Story by Lynn Cook
Photo by Olivier Koning
Takeo Yoshikawa leans on the windowsill of a teahouse in ‘Alewa Heights, peering intently through a telescope pointed toward Pearl Harbor. Mrs. Fujiwara, who has allowed her tired customer to rest in a room above the teahouse, has no idea that Yoshikawa is a Japanese spy and that far from resting, he’s monitoring ship movements in the harbor just months before the bombing that brought the United States into WWII.
Fast-forward to 2011. Same room, same hillside. Lawrence Fujiwara Jr., third generation owner of the teahouse, looks out over a much more modern Honolulu as he repeats the story he was told as a boy. “My grandfather Shuuji Fujiwara built this place in 1921. He called it Shinchoro,” he says. “There was no road so he built one. He brought the materials up the hillside on his back and even put in his own utility poles.”
Lawrence Sr. took over the teahouse in 1958, renaming it Natsunoya, or “summer house.” It was an era when Honolulu had many Japanese teahouses, but over the years they disappeared. When he was ready to retire, Lawrence Sr. offered the last traditional teahouse in Hawai‘i to his son.
A Japanese teahouse serves much more than tea. For generations Natsunoya has been a place where families gather. Meals are pre-set and it’s BYOB. Guests may sit on tatami mats on the floor or in chairs at tables, served by kimono-clad women, some of whom have worked there for thirty or forty years.
Natsunoya remains a family operation: Lawrence Jr.’s mother, Emiko, still makes things run smoothly in her 70s. Lawrence Jr.’s son and three daughters help out, too. His wife, Kim, is an expert at making “happy hearts mochi.” The newly rebuilt sushi bar offers fish caught daily by the fishermen who have supplied the teahouse for generations.
If Natsunoya’s tatami mats could talk, they’d tell of John Wayne shooting a movie scene at Yoshikawa’s window, or of Honolulu judges who gathered in the back cottage to gamble and drink, or of politicians who used the teahouse phone number as their “satellite” office. Sometimes sumo wrestlers like Konishki come in, which is both an honor and a challenge: As Lawrence Jr. tells it, Konishiki “nearly eats us out of teahouse and home.”