The Big Island of Hawaii is probably best know for the sun washed mega resorts of the Kona Coast, its strong, rich, delectable coffee beans and of course nature’s light shows at Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. But there is a hidden treasure on the island’s more laid back eastern coast.

The islands largest town, Hilo, is home to the Lili’uokalani Gardens, the largest ornamental Japanese park outside of Japan.  Named for Hawaii’s last Queen and dedicated to Japanese immigrants who worked on the sugar plantations, this thirty acre sea level park is well loved by the locals and admired by visitors who are lucky enough to find it.

This is very much a people’s park. The park is open daily and there are no gates so entry can be made from any direction. The gardens frame the shores of Hilo Bay, facing the east and are perfect for watching the sun rise over the Pacific Ocean.  Locals and visitors from the hotels on Banyan drive often head to the park in the early hours to walk or jog as the sun comes up.  Just before dawn, local fishermen will toss their nets in the ocean on the bay side of the park, or even in some of the native Hawaiian style fish ponds that have been incorporated into the garden’s design.

As the day progresses, families come out to picnic on the wide expanse of lawns.  Fathers and sons play catch, tourists sunbathe and bamboo fishing poles cast their lines into those same gently curved fish ponds.  Some of these ponds are open to the open ocean so at high tide paths leading to them tend to be water soaked.  Not a problem, just wear some “rubbah slippahs” or better yet, go barefoot.

A Japanese rock garden in the dry Karesausui style is a recent addition. Half moon bridges, small pagodas, gazebos and Tori gates greet visitors as they follow the meandering pathways. Stone lanterns and bonsai trees share space with native palms, banyan and banana trees along with fragrant hibiscus and ginger blossoms.  Ocean birds visit the ponds for a quick snack, mongoose play hide and seed among the rocks and trees and the mynah birds are very vocal in letting you know they are out and about.

The Big Island of Hawaii shares Sister Island Status with Oshima, Japan and the reverence for that culture is evident. Tea ceremonies are held in a traditional Japanese Tea House named Shoroan.  It was donated by the Fifteenth Grand Tea Master of Urasenke and may be booked for special events.  The gardens also include a sumo platform and a shelter for Okinawan style canoes. Special Okinawan race days are held at the ocean side of the park fronting Hilo Bay.

Hilo is very much a sleepy island town that rolls up its sidewalks in the early evening. Most people that visit Hilo drop by on the way to or from the Hawaii Volcanoes National Park. A few stay a night or two and discover the warmth of this charming area.  The very lucky ones put on their slippahs and find their way to the Queen Lili’uokalani Gardens at sunrise. Perhaps they might even go local and cast their own fishing line in a garden pond as they watch the waters of Hilo Bay shimmer with the colors of morning.

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