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For superfans, festival is a yearly pilgrimage

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  • Tetsushi and Mihoko Uno from Kobe, Japan, have attended the Merrie Monarch Festival every year since 2005. The couple lived in Honolulu from 2004 to 2008 and grew to love Hawaiian culture. (Courtesy photo)

Getting tickets and a place to stay takes advance planning

They’re young and old, from all walks of life, from all around the world. Each year, they clear their calendar the week after Easter so they can experience firsthand the excitement and pageantry of hula’s most prestigious event. They save the programs, buy the logo totes and T-shirts, and cheer their favorite halau with the enthusiasm of football spectators rooting for their team at the Super Bowl.

They are Merrie Monarch superfans.

It’s not easy being a superfan of the annual Hilo festival. Although ticket prices for the three-day hula competition — from $15 to $30 — have not gone up dramatically through the years, getting one is another story. To score a ticket, you must mail in a request form postmarked the day after Christmas.

With only about 2,100 seats open to the public, festival organizers said they had to turn down about 7,000 ticket requests this year.

Getting airline and hotel reservations is another test. Hotel accommodations in Hilo are completely booked, having been reserved, in many cases, the day after the previous year’s festival.

Here are four superfans who refuse to be denied.


» Book your hotel and rental car at least six months in advance.

» Make flight arrangements at least three months in advance.

» Ticket purchases are handled by mail. Check the festival’s website ( for the instructions on requesting tickets. There are more requests than tickets, so submitting a request doesn’t guarantee it will be fulfilled.

» If you don’t get tickets, ask around or go to the events before the competition with a sign that says “Seeking tickets” or something similar. Tickets might be available from people who bought them but aren’t able to attend. You can also go to the Edith Kanaka‘ole Multi-Purpose Stadium at least an hour before the performances start to see whether anyone is selling tickets at the entrance.

» Volunteer to help a halau in exchange for a seat in their reserved section. You might be asked to do everything from cooking and ironing to running errands.

» Hiloans throw Merrie Monarch TV-viewing parties all around town. Befriend a few of them and you might be able to snag an invitation to the festivities at their home.

» There’s much more to the weeklong festival than the competition, so even if you don’t have tickets, go anyway. Events include a craft fair, parade and free midday entertainment at the Hilo Hawaiian Hotel, the Hawaii Naniloa Volcanoes Resort and the Afook-Chinen Civic Auditorium. A complete schedule is posted on the festival website.

ADRIENNE Kaeppler has been making the annual pilgrimage to Hilo every year since she attended her first festival in 1980. Every year, before she checks out of the Dolphin Bay Hotel near the waterfront, she books the same room for the next year.

The Wisconsin native, curator of oceanic ethnology at the Smithsonian Institution’s National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., earned her undergraduate and graduate degrees in anthropology at the University of Hawaii. When she joined Bishop Museum’s staff in 1965, her colleague Pat Namaka Bacon encouraged her to study hula.

Among Kaeppler’s esteemed kumu were Bacon; Bacon’s hanai mother, noted Hawaiian cultural authority Mary Kawena Pukui; and Kaui Zuttermeister, who judged Merrie Monarch competitions in the 1970s and 1980s.

It was Zuttermeister who urged Kaeppler to attend Merrie Monarch, as the experience would be valuable for her hula research.

“I became interested in hula pahu,” Kaeppler said. “My book, ‘Hula Pahu: Hawaiian Drum Dances,’ was published by Bishop Museum in 1982. When I went to the Smithsonian in 1980, I hadn’t finished the research for the book, so to maintain the relationships I’d developed with my sources in Hawaii, I decided to go to Merrie Monarch for at least a couple of years.”

She hasn’t missed a festival in the three decades since.

“As an anthropologist, I like seeing the changes the halau make in their costumes, adornments and movements,” Kaeppler said. “The older kumu think if you learned a dance from your teacher, you should perform it exactly that way. But the younger kumu want to do different things. I call their interpretations ‘contemporary traditional’ — a contemporary twist on traditional steps and gestures.”

Going to Merrie Monarch keeps Kaeppler connected with friends who share her interest in hula. “Because of Merrie Monarch,” she said, “I consider Hilo my second home.”

HONOLULU was home to Mihoko Uno and her husband, Tetsushi, from 2004 through 2008. During that time, Tetsushi served as president of Kintetsu International Express Hawaii, a subsidiary of Kinki Nippon Tourist, one of Japan’s largest travel companies.

The couple embraced the local lifestyle, grateful for every opportunity they had to learn and clear up their own misconceptions about the ancient art of hula and other traditional customs and practices. For example, before she lived in the islands, Uno thought hula was performed primarily as entertainment, not as the medium to preserve and perpetuate the stories and traditions of Hawaii.

Even though Tetsushi retired and the couple moved to Kobe, Japan, they have kept strong Hawaii ties and look forward to their annual vacations in the islands, which they plan around the Merrie Monarch Festival.

They have attended the festival every year since 2005.

“We like staying in bed-and-breakfasts, which my husband books on the Internet from Japan,” Uno said. “We don’t have one favorite; we’ve stayed in Pahoa, Keaau and Mountain View, all within a half-hour of Hilo. We don’t mind the drive and we enjoy discovering new places.”

Uno always reserves time for at least one presentation at the ‘Imiloa Astronomy Center.

“In 2011, I participated in a hula kahiko (traditional hula) workshop led by well-known kumu hula Nani Lim Yap,” she said. “We learned kahiko steps and one mele (song). It was fantastic!”

Merrie Monarch renews the Unos’ desire to continue their pursuit of knowledge of Hawaiian culture. In Kobe, Tetsushi is learning to play the ukulele at a community center near their home, and Uno belongs to a halau with 300 members ranging from 6-year-old keiki to elders in their 80s. They also host a study group in their home — on the third Tuesday of the month, the topic is Hawaiian music; and on the fourth Thursday, Hawaiian history and culture.

“The festival has shown us how people share Hawaii’s traditions,” Uno said. “It is done with aloha — hands to hands and hearts to hearts.”

LAURIE Rohrer and her husband, Jake, have been recording and producing the songs of Maui and Hawaii island entertainers under their Ululoa Productions label for 13 years. At the Merrie Monarch Festival, outside of work, Rohrer can relax and be simply a fan of the music she loves.

This is the 12th year the Haiku, Maui, resident will be attending the weeklong festival; she has been to the last nine in a row.

“I’m in Hilo from the start to the finish,” Rohrer said. “It’s exciting to be immersed in so many aspects of the Hawaiian culture, to run into musicians I know, to see what new lei and costumes are being worn. It’s a huge party and everyone is celebrating!”

Although Rohrer appreciates all the performances, she follows five halau in particular: Keali’i Reichel’s Halau Ke’alaokamaile, Halau Kekuaokala’au’ala’iliahi, under kumu hula ‘Iliahi and Haunani Paredes, and Halau Na Lei Kaumaka o Uka, under kumu hula Napua Makua and Kahulu Maluo-Huber, all from Maui; Johnny Lum Ho’s Halau o ka Ua Kani Lehua from Hilo; and the Academy of Hawaiian Arts from Oakland, Calif., under kumu hula Mark Keali’i Ho’omalu. She has favorite dancers, too, and through the years has noticed how they’ve evolved.

Rohrer herself has danced for 15 years as a way to learn about Hawaii’s history, culture and language.

“I don’t have Hawaiian blood, but I gain so much from the events and activities,” she said. “I always stay at Uncle Billy’s Hilo Bay hotel on Banyan Drive. It’s within walking distance of the major venues, and a few halau usually stay there, so you’ll see dancers practicing their oli (chants) and running down the halls with their hair in curlers.”

King David Kalakaua, the “Merrie Monarch” credited with reviving hula, once said, “Hula is the language of the heart, and therefore the heartbeat of the Hawaiian people.” Rohrer feels that sums up the significance of the festival that honors him.

“If you’re passionate about the Hawaiian culture, Merrie Monarch is where you can drink deeply from the source.”

Cheryl Chee Tsutsumi is an award-winning freelance writer whose “Hawaii’s Backyard” feature appears Sundays in the Star-Advertiser travel section. Star-Advertiser staff writer Nina Wu contributed to this story.

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