My Honolulu: My Year of Writing About 15 Ethnic Festivals in Hawai‘i

Shot put, grass skirts, Korean pancakes and andagi.
jayna andagi okinawan festival
One of Jayna's favorite parts of each ethnic festival is the food, especially the andagi and andadog at the okinawan festival.
Photo: Courtesy of Jayna Omaye


2019 was a year of firsts for me—the first time seeing a traditional shot put competition at the Hawaiian Scottish Festival (my only reference to the sport up until this point was Ms. Trunchbull in Matilda). I fulfilled my childhood dream of attending the Merrie Monarch Festival in Hilo. I learned what good Korean pancakes taste like at the Korean Festival. And an honorable mention: waiting in line for less than 10 minutes for andagi at the Okinawan Festival. The list goes on.


My mission in 2019 was to learn as much as I could about Hawai‘i’s unique ethnic festivals scene. It started with a feature on Honolulu’s ethnic festivals in our January 2019 issue. I followed five of these cultural celebrations as each sought bold changes while keeping traditions alive. I spent a lot of time with the volunteers, whose passion and love for their cultures inspired me to reconnect with my Japanese heritage and join a taiko studio. The story was fittingly called “A Journey of Ethnic Proportions.”


As part of that feature, I compiled a list of 21 ethnic festivals on O‘ahu. During my research, I was surprised to find so many and of such diversity—from Chinese, Japanese and Korean to Scottish, Hawaiian, Greek, Portuguese, Hispanic and Native American. Some of them, such as the Pan-Pacific and Honolulu festivals, celebrated multiple cultures at one event. I know there aren’t festivals for every single group in Hawai‘i, but I was impressed with the mix. The more I learned, the more invested I became.



Twelve months later, I had written 20 stories online and in print about 15 ethnic festivals, slowly ticking each off my checklist. That list includes 12 ultimate guides, my January feature and its three sidebars. That means I wrote almost two stories a month on these cultural celebrations.


But it wasn’t enough to just write about these events. I had to see and experience them, too. So, many weekends were spent driving around the island popping into as many as I could—Seven, to be exact.


And it seems like a pretty popular topic: Seven of my 10 most-read stories in 2019 were about these cultural celebrations. From ultimate guides to deeper stories, I tried to mix the fun with the serious.


For Story No. 10 on the list, I wrote about the history of the Cherry Blossom Festival. Last year marked 20 years since festival organizers changed the event’s blood-quantum requirement. Until 1999, queen contestants had to be full Japanese. Now, the festival requires 50% Japanese ancestry. I interviewed some of the people who advocated for the change and found out how that impacted the event and its significance in the Japanese American community.



In my Ultimate Guide to Watching the 2019 Merrie Monarch Festival, I included a few things that I look for and are important to note during each performance. I’m not an expert (I started dancing hula 20 years ago), but it’s important to appreciate the significance of what goes into every single performance, down to the color and size of each feather and leaf adorning the dancers. That story made it to No. 6 on the list.


While writing my feature on Honolulu’s ethnic festivals, I learned how to make andagi from some of the Okinawan Festival’s longtime volunteers. It’s much harder than it looks and requires a massive operation and precise measurements (see me attempt this in @honolulumag’s “Festivals” story highlight on Instagram). So, while you’re waiting in what seems like an endless line for andagi, appreciate how hard these folks are working. Check out my Ultimate Guide to the 2019 Okinawan Festival, which made it to No. 2.



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At No. 7 is my Ultimate Guide to the 2019 Festa Italiana, the newest cultural festival in the Islands. At the event, I loved listening to the opera singers, checking out the European luxury cars (that I could never afford) and, of course, stuffing my face at the food booths filled with dairy and carbs. I’m lactose intolerant, so this festival was a big YOLO moment for me. It was so worth it.


As we ring in a new year, one of my resolutions is to learn even more about Hawai‘i’s unique diversity. That means I’ll be hitting up and writing about more ethnic festivals. My goal is to make it to every single one on O‘ahu. It may take me a few years, but I’ll get there. Hope to see you at one (or two or more!) in 2020.


Read my 20 stories and go on your own journey of ethnic proportions:



Read more stories by Jayna Omaye