Liliʻuokalani Gardens is a traditional Japanese style park. Located in Moku Oka, Hilo, Hawaiʻi, it is freshened by sea breezes and commands a view of Hilo Bay. Beautifully landscaped, it is an ideal location for picnics, strolling, and weddings, and also offers lovely quiet spaces for solitude and meditation.
The garden has its origins in the Territorial Days of Hawaiʻi.
On the third day of April 1917, Lucius E. Pinkham, Governor of the Territory of Hawaiʻi, signed an act designating “17.0 acres, more or less,” a “certain tract of government land at Waiakea, South Hilo, County of Hawaiʻi, Territory of Hawaiʻi, as a public park. . . to be known as Liliuokalani Garden.”
Of the park, the 1917 Senate report said, ” That after due and careful consideration we find that the object of the bill is to provide a park in the suburbs of the City of Hilo where can be constructed gardens surrounding silvery lakes and about rock-bound inlets of the sea of great beauty on the order of Japanese landscape gardening that will add greatly to the beauty of this approach to the city. . . We recommend the passage of the bill.”
According to Skylark Rosetti, first Master of Ceremonies of the “He Hali’a Aloha No Lili’uokalani Festival, Queen’s Birthday Celebration,” the land had belonged to Princess Ruth Keʻelikōlani, who gifted it to Queen Liliʻuokalani. The Queen, tradition says, around 1907 gifted the five acre fishpond, Waihonu, in Makaoku to the people of Hilo for the purpose of creating a Japanese “tea garden.”
Friends of Liliʻuokalani Gardens member Bill Eger said that creating the garden was “a favorite goal of Queen Lili`uokalani, when she fostered it on our island with the specific goal of providing the many sugar workers who moved here from Japan a sample of their home culture for all to enjoy.”
According to KT Cannon-Eger, at that time it was the fad to have a Japanese Garden. Kalākaua and Kapiʻolani had one built at their home on Beretania St. in Honolulu, hiring Japanese gardeners to build “a fernery, rockery, and pond” for Kapiʻolani. Her sister had a home in the plains near Waikīkī which was leased to R.W. Irwin. Irwin was the Hawaiian ambassador to Japan, and married to a Japanese national. His residential garden was designed by Kalākaua’s gardeners. Irwinʻs second home in Ikaho, Shibukawa, Japan is maintained to this day as a museum. Every four years, a hula competition is held in Ikaho, and the winners attend Hilo’s Merrie Monarch Festival.
In the “high society” of the Victorian era, building a Japanese tea garden was “was the social thing to do,” Cannon-Eger says. Liliʻuokalani had a keen interest in Japan. She was still encouraging Kaʻiulani to marry a prince of Japan, and the young princess was dressed in kimono for the many Japanese-themed parties which were the rage. All the social events where everyone who was anyone attended were adorned with Japanese lanterns, bamboo and paper parasols, and folding fans. By that time, Japanese comprised 43 percent of the population of Hawaiʻi. Queen Kapiʻolani and Liliʻuokalani learned Japanese so they could speak with the people. Liliʻuokalani’s steward, Mr. Fujimoto, was Japanese, his children were born in her home, and the Queen was godmother to his children.
Liliʻuokalani, and Hilo residents Mrs. CC Kennedy and Mrs Machida, spearheaded the effort to install a Japanese tea garden in Hilo.
In 1914, Laura (Mrs CC) Kennedy, her husband, joined other business people of Honolulu who made a trip to Japan. While visiting the Golden Pavilion, the famous Japanese park at Kyoto, Kennedy conceived the idea that the old Waiakea fish ponds could be turned into a park just as beautiful.
Mrs. Machida was president of the Hilo Japanese Women’s Friendship Association of Hilo – Fujin Shinkokai – which had formed in 1912 to seek a location for lanterns and a potential tea house. The name of the group is carved on the two oldest stone lanterns in the garden. The Fujin Shinkokai acquired the lanterns from Japan, in hopes of installing them in a Japanese garden at Moʻoheau. That park, however, was bounded by the rail road tracks, commercial buildings, and the ball park. With nowhere to grow, they looked toward Makaoku.
Liliʻuokalani was a frequent visitor to Hilo, and encouraged her friends to support the park. It must have been a great pleasure to her to learn in April of 1917 that the bill to make her former lands into a tea garden had been enacted, with additional lands, to comprise a 17-acre parcel, though she would never see the land as a park. As construction on Lili`uokalani Gardens began in November of 1917 the beloved aliʻi passed away. She was 79.
In September of 1918, a tsunami inundated the area. Nevertheless, in 1919, Liliʻuokalani Garden was completed and opened to the public.
Another tsunami hit Hilo’s shore in February 1923, damaging the park. Larger, and deadly, tsunami in April 1946, and May 1960 wreaked further havoc as the huge waves, as high as 36 feet, crashed into the island and churned across the gardens. But each time, the park was rebuilt.
In 1927, management of Liliʻuokalani Gardens was transferred from the State of Hawaiʻi to Hawaiʻi County. Mokuola was added to the park in 1933.
In 1972, Mrs. Machida’s dream of a traditional tea house was realized. A chashitsu, both the traditional tea house and garden, were installed. They were a gift of Dr. Shoshitsu Sen, at the time he was 15th Grand Tea Master of Urasenke Foundation in Kyoto. Arsonists destroyed the tea house in 1994. It was re-built in the present location in 1997, making this year the 20th anniversary of the Shoroan Orasenki tea house.
In 1976 Bicentennial Park was added, extending the park by three acres.
In 2002, then governor Ben Cayatano provided utility easements and added Rakuen and Isles, a 0.443-acre shoreline park popular for fishing and picnicking, increasing the park holdings to 24.67 acres.
Past president Bill Eger says, “Friends of Lili`uiokalani Gardens is working closely with the Hawai`i County Department of Parks and Recreation and the separately funded Japanese Tea House to bring our garden to the perfection it deserves for the thousands of visitors expected from all over the world during the first centennial year, 2017.”
Friends of Liliʻuokalani Gardens spent four years in a ramp-up for the 2017 centennial celebration. In 2013, Senate Concurrent Resolution 173 was introduced by Big Island Senators Malama Solomon, Gil Kahele and Russell Ruderman, requesting the Department of Land and Natural Resources and State Foundation on Culture and the Arts help the group in its preparations.
These preparations included maintenance efforts such as thinning the bamboo thicket and removing muck from the fishponds, capital improvements, and planning centennial events such as the Banyan Drive Art Stroll, the U.S. Priority Mail stamp, and the upcoming regional conference of the North American Japanese Garden Association.
Rossetti said the park had undergone extensive restorations in 2000 under the guidance of then-mayor Steve Yamashiro. “It was a beautiful job. It was his hana hou as mayor.” Yamashiro had secured a $2 million bond issue which not only refurbished the entire park, but improved accessibility and infrastructure.
Each year, on a Saturday near Liliʻuokalani’s September 2 birthday, a hula festival is held at the garden.
Rossetti began her association with the 18-year-old festival as a member of the organizational committee, and as MC of its first celebration in 1999. Yamashiro and Paula Helfrich, then of the Hawaiʻi Island Economic Development Board, were instrumental in establishing the celebration. Rossetti said. “In the very beginning it was tied in to the Aloha Festivals. It is a collaboration of the County, local organizations, Liliʻuokalani Trust. It’s for our local people. It’s free, open to the people to come and go as they please. I think the important message is that we have an outstanding culture. We need to use opportunities to bring us together as one. . . Uncle George Naope always wanted to see keiki dance in that park.”
Cannon-Eger says, “Way back in the beginning Roxcie, Sky, Tommy Kahikina, Lucille Chun, were the torch bearers of this festival. . . The Friends of Liliʻuokalani Gardens came in four years ago. Lance Niʻimi, then Hilo Unit Manager of the Queen Liliuokalani Childrens Trust, invited me and Bill, and the Friends of Liliʻuokalani Gardens to participate in the festival Roxcie Waltjen (Division of Culture and Education, County Parks & Recreation Department) first words were, ‘We will give you a free tent at the gate,’ and was most encouraging and helpful. Since then, we have expanded into these other roles: Surveying park users, providing volunteers, accessing additional funding, involving the Rotary Club, Master Gardeners, University of Hawaiʻi at Hilo, Retired Senior Volunteer Program, and other groups. . . Roxcie has done such a wonderful job in developing these ongoing festivals.
She says that the festivals “Really embodies the Queen’s wish for Hawai’i’s children, it is so important to continue the Queen’s legacy and wish for the care of the children to be maintained in the garden that is named for her.”
Waltjen says, “We should also credit Kumu Hula Iwalani Kalima who was instrumental in developing the concept of the mass hula. She coordinated the mass hula for many years and was successful in bringing hālau from as far away as Japan to participate in the Festival.
The Festival has survived all these years through budget shortfalls–because people made sacrifices and helped as a token of their genuine love of the hula and the Queen. This festival is a perfect example of a private public partnership–where everyone benefits and contributes–It is totally inclusive!!”
Cannon-Eger adds that at the festivals she likes “to see the entire pond ringed with hula dancers. Everybody who has ever danced before, everybody who has never danced before, everyone come!”