydney. The guy from Tennessee who thought I outdrawled him.

    The things I thought only my home town could give me, I carry with me. So I don’t look back with longing, so much as thankfulness at a steady beginning.

  16. toni mcgee causey

    So much here has changed in the last few years. Baton Rouge grew phenomenally after Katrina. Some of it good (actual business in the downtown area) and some of it bad (traffic). Luckily, the place seems determined to hang onto its culture as a lazy, southern city that parties hard during the football season (generally) and reaches a hand out whenever things are bad. Further out from here, though, I see the decimation of both the culture and the towns, particularly after three hurricanes in a row (Katrina, Rita and then Gustav).

  17. BCB

    Um, JD? I had dinner with my daughter (now starting her senior year at UNC) at Spanky’s just last month. My salad was unique and delicious, the service was deserving of a hefty tip and the conversation was both entertaining and challenging. Next time you venture up this way, let me know and I’ll meet you there. My treat. Provided you bring your half of the conversation. 😉

    I’m going home to Minneapolis next month for my niece’s wedding. Looking forward to it with a sort of tentatively hopeful sense of dread. What is worse, in my mind, than the place changing is the realization that old much loved friends and relatives have become strangers who no longer know you.

  18. Fran

    Lillian and I think of New Mexico as our "home". And we do want to go back there.


    In September we’re going back to Las Cruces, which is where we really feel most at home, but we haven’t been back in four years or more and we know it’s changed. We’re as braced for that as we can be, but we expect some disappiontments and some heartache as well as some new lovely finds.

    " Looking forward to it with a sort of tentatively hopeful sense of dread." — BCB, that sums it up beautifully!

    But that’s not where we want to retire (if ever we do). We want to go to northern New Mexico, partly because it’s more temperate than the southern end, but also because we don’t have pre-made memories there. It’s New Mexico in all it’s glory, but it’s new and unexplored. We figure it’s the best of both worlds.

    Otherwise we’ll have to find someplace new to call "home", because the big city isn’t it.


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