Tea Houses: Old Japan In Hawaii

Tea Houses: Old Japan In Hawaii

To hear the pleasant non-sound of running water from a sparkling stream is a relaxing mind massager. To feel a cool breeze wafting in from the still water of a manicured pond becomes a blessing in humid Hawaii. To see the lovely green textures of a garden tamed from lush tropical plants and volcanic rock extends the horizons of ordinary vision. To drink from an icy cocktail and to savor a soft morsel of sashimi before a sumptuous Japanese meal, served by gracious kimono-clad waitresses in a luxurious private dining room is the epitome of the teahouse experience.

In the past, at least a dozen busy teahouses flourished on this island. Today, there are only four places on Oahu that could qualify in providing that kind of peaceful dining. The demise of the Japanese teahouse in Hawaii is partly the result of the nature of the place itself. The staff of an eating establishment that promises to cater to the needs of each diner must be large and ready for all possibilities. The grounds need a crew of garden experts. The delights of authentic Japanese cuisine demand painstaking attention and an agile kitchen staff. In all, the teahouse setting is labor-intensive in an era when labor is not only expensive, but also disinclined to loyalty for its own sake. When families were large and nearby housewives could be easily persuaded to work as extra waitresses on busy evenings, the old teahouse managers were always able to press relatives or neighbors into service.

In 1984, people who run teahouses here must rely on longtime employees who have had years of experience in their field. When they retire, there are few people willing to replace them. Even the owners, who traditionally would arrange ikebana, or floral arrangements, for their guests’ enjoyment, are hard-pressed to find the time to take care of niceties, which were formerly considered essential.

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