#40trails No. 4: Kayaking, hiking Mokoli‘i, O‘ahu

By May 4, 2015 #40trails

Paddling to Mokoli‘i

HIKE: Mokoli‘i (Chinaman’s Hat), Kualoa, O‘ahu
WHEN: March 2015
LENGTH: 1/3 mile (to the island), 15 minutes to the summit
DIFFICULTY: Moderate (only because you have to get there somehow)
FEATURES: 360-degree views, seabirds, light bouldering

Before I even start, I have to post these warnings: you can only walk to Mokoli‘i, or Chinaman’s Hat, at low tide. Once the tide rises, you’ll need a kayak or surfboard or something to get back. (Unless you’re a strong enough swimmer, but I still wouldn’t recommend it.) People have died here, so this is no joke.

We didn’t even bother with the idea of walking out to Mokoli‘i, located less than half a mile off Kualoa Regional Park (49-479 Kamehameha Highway). We loaded up a two-person kayak and planned to paddle out there no matter what.


Getting the kayaks ready on the beach

Some background on the island: This iconic offshore islet is more commonly referred to as Chinaman’s Hat because of its shape. But it’s real name — Mokoli‘i — means “little lizard” in Hawaiian. According to Hawaiian mythology, the island is part of a giant lizard’s tail that was chopped off and thrown into the ocean by the goddess Hi‘iaka. (The rest of the lizard’s body can be found at Kualoa Ranch.)

This 12.5-acre island was once home to several species of birds; now only the wedge-tailed shearwater nests here. Most of the vegetation are non-native, though you can find ‘ahu‘awa, naupaka and ‘ilima here.

Most people don’t realize that it’s totally legal to hike to the top of this island. It’s owned and managed by the city and open from dawn to dusk.


Our destination in the distance

We got to Kualoa Regional Park just before it opened at 7 a.m. (You can park alongside the highway and risk leaving your car there. Or you can wait until the park opens and park here, where it’s somewhat safer.) We would have rather shoved off earlier to catch the sunrise and beat the crowd, but the safety of our vehicle (and gear) was a bit more of a priority.

In fact, by the time we jumped into the kayak, we could already see about a dozen people at the summit of the island.

The paddle to the island, located about 1/3-mile from shore, is easy and takes maybe about 20 minutes. The tide was low when we left shore, so our paddles kept hitting the reef. The group who had gotten to the island before us paddled on a variety of surfboards, neatly parked on the small beach where we landed.


Climbing to the summit


It’s worth stopping to take in the view


This hike requires some light bouldering


There are definitely areas that are steep and sketchy

The climb to the top isn’t difficult, though it requires some light bouldering. It takes about 15 to 20 minutes to make it to the summit.

The trail was pretty well-worn, so we didn’t have a problem finding — and following — it, though it’s obvious there are several ways to get to the top. While I know people have climbed it successfully in slippers, I’d recommend shoes or reef walkers, which is what we used.

And the climb isn’t for those with gripping fear of heights, either. There are some sections that can, well, make you pause for a second.

But when you get up there…


The view from the top


A look at Kāneʻohe Bay


Can you see the other hikers loading up to leave down there?

… the views are so worth it.

The summit area is pretty small. I can’t imagine how that group of friends fit up here, to be honest. But we were just happy to have it all to ourselves — a rarity!

From here, you get 360-degree panoramic views of Kualoa, the Ko‘olau Mountains and Kāneʻohe Bay. It’s simply breathtaking.



We brought a bottle of champagne — hey, we know how to hike! — and raised our stemless shatterproof wine glasses to a beautiful day — and an uncrowded summit!


Farewell, Mokoli‘i

On our back way, we decided to paddle around the island, getting this unique view of the islet. There’s a nice little cove with a tiny, secluded sandy beach on the backside where I know people have barbecued and picnicked. We saw two couples snapping selfies with their GoPros and opted to keep paddling. We had the island to ourselves for that one magical moment. We didn’t want to ruin it.

VERDICT: It was a fun little adventure that combines kayaking and hiking — and we were literally done before 9 a.m. You could spend a lot more time here, picnicking on the beach or fishing off the island. But if you’re looking for a challenging hike that will torch calories, this isn’t it. This is just purely fun.

Follow my hiking adventures #40trails at Instagram (@catherinetoth), Twitter (@thedailydish) and Facebook (/thecatdish).

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#CatTravels: The journey to find Junichi

By April 27, 2015 #CatTravels


Sometimes you don’t know the story until you get there.

In that case, “there” was Okinawa.

Last week I tagged along with the crew of “Family Ingredients,” the locally produced, Emmy Award-winning genealogy travel show, to film a segment in Okinawa. I knew the storyline — you’ll have to wait to view it on PBS next year — but I didn’t expect this other story to emerge.

And this story might just be the best one I’ve come across in a long time.

Let’s start from the beginning: Months ago, I met with Dan Nakasone, co-producer of the show and proud third-generation Uchinanchu (Okinawan), to talk about my role on this trip. In the middle of eating soki soba at Utage Restaurant in Kalihi, he started sharing with me the story about his uncle, Junichi, who died in the Battle of Okinawa, a bloody 82-day assault on the island during World War II. He would have been just a teenager then.

The thing is, his family, longtime Wahiawā residents, never knew what happened to him.

The story goes like this: Junichi went back to Okinawa and attended high school there. Sometime during the war, he, along with dozens of others, got drafted. And then he died. His family back in Hawai‘i never knew how or when or what happened.

For months, Dan’s grandmother would pack bento lunches and take them to the POW camp in Wahiawā to ask prisoners there if they knew her son. And her other son, who served in the Military Intelligence Service for the U.S., would ask Japanese soldiers he had to interrogate if they knew anything, too.


Junichi was lost to them.

For 70 years, the Nakasone family had only wondered what happened to him. The only memories they had were locked in old photographs, some taken in the final months before he was drafted to fight in a war in a country foreign to him.

Dan, who had grown up listening to the stories and seeing his family’s grief, was determined to find answers.

So this week in Okinawa was more than just a business trip for him. It was a journey to find Junichi — and find closure in the process.

While researching the segment for “Family Ingredients,” Dan met a woman named Chizu Inoue, a local magazine editor and freelance writer. He gave her a copy of an old photo of Junichi in high school. Amazingly, she recognized the uniform in the photo and narrowed the search down to one school: Shuri High School.

Dozens of students here were forced to participate in a student corps and many of them — more than 60 — died during the war. The school itself was destroyed.

Today, the campus is rebuilt and, in 1950, a memorial stone was erected, honoring those students and teachers who were killed in the battle.

It turns out, Junichi was a student at Shuri High. And the school had published accounts of what had happened at the time — prepared for the families of the students who were killed. These 12-pound, bound books are there at the school, waiting for family members to come pick them up.

Family members like Dan.


When the school found out he was coming from Hawai‘i to pick up the book, it gathered five of Junichi’s classmates (above) — all in their 80s — to meet with him to share stories about the uncle he never met.

It was one of the most moving, most emotional experiences I’ve ever witnessed. In fact, just typing out this story brings tears to my eyes.



One classmate told Dan his uncle was very quiet and hardly talked. “He would put on an aloha shirt and shorts and it was so cool,” he said in Japanese. “I remember that.”

Another talked about how strong he was and how he was able to “hold a big gun” easily.

“I feel so sorry for you,” said another, in Japanese, to Dan, who was fighting back tears. “I feel so sorry for you and your family because I survived.”

That’s why this group — called the “20 Club” — decided to publish these books. “They feel it’s their responsibility to share information from generation to generation,” said Chizu Inoue, who interpreted for us.

Dan had shared with his uncle’s classmates photos he had brought with him of Junichi. They flipped through the album and smiled, pointing out the other people in the photos and sharing more about their time at Shuri High.

“I’m amazed to experience this,” Dan told the dozen Japanese media, including NHK, that showed up to document this meeting. “I’m almost speechless. I didn’t expect to find this much information. I’m very happy to be able to take this information home to my family. It’s almost like he’s coming home now.”



While the rest of the crew was filming the segment, which will be aired on PBS next year, I was here with Dan, tracing back his roots. I couldn’t help but think that this is what “Family Ingredients” is all about: this journey to discover who you are by understanding where you came from.

That, right there, made this trip so worthwhile.


Learn more about “Family Ingredients” on its website, on Facebook and by following @familyingredients on Instagram. And check back here for more updates on the premiere of this show.

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#CatTravels: A cultural lesson in Okinawa

By April 24, 2015 #CatTravels


To be honest, before this trip, all I knew about Okinawa had to do with food.

Soki soba, taco rice, champuru.

But I didn’t know much about what else makes this collection of islands so unique and different from Mainland Japan.

In just a few days here — visiting Shuri Castle, walking down the touristy Kokusai Dori, touring around a soba noodle factory — I’ve learned so much about the prefecture’s rich — and often tragic — culture and history.

(It helps I came with the production crew for “Family Ingredients” and they’re interested in capturing the spirit of whatever place they’re at.)

One of our stops was Shuri Castle (below), the palace of the Ryūkyū Kingdom.

Walking up to the entrance of Shuri Castle. We lucked out with great weather!

The castle is one of the most visited places in Okinawa.

The view from the castle, which sits atop a hill in Shuri, a district in Naha.

After the kingdom was annexed by Japan in 1879, the king was removed and the castle was used as a barracks by the Japanese army.

During the Battle of Okinawa in 1945, the Shuri Castle was almost destroyed. (It was shelled by the American battleship USS Mississippi for three straight days.) In 1958, the stone gate was reconstructed and, in 1992, the main building of the castle was reconstructed.

Outside Shurijo Seiden, a beautiful example of Ryūkyū architecture.

The castle was reconstructed on the original site based on photographs, historical records and memory — not unlike castles in Europe that were destroyed during war.

Today, along with other sites in the area, the castle is designated as a UNESCO World Heritage Site.

Inside Zuisen Distillery, a local distillery near the castle.

And then there’s awamori, that iconic Okinawan spirit derived from long grain indica rice imported from Thailand and fermented with koji, a kind of mold. Unlike sake, which is brewed, awamori is distilled like shōchū. And in order for it to be called awamori, it has to be made in Okinawa.

We learned this by visiting Zuisen Distillery near the castle.

This distillery has been churning out awamori for more than 100 years. In fact, it supplies the largest volume of awamori to stores in Okinawa.

The distillery offers sampling of its vintage awamori.

Here’s the distillery’s variety of awamori liqueurs.

Awamori is colorless distilled spirit that’s a lot like vodka (though with far lower alcohol content). It’s only made with three ingredients: Thai rice, water and the black koji yeast-culture.

The most popular way to drink awamori is with water or over ice. (Many people drink it straight, too, or mix the spirit into cocktails.) Traditionally, it’s served in a kara-kara, or a small earthen vessel with a clay marble inside (giving it that sound, kara-kara.)

Outside Fujiya, a surf-themed restaurant in Naha that served taco rice.

Inside the restaurant.

I loved the T-shirts here — especially that yellow one.

Like some ramen shops in Tokyo, you have to order your food through this vending machine.

OK, taco rice.

Not everyone gets this dish, but I love it.

It’s really simple: taco-flavored ground beef is served on a bed of rice with shredded lettuce, cheese (usually straight from a bag), tomatoes and salsa.

It’s likely a dish born out of the U.S. presence in Okinawa, but the locals have embraced it as well. Taco rice is often served in school lunches and, in 1996, it was on the menu at KFC in Japan.

Taco rice with egg. You have to mix it all up before you eat it.

The rest of the food we ate at Fujiya.

A traditional bowl of soki soba.

And it wasn’t until I went on a tour at a soba noodle factory did I truly appreciate Okinawan soba.

Noodles arrived in Okinawa from China in 1574 — almost a century before udon popped up in Japan.

And in order to call noodles, “Okinawan soba,” it has to meet 12 standards, including the water ratio content, concentration of sodium, thickness, and the noodles have to be coated with oil while it’s hot.

And it has to be made in Okinawa. I didn’t know that.

Walking around the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman.

Walls of names of those who died in battle.

The most impactful experience, though, was visiting the Peace Memorial Park in Itoman.

This area was the site of one of the war’s bloodiest battles, when U.S. forces invaded and occupied the island. About 200,000 people died, including more than 100,000 civilians. Some were killed by bombs and shells. Some committed suicide. Some died of starvation or malaria. Some were killed by retreating Japanese troops. It was a tragic moment in the prefecture’s history, and the message of peace has been strong and fierce every since.

The Peace Memorial Park is the main memorial to the Battle of Okinawa, the 82-day battle that lasted from early April to mid-June 1945. (It’s called the “Typhoon of Steel.”) It’s near the ocean, where many people jumped to their death.

The park also houses a museum with artifacts from the war, including oral histories from survivors.

The fountain of peace at the park.

This fountain symbolizes Okinawa with waves of peace emanating from it. Even the walls surrounded the fountain are placed in a way to look like waves coming from the fountain. It’s a stunning tribute to those who died — and those who survived.

The Cornerstone of Peace at the park.

The Cornerstone of Peace is a collection of large stone plates with the names of all the fallen soldiers and civilians, including Korean, Taiwanese, Americans and Brits. It was unveiled in 1995 on the 50th anniversary of the Battle of Okinawa. We left an offering of flowers here in honor of their memory.

The Golden Okinawan Buddha is housed at the park. This is where people come to pray for peace. Above the buddha is a narrow opening that mimics the night sky. So your prayers leave the building and go towards the stars. It’s very poetic.

Finally, we went out to a bar that showcased live music and kachāshī, a form of festive Okinawan folk dance. (You’ve probably seen this at the local Okinawan Festival.) It’s a traditional style of music and dance that features the sanshin and taiko drum. Men dance with closed fists; women dance with flat palms.


Honestly, this kind of dance was utterly foreign to me. It felt like a faster, livelier version of bon dancing. And we couldn’t figure it out.

But we did it. It wasn’t pretty. But it was fun.

And I think ultimately, that’s what it was all about.


Follow my adventures in Okinawa on Instagram @catherinetoth and Twitter @thedailydish. See even more photos at @familyingredients on Instagram and Facebook.

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#CatTravels: It’s all about the food in Okinawa

By April 21, 2015 #CatTravels, Food


I’ve eaten all over Japan and nothing — nothing — compares to Okinawan food.

The food in this southernmost prefecture is a reflection of its cultural diversity, distance from Japan and complicated history.

The hundred of islands here were only part of an independent state called the Ryukyu Kingdom that traded heavily with China, Japan, Korea and Southeast Asia. (Ryukyu-han became Okinawa Prefecture of Japan in 1879.) All of these connections had an impact on the cuisine here. The pork hailed from China, the dashi and kelp from Japan, the fruits and spices from all over Asia.

And then there’s the big U.S. military presence here, which has contributed such post-war items as corned beef and Spam to the culinary landscape.

It’s strange and wonderful at the same time.

One of the most iconic dishes in Okinawa is soki soba — or Okinawan soba — which, by the way has nothing to do with the Japanese buckwheat noodles with the same name. Not at all.

This style of Okinawan soba features a clear pork-based broth and wavy noodles.

This noodle dish features thick wheat noodles in a clear dashi (broth) made from pork or bonito fish flakes — or a blend of both. The chewy noodles are always thick and sometimes flat or wavy. It all depends on region and preference.

There are two different types of soki: hon soki (boned sparerib) and nonkotsu soki (cartilage sparerib). And the broth — which, to any Okinawan, is really the most important part of the dish — can range from light and fishy to heavy and porky. Again, it just all depends.

This homemade version uses a broth with a blend of both pork and bonito fish flakes. The noodles here are slightly thinner than the earlier one.

Soki, though, is the star. These slow-cooked pork ribs are the most common topping in Okinawan soba and are braised in a shoyu-sugar mixture with awamori (a spirit made from long grain indica rice) until the meat is fork tender and falling off its bones.


The dish is garnished with shredded pickled ginger, scallions, egg, and sometimes Spam. And many add a few drops of something called koregusu, a chili pepper-infused awamori that’s not dissimilar to Hawai‘i’s chili pepper water.



After a couple of bowls of soki soba, I needed something sweet.

We didn’t see anyone selling andagi on our first full day in Okinawa — I’m on a mission to find that, though! — but we did visit a traditional Okinawan manju shop (above).

Okinawan manju is actually more like Japanese-style mochi. I found this interesting because I’m more familiar with manju as more of a cookie exterior filled with sweetened red bean paste. But the manju here — called nantu — is sweet steamed mochi.


Turns out, manju was derived from a type of pounded mochi from China called mantou. So maybe the Okinawans still make their version in the traditional Chinese style.



We visited Manjyu Cafe, a small manju shop that’s been around for nine years here — but actually a second location for the very famous Yamagusuku company that’s been around for 160 years. The women on each side above — (left to right) Tomi Kobashigawa, Miyoko Iha and Akemi Kakazu — are the sixth generation of owners. (Miyoko Iha in the middle is their 83-year-old mother.)

They only serve a couple of different flavors of manju. Today, they had a traditional one filled with red bean paste sweeter with sugar (white) and another made from Okinawan sweet potato and filled with mashed Okinawan taro (purple).

The manju — 150 yen ($1.25) each — are steamed in ginger leaves, which give is a lovely fragrance when you eat it. So different from Japanese-style mochi.


Another popular dessert is sangatsu gashi, which means “third-month candy” (above). It’s a small, deep-fried bar of dough — not unlike andagi — that contains sesame seeds or peanuts. It’s served during hinamatsuri, or Girl’s Day.


And while this may not be a traditional Okinawan staple, you’ll find it everywhere, just like in Hawai‘i.

Spam (above), that precooked canned meat from Hormel, is very common here. In fact, you’ll find it in one of Okinawa’s iconic dishes, goya champuru, a stir fry with bitter melon.

Due to a meat scarcity during World War II, the American GIs would give out free cans of Spam to families in Okinawa. It quickly became a household product.

Today, about 7.2 million cans of Spam are consumed annually in Okinawa.




Take a stroll down Ichiba Hondori, right off Naha’s popular Kokusai Street (think Kalākaua Avenue in Waikīkī) and you’ll see a lot of specialty foods and drinks.

The street was once known as “Sweets Street” because of its large number of confectionary shops, now features a variety of vendors. You’ll see items like Bogor pineapple — its segments can be easily pulled off and eaten — and pickled things like garlic wrapped in shiso leaves.


Grocery stores — like San A — are a great place to see locally grown produce, too, like the yellow Okinawan carrots (long and light with a texture softer than burdock), okra, shima rakkyo (similar to shallot and eaten with awamori), and handama (purple Okinawan spinach).

It’s been a interesting culinary journey so far — and I know there’s so much more to eat.

But for Day 1, I think that’s pretty good.


Follow my adventures in Okinawa on Instagram @catherinetoth and Twitter @thedailydish. See even more photos at @familyingredients on Instagram and Facebook.

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#CatTravels: Heading to Okinawa

By April 17, 2015 #CatTravels


No, I’m not Okinawan.

I say this because I’m asked it all the time. And I’m not really sure why. (I do love my taco rice and soki soba…)

Maybe it has something to do with the fact that I eat too much, work really hard, and laugh really loud.

At least that’s what I’ve come to think of Okinawans, anyway. Which is why, in my opinion, they live so long.

So when I got invited to be part of the production crew to Okinawa for “Family Ingredients,” the Emmy award-winning food genealogy travel show that aired on PBS Hawai‘i in 2013 and slated to go national this year, there was absolutely no hesitation.

The chance to eat authentic Okinawan soba and rafute in the land of their origins?

Uh, yes, please.

Okinawa has always been fascinating to me. This southernmost prefecture of Japan — the plane ride will take more than two hours from Tokyo — boasts about 1.4 million people, including the American servicemen and their families who live there. (There are 32 U.S. military bases on Okinawa Island alone.)

The island is about 400 miles south of the rest of Japan, roughly the same distance from China, and 300 mile north of Taiwan. Its culture bears traces of its various nearby trading partners, particularly China and Thailand. Karate, for example, is a blend of Chinese kung fu and traditional Okinawan martial arts. And awamori, a popular Okinawan distilled spirit, is made from indica rice imported from Thailand.

While Okinawa is part of Japan, there’s a lot about this island that’s utterly unique and distinctive. (Much like how Hawai‘i is so different from the rest of the Mainland.) Case in point: there are six Ryukyuan languages that are incomprehensible to Japanese speakers. And the local pubs here serve unique dishes like goya champuru (bitter melon stir fry), rafute (braised pork belly) and — my personal favorite — taco rice, which is white rice topped with taco meat, cheese, shredded lettuce, tomatoes and sometimes ranch dressing or sour cream.

Oh, and they love their Spam here.

I’m leaving on Sunday for a week with the crew, diving headfirst — or, mouth-first — into the history and culture of Okinawa.

I’m excited.

So follow along!

I’ll be writing blogs whenever I can get WiFi and posting pics on Instagram (@catherinetoth) and Twitter (@thedailydish).

And follow “Family Ingredients,” too, on Facebook and Instagram (@familyingredients).

I tried to get the producer to let me surf while I’m there, but to no avail. I’m still bringing a bikini, though, just in case!

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