Wednesday, January 31, 2001
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Posted on: Wednesday, January 31, 2001

A touch of Japan at Kona's Manago

By Bob Krauss
Advertiser Staff Writer

KONA, Hawaii — Little did I know when I made reservations at the Manago Hotel up mauka in Kona, on the road to the volcano, that it would be a one-of-a-kind experience.

I slept in the only Japanese hotel room in Hawaii. No chairs. Elegant tatami mats instead of carpet. A futon instead of a bed. A tiny furo to soak in for a hot bath.

You can sleep there, too, at modest expense. But get your reservation in early. The room is booked a year in advance.

Harold Manago, son of the immigrant couple who founded the hotel in 1917, told me the story of the room. It’s as charming as the history of the hotel.

When Harold built a three-story addition in the back years ago, he had the contractor fix up an end room on top in the Japanese style, to honor his father and mother.

At considerable expense, he imported a gnarled toko-bashira, or good-luck post, to set off one wall. It came wrapped in 2 inches of newspaper, Manago recalled.

Beside the toko-bashira hangs one of his parents’ scrolls, depicting a seacoast with pine trees. His mother’s tiny vanity sits 10 inches off the floor in one corner with a tall, narrow mirror. There’s a zabuton in front for a woman to kneel on while primping.

"My mother stayed there one night and said she didn’t like it," Harold said. "She went back to her old room. My son, Dwight, began renting out the room."

The Hawaii Hotel Association doesn’t know of another Japanese hotel room in Hawaii. I called the exclusive Diamond Resort Hawaii, a Japanese Club Med on Maui, on a tip — but manager Kioko Kimura said the rooms have beds, though they can be removed for futons.

Besides, an ocean view at the Diamond Resort costs $340 a night. The Japanese room at the Manago rents for $67.

The Manago reminds me of that best seller of years ago, "Japanese Inn." But Japanese tradition in Kona got mixed up with palm trees and sugar cane.

Harold said that when his parents wanted a good-luck post in their new hotel back in 1917, all they could afford was a coconut log. The contractor soaked it in the ocean to keep termites out, and it’s still in the lobby, hard as a rock, probably the only coconut toko-bashira in the universe.

A photo nearby shows the original hotel on a dirt road, with a touring car, top down, parked in front. Several men in stiff black suits, wearing fedoras, stand on the lanai.

Harold said they were Hamakua Plantation workers who got a bonus and decided to take a once-in-a-lifetime trip around the island: three days by taxi with stops at the Manago and in Hilo.

At that time, hotels in Kona were up mauka. Tourists put up at the Wall and Paris Hotels down the road. The Manago survived on salesmen and government workers.

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