Literary City Guide | Honolulu, HI

The loveliest fleet of islands that lies anchored in any ocean.
— Mark Twain, Roughing It in Hawaii

Tour Guide: Karen A. Iwamoto

Karen Bio Circle.jpg.jpg

Karen is a former journalist who grew up on the Big Island of Hawaii. She also lived in New Mexico, back when it was more famous for green chile than blue ice. She battles writers block at  –No 30–. (All photos by Karen A. Iwamoto.)


Relationship to Honolulu: Attended university here, moved away, moved back in 2009

Writer you'd like to invite to dinner: Barry Lopez, author of Arctic Dreams

Chef you'd like to prepare the meal: MFK Fisher, author of The Art of Eating

Writing soundtrack: Radiohead

Pen or Pencil: Pen, specifically the Uniball Jetstream 0.5, which forever changed my view of ballpoints.

Coffee or Tea: Tea

Paperback or Hardback: Both

Good Reads


Native Books—Na Mea Hawaii. This bookstore specializes in books by local authors and books about Hawaii and the Pacific. They also host workshops and talk-story sessions.  

Jelly’s Books. This used book/comic/music store can be found in the Kakaako neighborhood. This neighborhood has an artsy/urban vibe to it.  

Revolution Books. Revolution describes itself as “alive with a defiant spirit.” You’ll find books on atheism, science, politics, literature and poetry. It also hosts a book club and political panels/discussions.

Bookends. A local bookstore in Kailua that sells new and used books. You can find something to read then relax at Lanikai Beach Park, which is only a short drive or bike ride away.

Book Off. Japan-based discount bookseller located inside the Shirokiya department store at Ala Moana Shopping Center. They buy and sell new and used books, comics, manga and DVDs--in Japanese and English. While you’re there, head upstairs to Shirokiya’s food court and then wander through the rest of Ala Moana (this mall is huge).

Bill’s Bookmobile. The year-round bookstore for Friends of the Library Hawaii. It’s parked in the Kakaako neighborhood and stocks used books, magazines and DVDs.  


The Hawaii State Library. The flagship library on King Street is located next to Iolani Palace, the palace from which Hawaii’s last two reigning monarchs governed. Across the street is the Hawaii State Supreme Court and a statue of King Kamehameha I.


The University of Hawaii at Manoa. UH sponsors various literary and author events such as this year’s Haruki Murakami symposium, attended by the author.

Bamboo Ridge. This local, independent book publisher, hosts author readings and panels at various locations. The most recent workshop, titled The Do’s and Do’nots of Writing, took place at a doughnut shop.

M.I.A. Art & Literary Series. Author and poet readings and workshops the third Monday of every month at Fresh Café.

HawaiiSlam. A poetry slam the first Thursday of every month at Fresh Café.

The Friends of the Library Hawaii. This organization hosts an annual book sale for two weekends in June. The selection includes everything from popular fiction to rare first editions and all of the proceeds go to the state’s public libraries.

Hawaii Book and Music Festival. The annual festival held in May is a book lover’s dream: Author tents, book signings, book swaps, food, music, film, live entertainment, singer-songwriter competitions and writing contests.  


Go on a ghost tour with Lopaka Kapanui, protege to Hawaii’s late great ghost-story teller, Glen Grant (author of Obake Tales: Ghostly Encounters in Supernatural Hawaii).  

Surf Waikiki. Jack London’s article about surfing, “A Royal Sport: Surfing in Waikiki,” published in 1907, helped to re-popularize the sport at the turn of the 20th century.

Hike Diamond Head, the iconic volcanic crater that Mark Twain explored via horseback and chronicled in his book Roughing It In Hawaii.  

Run in the Honolulu Marathon (or just watch from the sidelines). Haruki Murakami ran his first Honolulu Marathon in 1983 and spends a lot of time running and training in Hawaii, some of which he described in his memoir What I Talk About When I Talk About Running.

Visit the Robert Louis Stevenson Memorial Grass Hut. Stevenson’s original grass hut--provided by the Hawaiian monarchy during his visits to the islands--was in Waikiki. It was eventually sold at auction to the Salvation Army of Hawaii, which relocated it to its headquarters in Manoa Valley. Note: The original hut was damaged some years back so the memorial hut is actually a replica.

Good Eats


Taste Tea. This is not a coffee shop but I’m including it anyway. You can choose from dozens of boba tea flavors and adjust the sweetness level of the tea. And they offer free samples.

Downtown Coffee. This spot caters to the downtown business crowd but the brew is high-quality and consistent. They also serve yummy, homemade lychee-flavored macaroons.

Island Brew Coffeehouse. This locally owned coffee shop is on the east side of the island. Grab a cup of coffee here then head over Makapuu Lighthouse for a light hike or Koko Head Crater for more of a challenge.

Mocha Java. Find Mocha Java in the Victoria Ward Shopping Center, just a few blocks away from Ala Moana Shopping Center. Lots of drink options and close to all the major shopping.

Morning Glass Cafe in Manoa. Any excuse to make the trip to Manoa Valley. Go early, this place is small and popular. And be warned: You’ll probably end up staying for breakfast.


Ah-Lang. Also known as The Angry Korean Lady restaurant. I am not kidding. This is a one-woman show and the proprietor has certain rules she expects customers to follow. (When I ate here, I scribbled down my own order and bused the table.) But it’s worth it for the food and the customers get a kick out of it.

The Pig and the Lady.  A restaurant in Chinatown and makes regular appearances at farmers markets. They serve gourmet Vietnamese street food inspired by the chef’s mother, who is from Vietnam.

Peace Cafe. I’m not a vegan but the all-vegan fare at Peace Cafe stands on its own. My favorite is the Heart & Seoul, a meatless, eggless take on bi bim bap that’s at least as good as the original dish. If I’m feeling indulgent, I’ll also order the kinako latte.

Morimoto Waikiki. Iron Chef Masaharu Morimoto’s restaurant.  

Yama's Fish Market. Load up on local favorites like lau lau, lomi salmon, poi and squid luau at Yama’s Fish Market.


Liliha Bakery. This is a classic. Generations have grown up craving their cream puff pastries.

Ono Pops are Brazilian poletas made with local or organic ingredients. They’re available at farmers markets and select grocery stores. The cute + creative packaging is a bonus.

Via Gelato. This spot makes creamy, inventive gelato flavors like shiso lemonade and fierce chocolate and serves it from a mobile truck.

Waiola Shave Ice. It may not be as well-known as the shave ice places on Oahu’s North Shore, but there’s always a line of customers slurping up their sweet, icy treats.

"When Hawaii was named the Paradise of the Pacific, it was inadequately named. The rest of the Seven Seas and the islands in the midst thereof should have been included along with Pacific.” 

-Jack London, Stories of Hawaii 




Karen's 5 Favorites

1. Favorite view: From a balcony overlooking the ocean at dusk. I can see the stars, the city lights, the boats bobbing out near the horizon, and the planes blinking overhead.

2. Favorite place to write: At home in bed, but there’s also a rooftop garden at my office that provides a good mid-day reading or writing escape during the work week.

3. Favorite museum: I really want to take a guided tour of Doris Duke’s Shangri La.  

4. Favorite coffee shop: My favorite “coffee shop” is a smoothie place called Jewel or Juice. I always end up here, usually ordering the jasmine tea smoothie or the green mango smoothie. I hear they also serve a delicious acai bowl.

5. Favorite thing about Honolulu: Beautiful beaches, gorgeous hikes, generally nice people, all the accommodations of a big city—and it’s a 30-minute plane ride to the neighboring islands. One caveat: The rush hour traffic is terrible, like rival-Los-Angeles terrible.