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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, March 4, 2002

Kaua'i group plans to restore Buddhist site

By Jan TenBruggencate
Advertiser Kaua'i Bureau

LAWA'I, Kaua'i — The rugged hillside, shaded by eucalyptus and banyans, looks like something out of another time.

Takano Nonaka, 97, has been praying for 60 years at the Lawa'i Valley Shingon shrines, which she credits for keeping her sons safe at war. Her son Iwao is a board member of the group restoring the site.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

It is.

Miniature temples, established a century ago by Japanese immigrants of the 1,300-year-old Shingon sect of Buddhism, snake up and around the boulders, sitting in caves, on promontories and in grotto-like niches.

It has a mystical feeling, and to many people it is a place of special power, a place of healing.

It is also badly run-down — its shrines collapsing and its temple long since demolished. A group of Kaua'i residents that bought the 32 acres around the shrines is planning to restore them and build a center for healing for the world.

It is a strength Kaua'i folk have acknowledged for the hundred years the site has been holy to the Shingon sect.

Takano Nonaka, 97, has prayed there monthly for 60 years. Half a century ago, she sent each of her four sons to war carrying for protection a small tobacco sack containing soil from the 88 Lawa'i shrines.

"My mother and I came over here and took a little soil from every shrine, and I took it to Korea in a bag," said 76-year-old Iwao Nonaka.

He retains the distinct impression that something was watching over him through his Korean War experience.

"One time we were sitting in this deep hole that was cut by water, six of us," Nonaka said. "I told the sergeant that I had a funny feeling, and he told us to get out of there. A minute later, a mortar round landed right in that hole.

More information

Call Lynn Muramoto of the Lawa'i center at (808) 822-5942 or visit www.lawaicenter.org

"When I came home, my mother returned the soil." She opened the bag and dropped a pinch at each shrine, as she had done with the soil carried by each of her other sons.

The shrines were built between 1902 and 1904 by Japanese immigrant plantation workers living in the valley. The 88 stations mimic the temples along a well-known walk created by the Buddhist monk Kobo Daishi, founder of the Shingon sect, on Japan's mountainous island of Shikoku.

The Japanese pilgrimage takes walkers 1,000 miles to 88 temples around the island. Buddhists of all sects have adopted the walk, which can take one to three months to complete. In recent years the Shikoku pilgrimage has attracted an international following, as some believe they can hasten enlightenment by completing it.

At the Lawa'i site, the walk past the temples on a trail that zigzags up and across the hillside takes minutes, not months.

But Kobo Daishi was associated with a number of miraculous feats, and believers say the Kaua'i site is linked to special healing influences.

There were Shinto and Taoist temples nearby, and Queen Emma, who had a cottage at the valley rim, spoke of Lawa'i's healing waters, said Lynn Muramoto, president of the Lawai International Center, which is raising money to restore all 88 shrines. The center plans to establish a visitor center and build a traditional pagoda to replace a temple that once occupied the site.

Its concrete shrine has collapsed, but a carved stone figure still stands on the hillside at Lawa'i.

Jan TenBruggencate • The Honolulu Advertiser

Most of the members of the Lawai center are Christian, a tribute to the nonsectarian attraction of the original Shikoku pilgrimage.

"When the first immigrants built this place, a lot of the people were not from the Shingon sect," Muramoto said. "They walked from all parts of the island to be healed and for miracles."

There are many such stories.

Sharon Masuoka said her maternal grandmother, Isano Yoshihara Morita, was prohibited from leaving Japan to join her family in Hawai'i because she had a glass eye.

On her 17th birthday, her father, Goro Yoshihara, walked from Kapa'a to the Lawa'i Shingon shrines to pray for assistance. At the same time, the teenage girl tied the family's household shrine to her back and marched to the harbor, insisting on being allowed to emigrate.

"She threatened to jump off the end of the pier if they did not take her," Masuoka said. "They did."

She arrived in the Islands and established a family.

The 88 shrines have weathered attacks by age and vandals over the years. In 1954, collapsing wooden shrine houses were replaced with concrete structures, many of which have collapsed as well.

Each shrine once contained a wooden or carved stone image, some of which have fallen off the hillside. A few have been stolen, but some were returned recently by people who learned the site was being restored.

Muramoto said the site seems to attract goodwill. Loans and donations have helped pay for the land, and a remarkable number of people around the nation and world have offered assistance. Kapa'a Boy Scout Troop 83 adopted the place and regularly sends a group to mow and weed.

Many appear drawn to the Lawai International Center's plans for a global healing center at the site, said board member Gloria Nakea.

"This is a place of hope, a place of peace, a place of gratitude, a place of aloha for the world," Muramoto noted.