The Evolution of the Hilo Sampan

When I first arrived in Hilo in l962 it was on a sailboat. We lived on the boat for a few weeks–the only boat in Reed’s Bay. We had no means of transportation other than walking which became a burdensome chore when grocery shopping or looking for boat parts, etc. To the rescue came the Hilo Sampan.  The original sampan was built in 1922 by Mr. Kurumoto who at the time was a taxi driver. He was distraught over the increasing fares for taxis so decided to build a small bus-style vehicle that would seat up to 8 people. This was in 1922 and he used a model A Ford for his first Sampan. The car was cut just behind the drivers seat, the back was rebuilt with wooden seats along both sides. As his friends thought he was nuts, they decided not to go into the venture so Mr. Kurumoto was the only owner of the Hilo Sampan Co.  The fare for the ride into town from the pier or airport was 5-10 cents.  In 1962 the fare was still 5-10 cents, but by now there were about 200 sampan on the island, mostly in the bay front town of Hilo on the island of Hawai’i, affectionately called “The Big Island”. The Sampans were so much fun to ride. They were open-air jitneys and reminded me of a “Surrey With the Fringe on Top” though they frequently had surfboards on top. The drivers knew more about the town than anyone. They would point out all the places of interest…the clock that stopped when the 1960 tidal wave hit, the old historic buildings. They would “wala’au” just talk story with you. And, once they got to know us they would pick us up at Reed’s Bay. Talk about service!  Unfortunately, when Ford, Chevrolet, Dodge, etc. started building buses that were air-conditioned, had padded seats and big windows, the Sampans started losing favor among the tourists. Slowly the fleet started dwindling. It became more difficult to find parts for the old vehicles and in t976 the last Sampan roamed the town of Hilo.

From Car Connection
From Car Connection


From Pacific Business News
From Pacific Business News

Hoppa On- Hoppa Off Bus

Years later in 1994 there was a revival of the Sampan and three of them once again chugged along the streets of Hilo, but costs of re-fitting the cars, and a lack of interest on the part of tourists, once again the Sampans were out of business.

However, recently I have seen a bus that has the old Sampan flavor about it. It is brightly colored, has big windows with a little surrey type awning above them. It offers trips around to all the points of interest all day for $15. The bus is called Hoppa On-Hoppa Off Bus. It was parked just up the street from my house in Hawaiian Paradise Park. There it sat for a couple of months. I was to understand that permits for passengers were pending. But, lately, I’ve seen the jitney picking up passengers from the cruise ships. Most of them open the windows to enjoy the Hilo breezes. I’m quite sure they are getting a talk-story session from the driver. It might not be as fancy as the newer air-conditioned buses, but the fare is right, it has a lot more personality and I hope he stays in business for years to come. Maybe this is a “great grandchild” of the original Sampan.


23 thoughts on “The Evolution of the Hilo Sampan

  1. What a wonderful story and group of pictures. My husband and I vacation (and own property) on Beaver Island MI. We dream about a business that would include something similar only with environmentally friendly power. I actually forwarded this on to my hubbie – now he’ll enjoy it.

  2. As always, a great read, Kiihele! I think that the uniqueness of the Hoppa On – Hoppa Off vehicle would be the best inducement to take them up on their great, and economical, offer. I do hope that among their stories they tell the passengers about the history of their little business. It is intriguing, and one would hope of interest to those who are vacationing in this tropical paradise with so much interesting history to learn.

  3. Donna Gordon

    Carol, I have always enjoyed your writing because it is so informative. I’m currently turning out articles for “Ezine Articles”. Google it and get in on the fun. We share the same interests. I’m going into doll designing and intend to set up with Etsy. I’m in North Carolina visiting my son and family. We’re in the backwoods and the trails to walk are wonderful. I worked on one doll for my grand daughter and I plan more. My friend LeeAnn might add her custom-made aprons. And yes, I want to buy something from your site. Your pictures are beautiful and so are you. I went to Roanoke Island and visited Elizabethan Gardens and travelled many waterways. I went to the 1700 town of Williamsburg. Sunday we’re touring Norfolk (I lived there when very young) and I’m returning home on February 7th. God Bless. Donna Gordon

  4. Aloha Donna, how fun to hear from you and I will stop by and visit your eZine. I think of all the states I’ve been to No. Carolina is one of my favorites. My exes family was from there so we went several times over the years. I’m so glad you’re getting out to the points of interest, etc. How fun for you. And, as for an Etsy shop, go for it! I has been such an adventure for me I can’t begin to tell you. Sign up to follow my blog as I add to it a couple of times a week. Love you…Carol

  5. What a great story! I would personally prefer to travel in an old Sampan. That sounds much more fun and adventurous than a boring tourist bus. I guess I would have to settle for the colorful bus. Someday I will travel to Hawaii which is on my long list of places to visit! Thank you for stopping by my blog. 🙂 ~Val

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  7. I had to look at this post again to see what the heck CARS was talking about – seems a bit off subject, like they wanted to promote a link. But I enjoyed the story and pics again the second time round.

      1. I think CARS was just doing a Google search for vehicles and sending out a message. No relevancy at all.

        I’m loving Maui. It’s very different, but so beautiful and now that I’m learning my way around, a lot less stressful. Yesterday while driving to town I got a very strong fragrance wafting into my car, so I stopped to see what it was. There on the side of the road were three pikake trees (them smell like night-blooming jasmine). The wind was blowing the flowers off the trees and the ground had a blanket of little white fragrant flowers. I love it!!!

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    1. You should read some of my earlier posts. Right now I’m discovering Maui as I just moved from the Big Island. But, I will continue to share. Thank you for “listening in”.

      1. Aloha,
        Found your page and thought I would give you an update on Sampan Buses.
        I own a “Pink & White” beauty. I just finished phase one of restoration and displayed her at the Ironman World Championship parade in Kona, Tuesday
        Oct 8th. The look on everyones’ face was worth the 6 years of work. ( I was a stockbroker had no idea about restoreing cars).
        I plan to take her to schools on the Big Island and talk to kids about the Sampans influence in Hilo history.

  9. Thank you so much for the update. How fun!!! I use to just love riding them all over town and was so sad to see them fade out. I imagine seeing one in the parade brought back a flood of memories for a lot of people.

  10. dave

    Hi there. Great post. However, I think you might be referring to Mr. “Kusumoto,” rather than “Kurumoto” as the originator of the sampan. I only mention that, because my great-grandfather, Fukumatsu Kusumoto, is sometimes referred to as the originator of the Sampan. thanks for a great blog!

  11. Oh my goodness, I will try and edit the piece. I’ve always been so taken with the sampans. I remember riding in them for this first time back in 1963. It seems like it was about 10 cents a ride! I loved them. I was so sad to see them go.

  12. Apparently after posting, there is no way to edit. I hope that people who read the blog will read the comments as well. If you know how to edit a previous post, please let me know!

  13. I almost never leave a response, however i did some searching and wound up here
    The Evolution of the Hilo Sampan | sewmehawaii. And I do have a few questions for you if you do not mind.
    Is it only me or does it give the impression like some of
    these remarks come across like they are left by brain dead individuals?
    😛 And, if you are posting on other social sites, I’d like to follow
    everything fresh you have to post. Could you list of every one
    of all your social pages like your Facebook page, twitter feed, or linkedin profile?

  14. I’m afraid I don’t have a lot of time for much posting. I’m working full time and also trying to keep up with my on-line shop ( It tends to leave me little time for anything else. I do plan on doing a little better and am getting ready (as soon as I get some photos) to do a piece on Kihei and Wailea…two regions next to each other with entirely different personalities. So, keep that in mind and I will try to blog a little more often.

    Mahalo for reading my blog, Breanne. I appreciate any feedback.

    Aloha no,


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  17. Mahalo for reading my blog. I do wish I had time for more as I love to write. I usually wait until I have photos, but I think there will be times when I will just put my thoughts down.

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