Liliuokalani Gardens: Hilo’s Japanese Garden by the Sea

By Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi
liliuokalani gardens, hilo

Pagodas, stone lanterns, arched bridges, ponds, streams and abundant greenery make Liliuokalani Gardens a great place to relax. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/ Tor Johnson.

If it weren’t for three women, one of Hilo’s most popular gathering places might not have been. In 1907, Queen Liliuokalani, Hawaii’s last reigning monarch, donated five acres bordering Hilo Bay for a public park. A decade later, the territorial legislature’s Committee on Public Lands and Internal Improvements increased the designated land to 17 acres.

Ground was broken for Liliuokalani Gardens, named in honor of the Queen, in November 1917, the same month, sadly, that she died. It opened in 1919; the exact date is not known.

Stone Lanterns, Stone Sculptures and Torii Gates

liliuokalani gardens, hilo

Pagodas, stone lanterns, arched bridges, ponds, streams and abundant greenery make Liliuokalani Gardens a great place to relax. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/ Tor Johnson.

Throughout the park are stone lanterns, stone sculptures and torii gates recalling the Japanese immigrants who came to Hawaii beginning in 1868 to work on sugar plantations. Camellia, azalea and black pine—species that flourish in Japan—are among the abundant greenery.

Also notable is a traditional teahouse named Shoroan (“Pine Ocean Breeze”). Although it wasn’t built until 1972, the idea for it came from Hilo Fujin Shinkokai (Hilo Japanese Women’s Friendship Association), which was formed a few years after Liliuokalani donated land for the park.

Mrs. T. Machida, whose family owned a drugstore in Hilo at the time, was the first president of the group whose mission was to help beautify the city. Under her leadership, members raised money to build Liliuokalani Gardens and, by 1916, had imported two stone lanterns from Japan for it.

Gazebos and Arched Bridges

liliuokalani gardens, hilo

A couple enjoys a stroll in the park at Liliuokalani Gardens in Hilo. Photo: Hawaii Tourism Authority/ Tor Johnson.

The third woman who played an instrumental role in the park’s development was Laura Kennedy, whose husband, Charles, was president of the Hilo Board of Trade (which later became the Chamber of Commerce). In 1914, the couple joined a group of Honolulu businessmen on a trip to Japan. Kennedy was particularly impressed with Kinkakuji Temple in Kyoto, known for its golden pavilion and gorgeous gardens. She thought Hilo’s new park could reflect the same type of landscaping and gave generously of her time, money and resources to fulfill that vision.

Today, Liliuokalani Gardens is a 24.5-acre oasis with gazebos, arched bridges, paths winding over tidepools and lava flows and spectacular views of Hilo Bay, historic downtown Hilo and Mokuola (“island of life”), an islet that in ancient times was the site of a temple dedicated to healing.

The park is open year-round, and admission is free. For details about its centennial, which will be observed through 2019, go to www.facebook.com/friendsofliliuokalanigardens.

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