Inside Look: 2019 New Year’s ‘Ohana Festival

Our 10 tips for playing, eating and enjoying the free festival, plus, where to find spam musubi and the bathrooms.

Photo: Courtesy of the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i

Editor’s Note: This blog was first published in 2018. But all the details and tips have been updated to reflect the 2019 festival. 

My daughters are going through holiday withdrawal. Sabrina, 2, keeps pointing at neighborhood houses that were lit throughout December, asking “Christmas lights? Christmas lights?”

Fortunately, in Hawai‘i, another big holiday is on its way. The lunar new year begins Tuesday, Feb. 5 this year. The major celebrations in Chinatown will be in February, but the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i rings in the Year of the Boar this weekend with its big, free family festival. The 26th annual New Year’s ‘Ohana Festival is Sunday, Jan. 13 from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. and features taiko drums, music, free mochi samples, crafts, inexpensive kiddie games and a big field for the little ones to run through. 

Photo: Courtesy of The Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i.

There will be more than a dozen keiki games. Pick up a passport for $5 to play and win a prize.

If you’ve never attended this bustling festival, you can easily get lost navigating the multiple floors of the center, the courtyard and field area. We spoke to the center’s organizers to find out when to go, what to do and where to find everything from entertainment to the restrooms. 

Our 10 Tips

  1. As usual, go early or late. The busiest time is lunchtime. Between 11 a.m. and 1:30 p.m. you can also expect longer lines for the food including KC Waffle Dogs, okonomiyaki (a savory Japanese pancake), roasted corn, shave ice, ice cream and all kinds of Japanese foods from various local clubs. The Japanese Cultural Center will sell Sugoi bentos on the fifth floor. The least busy time is 2:30 to 4 p.m., but be aware that some food items may be sold out.
  2. Plot your path. The festival is spread out over two floors of the center and Mō‘ili‘ili Field across the street. A police officer will help people make safe crossings across the street. Take a look at the map available online. Crafters are on the ballroom level, along with the Sugoi bento sale and Year of the Boar T-shirts. The aikido, kendo, sumo and Japanese swords demonstrations and some cultural exhibits are in the dojo on the ground level. In the past, we found waiting for the elevator to take us from the ballroom to the ground level was fairly slow. The stairs were quicker. Quite a few performances, including singing, dancing, and Vacations Hawai‘i’s Las Vegas trip giveaway, are on the courtyard stage of the center The stage at Mō‘ili‘ili Field will host bigger performances including taiko, mochi pounding and the Royal Hawaiian Band. 
  3. Buy scrip for games and the bouncers.  You will need scrip for the keiki activities on Mō‘ili‘ili Field. You can purchase one scrip per dollar at two booths on the field, but the organizers say the booth at the center—located between the information and Honolulu Festival booths on the ground floor—has a much shorter line. Three bouncers will cost two scrip each. One of the best bargains is the keiki games. Buy a passport for five scrip, let the kids play 12 games, then redeem the stamped passport for a prize. You can also play three scrips for three make-and-take crafts.
  4. Pack sunscreen, lots of water and a mat or blanket. It can get hot on the field, especially when you’re waiting for keiki games or food. Seats at the shaded tables fill up quickly, so be prepared to picnic.
  5. Need a break? Head to the gallery. The Historical Gallery is not only air conditioned, but this year, kids can do an educational scavenger hunt, looking for clues through the exhibits detailing the story of Japanese immigrants in Hawai‘i. Okage Sama De is an easy-to-navigate exhibit where kids can walk across a boat’s wooden plank, walk through a street of Japanese storefronts, read, listen and experience what it was like for families during those plantation days. It usually costs $7 per adult, $5 for kids 6 to 17 years old. On Sunday, it is free. Tip: If you’ve been in it before, watch for the 2018 Little League World Series’ Champs memorabilia, new to the exhibit. 
  6. Get tickets early for the tea demonstration. The free tickets run out well before the demonstrations. Head to the fifth floor as soon as you arrive to get your space in the 10:30 a.m., 11:30 a.m.. 1, 2 or 3 p.m. spots.
  7. Arrive early for the mochi pounding. After the demonstrations at 11 a.m., noon and 1:30 p.m., free samples are given out. Expect a line.
  8. Know where to go. The center will have two bathrooms open to the public, on the ground floor near the dojo and upstairs near the ballroom. There will also be porta potties on the field, in case of emergencies.
  9. Park at the University of Hawai‘i. The spaces on Coyne Street fill up quickly. You can find shaded parking at the UH parking structure, then catch the free shuttle to the festival from 7:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
  10. Where’s the spam musubi? In case you were wondering, there is only one spot to get these keiki favorites: the Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i ‘s Sugoi bentos booth outside the center’s ballroom on the fifth floor.

2019 ‘Ohana Festival is Sunday, Jan. 13, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Japanese Cultural Center of Hawai‘i, 2454 South Beretania St. (808) 945-7633. or find the full map and list of events on