I expected beaches and water when I came to Hawaii, but I was surprised by the beauty of its mountains. They are so sharp and stark — the only reference I had was that they looked like the misty mountains in Japanese prints. I enjoy my daily commute through the mountains from Kailua to Manoa, which often involves driving (or riding, in my case) through a cloud. So the opportunity to visit the Manoa Heritage Center was interesting to me both because I go to school in Manoa and because it tells the history of the Manoa valley.

The Center is actually a big, old house and a big backyard that just happens to contain a traditional sacred space called a heiau. Tucked into a residential neighborhood, you would walk or drive by without noticing anything of import. In a way, that’s appropriate. The significance of the Center is that it chronicles the way humans have lived in the Manoa Valley for centuries. It has always been a nice place to live, grow food and worship.

The heiau is an enclosure made of rock walls fitted together without mortar. It is said to have been built by inhabitants of the islands who pre-dated the ancestors of native Hawaiians, people called the Menehune. There were many such spaces on the islands. At one time, the Manoa valley had a dozen. But this heiau now is the last intact one in the area. It is small, which our guide said indicates it was an agricultural heiau, dedicated to rites promoting food production.

Visiting the Center is done only through organized tours. Our tour guide explained the history of the big house, itself on the National Register of Historic Places and home to one of the early western families who moved to Hawaii. Its flower garden is dedicated to a female native Hawaiian healer who saved the life of a very premature baby when western medicine failed. Our guide recounted how the heiau was saved from “development” twice. It commands a view of the valley that was recommended for the construction of the big house and again later for housing. Each time, descendents of the founding family thought it was more important to preserve the historic temple.

Surrounding the heiau is a demonstration garden that contains plants native to Hawaii and some that now live only here. There are signs so you can identify what you are looking at and the guide explains how the plants were used. Many of the plants are endangered or at-risk. She also gave a good description of the ahupua’a system of the native Hawaiians, in which districts ran from the mountains to the sea, providing livelihood and food for all in a communal arrangement.

The Center is very close to the hotel areas of Honolulu. The tour itself lasted about an hour. I can’t think of an easier or more informative way to experience a slice of Hawaii history in a morning or afternoon. The entry fee is modest: $7 for adults, $4 for seniors/military, children and students free! You will want to contact the Center in advance to arrange for the tour, however. You can do so through their website: http://www.manoaheritagecenter.org/Manoa_Heritage_Center/Home.html


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