Oahu, HI, 2011

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This is a picture I took on the southern coast of Oahu Island, Hawaii.

We were among scores of tourists, staring at the glimmering iridescent film of oil, dancing around dark, eerie shaped oil droplets, leaking from the bottom of the sea. Under the water, the USS Arizona ship wreck has been seeping fuel to Pearl Harbor at a rate of about 2 quarts per day for over 70 years now -- ever since the battleship was sunken by the Japanese in that tragic Sunday morning of Dec. 7th, 1941. Nobody, however, seemed to think such obvious pollution inappropriate. In fact, some even went as far as romanticizing the leaking fuel as tears shed by the 1,177 sailors perished with the ship.

We were standing in the USS Arizona Memorial, an immaculate white structure constructed right on top of the sunken ship to commemorate the event. I've seldom visited a place in this country that feels so solemn and heavy, especially when faced with a white marble wall inscribed with 1,177 names and these weighty words: "To the Memory of the Gallant Men Here Entombed and Their Shipmates Who Gave Their Lives in Action on December 7, 1941, on the U.S.S. Arizona."

 

Around us were placid water of the Pacific, which made it hard for me to mentally picture what happened right here in that dreadful morning 70 years ago. It was a lazy, quiet, sleep-in type of Sunday morning. But all of a sudden, right above us, 353 Japanese Zero fighters, dive bombers, and torpedo planes hovered the sky and turned the harbor into an inferno. All eight battle ships and a number of other vessels in the harbor, and 188 US aircraft were destroyed or damaged; 2,402 American were killed and 1,282 wounded. The Pacific Fleet was mostly paralyzed. Among the eight battle ships, USS Arizona was the most miserable by far. It attracted ten Nakajima B5N "Kate" Torpedo bombers, which swarmed above the ship and peppered it with bombs and amor-piercing shells. One bomb blew up the front ammunition magazine, which triggered a massive explosion that wrecked much of the ship and killed 1,177 crew members, the single largest loss of life in US naval history. The big bang also set off a violent fire that would ravage the harbor for two more days. As the ship was beyond any repair after the explosion, the Navy decided to leave it under water, with what remains of its two rusty rear gun turrets peeping out of the water. After the war, the Arizona ship wreck became a national shrine for those who died for their country.

 

The Pearl Harbor air raid may be tactically a success, but strategically and politically it was a huge disaster, for the Japanese. The ultimate consequence of the attack is just some 1,500 feet away along the harbor from the Arizona Memorial, where the mighty 45,000-ton battleship USS Missouri is docked. On the deck of Missouri, there is a brass plague with these words: "Over this spot on 2 September, 1945, the formal instrument of surrender of Japan to the Allied Powers was signed; thus bringing a close to the Second World War. The ship at that time was anchored at Tokyo Bay." So here we were, from the beginning to the end of the greatest war we ever fought, just 1,500 feet apart. But what a 1,500 feet it was in history!

With the Pearl Harbor attack Japan unwisely drew the first blood and dragged the US, then already the most powerful nation in the world, into four years of arduous, exhausting war. On the Pacific Theater, the Japanese was initially dominating, for at least a few months. They stormed through the vast land of China, occupied much of the Southeast Asia (formerly under British and Dutch control), drove the British Royal Navy out of the Indian Ocean, patrolled over the Pacific Ocean, knocked out American Pacific bases (Guam and Wake Island), and even managed a couple of minor attacks on the American West Coast (Ellwood and Los Angeles). However, the American soon caught on with their resistance. Four months after Pearl Harbor, they dropped their first batch of bombs on Tokyo (the Dolittle Raid), which was physically no more than a little scratch, but psychological devastating to the Japanese: their defense line was not invulnerable after all. Two months later, the American dished the Japanese their first major defeat in the Battle of Midway. It was a pivotal defeat and is generally considered the turning point of the Pacific War, after which the Japanese would gradually lose their supremacy in the Pacific theater in the next three years. However, the Japanese showed a rather impressive fortitude in their resistance, especially towards the final stage of the war, when facing certain and imminent defeat. In the battle of Iwo Jima (02/19-03/26, 1945), the American have reached the doorstep of the Japanese homeland. Being severely outgunned and outnumbered, with no air superiority and no hope of reinforcement, the Japanese were certain from the very beginning that they were fighting a losing battle; but they had no plan of surrender and tenaciously held every single position till their last man. Of the 22,060 Japanese soldiers stationed in Iwo Jima, only 216, or less than 1%, would survived as prisoners (some were captured only because they were knocked unconscious or disabled in action); the rest either died in combat or performed ritual suicide. On the other hand, it was a rather costly victory for the American, who suffered even more casualty (6,821 killed, 19,217 wounded) despite their absolute advantages. It was such bloody battles that pressed the Allies to seek an alternative way to clinch their victory with minimum casualty, namely laying a couple of atomic bombs for the first time (and the only time, thank God) in war history, onto Japan's industrial centers and army depots. We already know the rest of the story. 160,000 lives perished under the mushroom cloud in Hiroshima in August 6th, 1945; three days later, another bomb claimed 80,000 lives in Nagasaki. A week after the bombing, Japan surrendered unconditionally. End of the greatest war ever in human history.

 

I didn't mean to start an account of a relaxing Hawaiian vacation in a somber mood, you see, but the USS Arizona Memorial was the most memorable bit of the entire trip. It was mind-boggling to think about the stark contrast between the splendid and serene scenery we were facing and the bloody and gloomy history lies just a few feet underneath.

On our way to the memorial, we shared the boat with a group of wholesome and radiant Japanese students in chic and vivid outfits. I simple couldn't for the life of me connect these courteous, gentle and meek youngsters to what their great grandparents have done here seventy years ago. It reminded me of the less than heroic rescue effort by the Japanese Self-Defence Force during the Fukushima nuclear leakage incident earlier (these guys refused even to fly over the nuclear power station to spray some water on the reactor due to "health concern" -- their Geiger counter reading was a notch too high). It was a shame really. Where have their Bushido, their spirit of Kamikaze, and their courage of self-sacrifice gone? I supposed they've been neutralized by the deep-rooted fear of mass destruction (a perpetual theme of post-war Japanese literature) and the kind of androgynous ethos embraced by the younger generations (just check out those bishonen characters in in mainstream manga like The Knight of Zodiac and the Gundum series). The latter, I'm sorry to add, has been spreading along with Japanese manga like an epidemic among the youth of East Asia. But still, if such trends can be perceived as indications of tragedies like Pearl Harbor or Iwo Jima wouldn't happen again (or at least not anytime soon), I guess I can live with that.

USS Missouri is a mighty big ship, and the last of its breed. It was born in an age (launched in 1944) when large battle ships were fading into lesser role in the naval fleet, while aircraft carriers and submarines were gradually taking over the principle roles in naval warfare. The last battle ship to joined the action, Missouri only attended the battles of Iwo Jima and Okinawa. It was chosen as the platform for the Japanese Surrender Ceremony, rumor has it, merely because it's named after Harry Truman's home state (it would've been far more appropriate and gratifying to choose one of the survivors from Pearl Harbor, wouldn't you think?). After the war, Missouri went on to serve another 10 years, played a significant role in the Korean War, before retired in 1955. But that was not the end of the story. During the 1980s, in the heat of the Cold War, Ronald Reagan cooked up a "600 Navy Ship" plan to beef up the American navy fleet for the confrontation with the Soviet. Old vessels like Missouri were revived and upgraded with plenty of cutting-edge goodies like the AGM-84 Harpoon anti-ship missiles and the BGM-109 Tomahawk cruise missiles. Unfortunately, the Soviet Union didn't last long enough for good old Missouri to have any proper exercise. So to test out those new gadget it had to find a way to pound on small countries like Iraq (the first Gulf War, 1991). But then, the collapse the Soviet Union kind of took away the meaning of its existence as a big old expensive battleship. In 1992, Missouri was put to rest again, for real this time. It was towed to the Pearl Harbor and opened as a museum since 1999.

 

Another museum not to be missed in the Pearl Harbor is the Pacific Aviation Museum on the Ford Island. It's consist of several hangars that piled with many of my childhood heroes: Claire Chennault's Curtiss P-40 Flying Tigers (heroic effort in protecting the Chinese sky from Japanese attacks during WWII, 1st 2 pix); Soviet's highly successful MiG-15 "Fagot" (rose into stardom by giving the American some good spanking in the Korean War, and is the world's most widely produced jet aircraft, 3rd pic) and its only worthy rival, the American F-86 "Saber" (the first jet to break the sound barrier by diving, 4-5th pix); the bulky yet nimble F-4 "Phantom" (not exactly a star in the Vietnam War, but still a respectable antagonist, 6th pic); the dogfight champion of all-time F-15 "Eagle" (over 100 aerial combat victories, no loss, 2nd row, 1st 3 pix); and the handsome F-14 "Tomcat" with its fascinating variable sweep wings... Many of them I've never met in person; so there was always some "oh, I've heard so much about you" quality in every new encounter. It was delightful.

 

And there were more...

 

All in all, Pearl Harbor, like the rest of the Oahu coastline, is a gorgeous piece of water. However, just because it had an extremely bad day 70 years ago, it will always be remembered as the beginning of the end of World War II, more than anything else.

 

 

For the sake of our vacation, we shall leave that historic heaviness behind and just enjoy the beauty and serenity Oahu has to offer. Oahu is a diamond-shaped volcanic island made up of two parallel mountain ranges on the east and west shores. The mountains naturally divide the coastline into the Windward Coast on the east (wetter and vegetated side), and Leeward Coast on the west (dryer side). Between the two mountain ranges are North Shore, Central, and the South, which is also called the Town Side. There we have Honolulu, the state capital and the only metropolitan area in Hawaii, as well as 75% of the island population, or 56% of entire Hawaiian population. This is the heart of Hawaii.

 

The images below, as you can tell by its lushness, were taken in the Windward Coast and the South.

 

Kailua Bay on the Windward Coast, where we stayed, has the finest beach in Hawaii, and arguable the best in the US (at least was in 1998, according to Stephen Leatherman). I had no problem with such a claim, as all of us were immensely content with the balmy and crystal-clear water (even in December), the soft and fine sand that caresses, and the refreshing, crisp breeze. Out on the sea, there was steady trade wind, which makes Kailua beach a prime spot for windsurfing and kite surfing.

 

The North Shore is considerably more windy and intense. The famous massive waves make it the holy playground for surfing. In fact this is where the world's major surfing competitions (the Triple Crown of Surfing) are held every December. And if you care to remember, this was where David Hasselhoff flashed his (nearly) 50-year old muscle while surrounded by hot swimsuit babes the age of his daughter in Baywatch Hawaii some 10 years ago. That made him the envy of every American man, especially those who were still struggling through their mid-life crisis. This is a place that makes you feel magically young.

 

Hanauma Bay, on the other hand, offers a different kind of fun. It's a bit short on hot swimsuit babes, but in its equable and shallow water is probably the single largest fish population you can find in any one spot in the State of Hawaii, which makes Hanauma Bay the best snorkeling beach in Hawaii. The bay is actually a crater from a volcanic eruption some 32,000 years ago. After ages of erosion, what remains of the cone today are two protective arms of tuff surrounding the crater, forming a perfectly serene harbor for the 400 species of fishes inhabiting the bay. Well, I don't plan to recount the marine creatures I came across here, since most of the Hawaiian fish species can be found in my earlier Maui II page; but I have to say, it was quite a riveting world down there.

 

The best known beach of them all, however, has to be Waikiki, the beach front of the city of Honolulu. Back in the days of the old O'ahu Kingdom, Waikiki was known to be a favorite royal retreat. It's not difficult to see why. The 1.5-mile picturesque white sand beach has shallow water clam enough for stand up paddling near the shore. Further away the gentle surf with long rolling break is perfect for longboarding. In the backdrop, an imposing Diamond Head tuff cone completes the perfect postcard beach scene.

 

But then you look the other direction and realize that the beach is of course no longer royal; it has been taken over by clusters of resorts and hotels and shopping malls, which makes Waikiki the most crowded beach in Hawaii. But crowdedness is of course a relative term. Even during the supposedly busiest holiday season, we found plenty of personal space to stretch out and enjoy tanning on the beach -- I'm not sure I can say that in Santa Monica or Halfmoon Bay. Besides, where else you can find such a splendid beach front view with an arc of raining hanging right outside your window?

 

Or where else can you enjoy such rich sunset, savoring the bright orange blaze quenching into the ocean while sipping a cup of hot tea right from you balcony?

 

 

And there were not just the beaches. All along the coast were picturesque rocky shorelines that testify the violent volcanic activities as well as massive landslides in a distant past too remote to be interpreted in mortal terms. But if you look closely, those dingy rippling lava rocks look so viscous and fluid, as if they were just flash-frozen from sizzling magma a moment ago.

 

And there were plenty of unexpected diversions along the waterfront. For instance, this rocky tide pool we spotted along the way had us trapped for hours. Look, have you ever suspected that so many small and fascinating creatures can be hidden in these ankle-deep puddles? Little flagtails, gobies, puffer fishes, various species of tiny crabs, all incredibly sneaky and evasive as we walked by.

 

But if you are determined to pick up something, you can always find a sea cucumber, sea slugs, or even a thorny piece of sea urchin.

 

While we're on the topic, I should get on the new wildlife images taken in Oahu. The Red-footed Booby (Sula sula, 1st 4 pix) looks kind of stupid and clumsy on land, but once take off, it's as graceful and agile as anything. A similar bird is the Brown Booby (Sula leucogaster, last 2 pix).

 

The Great Frigatebird (Fregata minor) is a relative of pelicans; but being pitch dark with sleek long wings (up to 7.5ft / 2.4m in span), slim and deeply forked tails, and an wickedly extrusive hooked beak, it's far more vigorous, majestic and menacing. Hawaiian myth has it, the sight of a frigatebird signifies someone's death. To make the outfit more dramatic, male frigatebirds (pix 1-4, in the other 2 pix is a female) feature a blood-red throat pouch that would inflate during mating season as a secondary sexual trait -- it reminds me of that threatening red dot on the belly of a Black Widow. But frigatebirds are actually harmless -- to human that is. In fact, considering that they can't swim, can't walk very well, can't take off from a flat surface, can't live without parental care for the first 11 months of their lives (the longest of any bird) -- they are pretty lame for a shore bird. However, they are the best at what they do. Can't walk? Never mind. With the highest wingspan to body weigh ratio, frigatebirds can pretty much live in the air, sometimes staying levitated for over a week, as if there is no gravity. Can't swim? So what? With remarkable speed and maneuverability frigatebirds can snatch their prey right from water surface or on the beach, or occasionally rob other seabirds with their catch. When there is a warm updraft on the tropical ocean, frigatebirds love to ride on the weather front to stay afloat. So the sight of a frigatebird hovering high above is more of a sign of weather change rather than a death omen.

 

Golden Plover (Pluvialis fulva, 2 pix), Cattle Egret (Bubulcus ibis, 2 pix), and a Ruddy Turnstone (Arenaria interpres, last 2 pix ) .

 

More waterfowls. A Hawaiian Moorhen (Gallinula chloropus sandvicensis, 3 pix), a Black-crowned Night Heron (Nycticorax nycticorax, 2 pix), and a Hawaiian Duck (Anas wyvilliana, an endemic species, last pic ).

 

Common Myna (Acridotheres tristis, 1st pic) is one of the worst invasive species in the world. It's loud, aggressive, and ubiquitous in Oahu. Next is a Red-crested Cardinal (Paroaria coronata, 2nd pic ), a Japanese White-eye (Zosterops japonicus, 3rd pic), a House Finch (Carpodacus mexicanus, 4th pic), a Common Waxbill (Estrilda astrid, 5th pic), and a House Sparrow (Passer domesticus, last pic ).

 

Believe it or not, these little Indian Mongoose (Herpestes javanicus, 3 pix) has been on the top of the foodchain in Hawaii ever since its introduction in 1883. It's pretty much a pest nowadays, endangering a large number of native species: birds, insects, reptiles such as this even mammals of larger sizes. In the next 2 pix is a Brown Anole (Lepidodactylus lugubris). In the last pic is a Green Sea Turtle (Chelonia mydas).

 

 

This last session is on the Polynesian Cultural Center on the North Shore. Although the name sounds almost like an academic institution, the place is actually a Polynesian-theme amusement park. It was on the “must-go” list of many Oahu tour guides, but to be honest, I was not particularly fond of it – not because it’s uninteresting or poorly-managed, but because its religious root, albeit carefully concealed, made me uncomfortable. The park is owned by the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints and located right next to Brigham Young University-Hawaii. I don’t know if it’s just me or what, but it doesn’t feel right to leave the creation of a cultural center in the hand of a religious group, let alone a primitivist church. Can you really trust a Restorationist group to present a conquered pagan culture without bias? Not too sure. Come to think of it, weren’t some of the worst vandalism and cultural genocide in history done in the name of religions (the burning of Jerusalem and demolishing of Buddha of Bamiyan pop into mind)?

 

To be fair I couldn’t smell anything particularly propagandistic or religious on the exhibitions and the shows, which was more than what I can say about those earnest young men in white shirts and black pants on bicycles, who knock on your door to chat about Jesus and the Book of Mormon from time to time. But on the other hand I couldn’t say the exhibitions and the shows were authentic and unbiased either, without sufficient knowledge on the subject. What I did noticed, however, were some small inevitable nuisance when the whole thing was run by the LDS: the employees were mostly BYU students, who habitually called everyone cousin or family, which seemed an odd practice outside a Mormon church; alcohol was not allowed in the park, so good luck washing those expensive but sensationally tasteless Luau down your throat; a Jesus statue hung in the visitor center – I wondered what their shaman would say about that? But the most annoying of all, the place was closed on Sunday (so everyone could go to the Sunday service). Can you imagine that? A amusement park being close on Sunday!? It pissed me off after wasting a couple of hours on driving in an otherwise cheerful Sunday morning.

 

So we had to return the next day, and tried to make peace with the place. Firstly we got to take the religious factor out of the assessment. Mind you the American are excessively religious among the people of developed counties; 80% of American declared themselves religious (compared to only 52% in EU countries), and 76% identified themselves as Christian; so there's probably no need to be overly critical on the park's LDS affiliation in such a overwhelmingly Christian country. Secondly we had to tune our expectation a bit lower. Just don't seek scholarly insight into the Polynesia cultures of but ask for no more than what the park really is: a Polynesian-theme Disneyland for some noisy celebration. Take the daily boat parade for an example; it's supposedly a display of the traditional Polynesian outfits and dance moves of various Pacific Islands (Fiji, Samoa, Hawaii, Tonga, Tahiti, Aoteroa etc.). In order to enjoy it, remember to maintain a Disneysque frame of mind, suppress any urge of scrutinize the little details (the Caucasian boatman were apparently coming from Utah; the Tongan look way too skinny to be considered beautiful; and gosh those cheesy choreography...), relax and blend into the blatancy with your three-year old son. Look at the bright side, our patronage are probably helping these poor amateur dancers getting their college degrees in that little Mormon college next door -- I bet they would stand much less chance of getting properly educated if they stay behind in their home islands. Besides, it wasn't all bad. Those bright yellow Tahitian girls were reasonably good-looking, presumably owing to their French lineage. So there was a happy ending for the day.

 

 

So this is it for our delightful Oahu trip. For a vacation spot, the island doesn't disappoint with its typical Hawaiian basking weather and natural beauty. What sets Oahu apart, however, is a pleasant dose of metropolitan sophistication, and plenty of historic and cultural diversions. These are probably the main reasons why Oahu is the most popular and populous Hawaiian island by far. In addition to its 953,000 residence (75% of Hawaiian population), the island accomodates some 5 million visitors annually, and thus can live up to its name -- Oahu in Hawaiian means "the gathering place."

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