By Léo Azambuja
More than a century ago, a group of young Japanese immigrants replicated on Kaua‘i a small scale of a famous pilgrimage in their Japanese homeland. Today, the Lawa‘i International Center remains as a beacon of aloha that has inspired thousands to come together as one heart under the umbrella of compassion.
“The center is the life, the breath and the warmth of the heart of the community,” said Lynn Muramoto, president of the nonprofit Lawa‘i International Center.
The nondenominational community project is driven entirely by volunteers who want to bring Lawa‘i Valley back to prominence as an international center of compassion, education and cultural understanding, according to Muramoto.
The 32-acre property is encrusted in Lawa‘i Valley, a site considered sacred by ancient Hawaiians, Muramoto said. In the old days, Hawaiians would travel from all over the island to receive the healing properties of the valley.
“When the first group of Japanese immigrants left Japan, they were young teenage farmers, they were 15, 16 years young,” Muramoto said. “They set sail with hopes in their hearts for a better life for their families, and landed on this island to work on the sugar plantations of Koloa.”
Just like the Hawaiians, the young Japanese immigrants could also feel the energy of the valley, she said. So they built a meandering uphill path with 88 tiny shrines. Each shrine represents a much larger temple in Shikoku, Japan, a place famous for its 88 temples covering a 1,000-mile pilgrimage built a millennia ago. The path was finished in 1904, and people would walk from all over Kaua‘i to visit the shrines for their miracles.
“It was very common for people to walk from Hanalei. They would walk barefooted along the highway on their journey to this land,” Muramoto said.
In 1964, the nearby Lawa‘i Pineapple Company closed down, and three years later, the last caretakers of the site moved away. In the following years, the property became overgrown with trees.
“This place became an absolutely jungle for several decades,” Muramoto said. “We came along here 28 years ago, and we brought chainsaws and cut a path so we could walk here through the jungle … Then we brought more chainsaws to clear more ground to put our vehicles in here.”
Throughout the period when access was limited by overgrown plants and trees, some people continued to visit the site. One of those was Japanese immigrant Takano Nonaka. For almost 60 years, she made regular visits to the shrines until she passed away in 2003 at 99 years old.
Still a teenager, Nonaka arrived on Kaua‘i in 1921. In Hanapepe, she and her husband raised 10 children. When four of her boys were called to serve in World War II and later in the Korean War, she sought comfort in Lawa‘i Valley. She took a pinch of soil from each of the 88 shrines, and deposited it in a pouch for each of her sons. She promised they would return the soil to the site upon their safe return from the war — and they all did.
Today, Muramoto said, the soil at the shrines has gone back and forth to Iraq many times. She said a woman gave her son a pouch of soil, which was held by his entire unit — and this was credited for helping everyone return safely back home.
Before Nonaka passed away in 2003, she was able to see her place of comfort restored and secured for future generations. The Lawa‘i International Center was formed in 1990. The nonprofit would eventually purchase the property for $250,000, a considerable reduction from the original asking price of $6 million.
About five years ago, the Hall of Compassion was built and dedicated. The traditional 13th century Japanese building was made with yellow cedar harvested in Canada, and hand-carved in Taiwan. When the logs arrived on Kaua‘i, after more than two decades of preparation, two master carvers came along to help to build the structure. With the aid of some 1,600 volunteers, “truly the embodiment of the spirit of Lawa‘i,” it took a year to put it together, Muramoto said. Now, the Hall of Compassion will likely be around for a long time — those types of structures are made to last at least 1,000 years.
Fronting of the building, a mound resembles the head of a honu, or turtle, a symbol of the bearer of life. Two rockwalls serve as the honu’s flippers. The Hall of Compassion connects the honu’s head to its shell, the hill with the 88 shrines.
“There was this existing rockwall that was falling apart; the base was Hawaiian, the top was Japanese. So we rebuilt this rockwall with kahu (Abraham Kawai‘i) guidance,” said Muramoto, explaining the rockwall has the same angles used by Hawaiians, Mayans, Incas and Egyptians.
Buildings such as the Hall of Compassion are usually inner sanctum for the chosen ones; very few are allowed inside. But the building at nondenominational Lawa‘i International Center is open to everyone.
Everything at the center was only possible because of the community support. Everyone is a volunteer in the organization, from the ladies who sweep the floors to the administration.
“When the body is in rhythm with the heart and the spirit of the being, this is when all things are possible,” Muramoto said.
When you come to the center, walk across the lawn, set foot on the grounds, what you feel and experience is way beyond the shrines and the new building, according to Muramoto. The grounds have so much depth, she said, that it’s common for people to cry when they first set foot on them.
“You’re feeling the heart commitment of the many volunteers, supporters, ancestors and the collective consciousness of an entire community. This building is a living miracle,” Muramoto said.
Lawa‘i International Center is “really about the bigger picture for all of our existence,” she said. A cultural astronomer told Muramoto the site has the same configuration as every major sacred site on the planet.
“All sacred sites are interconnected, so when you reawaken a major dormant site like this one here, you affect the entire planet,” she said.
Each August, hundreds of people attend the Pilgrimage of Compassion. They walk the path of the 88 shrines, all the while immersed in the gentle sound of shakuhachi, or Japanese bamboo flute, played by world-renowned grandmaster Riley Lee. The children of Ni‘ihau come to chant, and Taiko Kaua‘i brings their drummers to celebrate the event. The next pilgrimage is Aug. 12, from 1 to 4:30 p.m.
The Pilgrimage of Compassion is the center’s biggest event, but they also promote other events. On May 26, a rare tea ceremony with groups of up-to-25 people at a time will take place at the Hall of Compassion.
The center is open on the first and last Sunday of each month, on special events, and also by appointment. Visit www.lawaicenter.org for more information.