Daily Archives: 3 January 2007

Wordcatcher Tales: Mō’ili’ili, Ishizuchi

For our first meal of the (solar) Year of the Pig, the Far Outliers pigged out on Chinese dimsum at Honolulu’s Chinese Cultural Plaza with old family friends from China who have since immigrated to Hawai‘i. Later that afternoon, I took a long walk through Honolulu’s old Japan town, Mō‘ili‘ili, with camera in hand (see Flickr for more photos). If I have time, I’d like to put together a neighborhood blogpost à la Dumneazu. In the meantime, all I can offer is a bit of etymological talk-story. It all starts with lava rock.

Mō‘ili‘ili gets its Hawaiian name from the small, round pebbles (‘ili‘ili) of lava that were washed down by Mānoa Stream, which has flooded many times, most recently during October 2004, when it destroyed basements and ground floors of several crucial buildings on the campus of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, including the medical school and the graduate research library. According to UH geographer Abraham Piianaia, the area had been referred to as Ka moana ‘ili‘ili ‘the pebble sea’, Ka moku ‘ili‘ili ‘the pebble district’, or Ka mo‘o (‘aina) ‘ili‘ili ‘the pebble (land) parcel’. Ka mō‘ili‘ili is a contraction of the latter two. However, the place name later came to be associated with Polynesian legends of the lizard (mo‘o), and the folk etymology for the name is ‘pebble lizard‘.

In addition to its pebbles, Mō‘ili‘ili was known for its underlying limestone karst from raised coral and its overlying ridges of volcanic Sugarloaf basalt, which provided the stone for many a building in Honolulu, most notably the New England–style sanctuaries of Central Union Church in neighboring Makiki. The Mō‘ili‘ili Quarry employed mostly Japanese workers, whose families lived nearby, turning the neighborhood into Honolulu’s Japantown during the 1920s and 1930s.

Back in those days, Japanese speakers called the quarry face Ishiyama ‘Rock Mountain’, and “the Quarry” is still how everyone refers to what’s officially known as the Lower Campus of the University of Hawai‘i at Mānoa, which is now filled with a huge multistory parking lot and sprawling athletic facilities.

Ishizuchi 石鎚 ‘rock hammer’ is the name of the tiny Shinto shrine not far from the Quarry, a name I thought most fitting after I deciphered it. There are a lot of Buddhist temples of various sects in the neighborhood, and at least a couple of Christian churches with strong Japanese American membership (Church of the Crossroads and Olivet Baptist Church).

The shrine was all decked out on New Year’s Day (top photo). Unlike most Japanese shrines, but in harmony with its geographical and cultural environment, the purification trough (bottom photo) was made of lava rock and offered paper towels to dry off with.

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Filed under Hawai'i, Japan, language