It was late afternoon in Makawao, bright and cool, when we strolled into the crowded grounds of the Makawao Hongwanji for the festival of obon, the time of year when ancestors and their sacrifices are remembered and appreciated.
Inside the columbarium, where the ashes of the dead are kept, a quiet and timeless scene unfolded. The urns sit in lockers stacked six to a column all through the long, narrow hall, over 350 in all, and vases filled with flowers stood on the floor at the base of each, lining the hall.
The doors to the niches where loved ones were actively being honored stood open, and as we respectfully peered into the room, the framed faces of mothers and fathers, grandmothers and grandfathers looked out at us. A sign advised that traditional offerings to feed the dead not be left in the hall. But at the far altar a woman offered incense, and a cloud of it hung thickly in the room.
The Makawao Hongwanji is a direct descendent of the Paia Hongwanji at Maui Agricultural Co.'s old Nashiwa Camp in Upper Paia. Begun in 1907 when plantation work was brutal and housing woefully inadequate, the Paia temple gave spiritual succor and fellowship to issei far from their old homeland and little-acculturated to their new.
Conditions slowly improved until, by the 1930s, workers and their families had moved out of barracks housing into single-family homes with porches and indoor kitchens, albeit with wash houses outside, and a community outhouse with four doors on the corners of adjoining lots. Mechanical improvements, raises in pay and a shorter work day brought more ease to the community, and the temple was a focal point of activity.
The late Sen. Mamoru Yamasaki, who grew up in Nashiwa Camp in the '20s, remembered the bon dances and silent movies and how people took fruit and flowers from their gardens to the temple. Spencer Shiraishi, who grew up there in the '40s, remembered the old people chatting and playing cards outside the Hongwanji, while children learned to ride their skates and bikes while scamps like him streaked by half-clad, heading for the warm waters of the bathhouse after a swim in the nearby punawai.
Somehow the congregation of the Paia Hongwanji collected enough money to install an exquisite golden altar that was moved to Makawao when the camp was razed. The refurbished altar gleams, an ornamented shrine with classically curved eaves in which the Buddha stands. Its opulence reminded me of its opposite years ago in Upper Paia, the tiny Shinto temple maybe 700 feet square. It was cared for by Sam Hironaka's grandfather Riziko, who came to Hawaii around 1905 and became a janitor at the Paia Mill. Evenings he took a lantern and walked to the temple in Store Camp, where he made his prayers.
There were mats on the floor and a little altar, a torii gate, and a boulder at entry with a water trough where people washed before entering. "Very few followers, just go there to pray, nonpolitical, not much of an organization, he never got anything, he was a priest purely for his soul-cleaning ritual."
"Every single night," Sam told me. "I don't remember ever seeing him ill, he would walk from the mill, a good long mile from our home." Such was the rich inner life of a poor man.
Back at the Makawao Hongwanji, people of all ages were standing in line for what, for some, was the main event: go eat! They stood in line to buy hamburgers, chow fun, saimin, and delicacies such as pickled peaches, chichi dango mochi, jam manju and bags of Okinawan doughnuts.
We have a weakness for the latter, and, nearing the head of the long line, we recalled how the last time we were at a bon dance they ran out just as we reached the cashier. Don't you know, it happened again, but a new batch was soon hustled out of the kitchen.
A half-moon soared in the genteel sky and the colored paper lanterns around the dancing arena winked on as night fell. A haunting tune issued from the loudspeakers, and as a light rain fell, dancers in kimono and hapi coats slowly formed their circles.
A hundred and five years later, the tradition goes on.
* Laurel Murphy is a former staff writer for The Maui News whose "Keiki o ka 'Aina" column appears each Tuesday. She can be reached at email@example.com.