Plate Lunch

One cannot survive on papayas and pineapple alone so we have been exploring food options. We’d both been jonesing for teishoku, the standard Japanese meal of rice, miso soup, pickled vegetables and a main dish, usually grilled fish or meat, maybe a small salad. There was a tiny place in our old neighborhood called Take (Bamboo) run by a husband/wife team. It was top class without being expensive. We miss it.

We had been advised that a fine way to feed oneself in this land of high prices and junk food is the plate lunch. In most cases, they take the form of some sort of meat, a scoop of macaroni salad and a scoop or two of rice, all for a reasonable price. Most restaurants offer them but we have found our comfort zone is best served by drive-ins. For one thing, they’re self-service so tipping is optional and tipping drives Rochi nuts. Also, large quantities of rice are always on tap, enough to fill his hollow Asian legs.

Our current favorite is Blane’s Drive Inn. For one thing, it’s on Waianuenue Avenue, which I am now proud to be able to both pronounce and spell. For another, it’s just down the street from the Hilo Public Library, one of the most comfortable I’ve ever seen, an oasis in the middle of…paradise. OK, that’s an oxymoron but it’s still a very nice library.

Blane’s has good sandwiches, burgers, bentos and of course, plate lunches, all at very reasonable prices. The seating is outdoors, covered and reasonably quiet. Rochi is always pleased with fried eggs and Portuguese sausage. The kalua (pulled) pork is bounteous. The grilled cheese is hot and crisp. (I dare you to find a grilled cheese sandwich in Tokyo.) The fries are first rate.

Just don’t expect too much. And don’t expect any vegetables–you don’t go to MacDonald’s and order filet Mignon. The last time we went there, I tried papaya chicken and discovered that you can’t cook papaya; it turns into flavorless globs of watery kindergarten paste. And the miso soup is awful–more watery kindergarten paste, and my teacher told me not to eat that.

So a plate lunch is filling, reasonably priced and pretty close to home cooking. It just isn’t teishoku. No matter how many times you look at a papaya and say ‘banana’, it will still be a papaya. So the lessons learned are 1) the very best food you can possibly have is the food you cook yourself but 2) don’t cook papaya, 3) if you accept things as they are without expectations, you can’t really be disappointed and 4) ice cream can clear away the memory of just about any culinary disaster.

Progress in Pahoa

The construction elves have been hard at work on the new shopping oasis outside of town.* Even so, Pahoa still has vestiges of a cowboy town, aging traces of its sugarcane past. The main street that runs through town has a section of dilapidated wooden sidewalk flanking false front businesses: a couple of restaurants, arts and craft shops, a tattoo parlor, of course. On the outskirts of town, there are abandoned outbuildings lurking among the vines. The heads of rusting machinery watch over the parking lot at Ace Hardware, a local version of dinosaurs unable to find a passage back to the past. All of this lends the town a certain charm, a sense of permanence among an ever-changing population, at the same time an awkward, pimple-faced teenager and a doddering fool.

In 1955, Pahoa was almost destroyed by a fire. Right in the middle of town was a tofu factory that had a wood-fired furnace. The owner usually banked his fires before he went home, but that night, the fire got out of control. It burned all the way to the main alley. Luckily, a papaya farmer who had water loaded on the back of his truck saw what happened and extinguished the fire, saving Pahoa from destruction.

There’s a strong hippie/alternative lifestyle vibe here. I’m pretty sure that many of the folks who were at Woodstock in 1969–and are still alive–landed in this area. It is not uncommon to see bodies adorned with tie-dye and fringe and grey ponytails and beards framing wizened faces at the local market.

All of this lends the town an alluring charm, a sense of permanence within an ever-changing population, at the same time an awkward, pimple-faced teenager and a doddering fool. But with the new mall going in, we have a slight pall of doom hanging over us. Passing through town today, I saw a couple of businesses preparing to close. Signs in front of the development say there will be a Pizza Hut and a MacDonald’s, both places I vow never to enter, but there will also be a Goodwill and a Banzos falafel, both reasons for good cheer. They’ve installed traffic lights between the turnoff for Long’s and the entrance to the mall, just past the traffic circle. This will either prove to be a feat of fine engineering or a monumental disaster.

The development was originally supposed to open at the end of last year, but the lava decided that was a bad idea. We shall see how Madame Pele feels about all of this. As always, she gets the final say-so.

*Disclaimer: To be fair, I’m taking some liberty with the word ‘town’. The population of Pahoa is only 945 souls, so technically it’s a village. When people say they’re going to ‘town’ they mean Hilo (pop. 43,263), which is about half an hour from here, home to the airport, Walmart and Target and several supermarkets. We go there to shop and then, quick as we can, escape back to paradise.


There’s a full moon arisin’ and Puna celebrated with a Full Flower Moon in Scorpio music healing event at the community center, which meant rolling out yoga mats and settling into relaxation while a lady played singing bowls and a guy played gongs and a hang drum.

I wanted to participate because I adore hang drums and wondered what a singing bowl could be made to do. Mine says ‘ding’ and that’s about it. But these musicians squoze some pretty amazing sounds out of those instruments. I was feeling pretty relaxed and zen and started hearing images, like Tibetan monks tiptoeing around their monasteries and whale song and gumball machines. It was very cool. It was very Puna.

The only real downside was a mosquito who was feasting on my ankle. I shifted, I scratched. I remembered that there was someone in the near distance with a chainsaw ripping holes in my serenity at the botanical garden the other day. At the time, I fervently wished him an empty gas tank or a kink in his chain. Of course I realize that he was just doing his job; a garden in a jungle requires constant maintenance. But I did feel that I’d paid for my serenity and there is hypocrisy in having to fight for it. I also couldn’t help wishing the guy would drop the damned thing on his foot.

Which brings us to today’s lesson in living: There will always be a mosquito or a chainsaw or horrible neighbor. The key is not letting these things drive you buggy. True serenity, like true happiness and contentment and gratitude, comes from within.


I was sitting comfortably at the end of a yoga class, eyes closed, hands resting gently in my lap, when the voice in my ear told me to list three things I’m grateful for. I thought a moment and realized it would be so much easier to list the things I’m NOT grateful for. Here’s what I came up with:

#1 The moron next door
#2 Power tools

I couldn’t think of a #3.

Twas Brillig

Today started gray and ominous but by the time we’d finished lunch, the sky started to clear. We figured that was a sign: Time for a visit to the Hawaii Tropical Botanical Garden. It’s pretty well hidden a few miles off Route 19 north of Hilo, so when we finally found it, we gave a whoop of joy.

At the bottom of the long and steeply sloping boardwalk that leads into the heart of the garden, there was a gardener who reminded me of both the Mad Hatter and Dustin Hoffman. Mad Dustin directed our attention to the orchids that were blooming above this sign. “Smell me,” it said. Obedient as a schoolgirl, I smelled, and my nose filled with the scent of warm orange cupcakes just out of the oven.

Curious but delightful.

We followed the paths as they wound past wonders big and small, oohing and aahing as appropriate. We saw no White Rabbit nor Cheshire Cat, but one little mongoose skittered along a handrail and out of sight before I could point my camera at him. Perhaps he found a rabbit hole of his own.

Just before we girded our loins for the trek back up the boardwalk, we came across a curious sign.

Note that the sign says ‘Beware of falling fruit’, not ‘Watch out for falling fruit’. Just what sort of hi-jinx is this fruit getting up to that calls for such vigilance? Does that mustachioed papaya lurking in the shadows mean me harm? Is the man in the trench coat actually an avocado in disguise? I am wary of fruit sold by the Philippine mafia, and hothouse strawberries always bear closer scrutiny, but surely your average pineapple or mango is fairly harmless. And who could ever suspect a banana of foul play?

Curiouser and curiouser.

What’s Ahead

When I got off the plane at Narita airport in 1986 it suddenly struck me that despite my college education I was deaf, dumb and illiterate. I spoke not a word of Japanese and therefore understood even less. Reading was a total mystery. In time I learned to communicate pretty well, but never got beyond the reading level of a second grader. So part of the ongoing euphoria of life in my new home is being able to read. I still can’t do a “quick run” to the store because I have to dawdle in the aisles, reveling in my ability to read. The irony there is that I still don’t know what a lot of the stuff is. I recognize Stove Top and Pop Tarts and Kraft Mac and Cheese, but I have no clue about the Portuguese and Philippine stuff. The kiddie cereals and sugary drinks are just scary, although I do wax nostalgic at times. “Ah, Froot Loops. Never tried them; never will.”

Road signs are a source of glee. Tootling along the roadways in my little Honda, I challenge myself to interpret their meaning. I love ‘Mowing ahead’ (a guy on his John Deere, butt crack showing, anticipating a cold brewsky at end of day) and ‘Caution: Tree trimming’ (Mrs. Claus and the elves hard at work with tinsel and twinkly lights).

Sometimes, my own silliness overwhelms me with giggles.

Just around the bend there is a hill, waving a broomstick in the air, unable to make contact with an elusive pinata.

A driveway crouches by the roadside, its sweaty palms pressed against its eyes, thinking ‘They can’t see me so I’m safe,’ much like George hiding under the covers on our bed whenever someone comes to visit.

Tick Tock

As I lay in bed last night, I realized that despite the p0lyphonic choral performance by the tiny coqui frogs in the woods behind our house, I could still hear my alarm clock ticking. And then I realized that I have not set that clock even once since I’ve been here. I still have to get up early sometimes–that’s never been my strong suit–but getting up early in paradise is so much easier than getting up early in Tokyo. Mulling that thought, I fell asleep and dreamed of tiny frogs waking to tiny alarms and getting out of tiny beds and eating tiny pancakes with tiny blueberries and packing tiny sandwiches into tiny paper bags and getting into tiny cars to commute to tiny jobs.

I woke up just before dawn. I could no longer hear my alarm clock ticking because of the joyous twittering of dozens of little birds in the garden outside my window. They seemed to be celebrating something momentous, as they do every morning. I smiled a quiet smile, wished them well and went back to sleep.