Kauai home to ‘healing place of the spirit’

A volunteer clears the trail for pilgrims visiting the Lawai

The Hawaiian island of Kauai is famous for its beauty and many
opportunities to enjoy nature. It has been the location for the
filming of numerous movies
– including

Jurassic Park

and

Pirates of the Caribbean

– so most people are probably familiar with such scenic wonders
as the Waimea Canyon, Hanalei Bay and Wailua Falls.
The Hawaiian island of Kauai is famous for its beauty and many opportunities to enjoy nature. It has been the location for the filming of numerous movies – including “Jurassic Park” and “Pirates of the Caribbean” – so most people are probably familiar with such scenic wonders as the Waimea Canyon, Hanalei Bay and Wailua Falls.

Since my sister’s family moved to the island, I’ve visited frequently. As a religion writer, I’ve tried to seek out some spiritual stories to report, things like an Anglican Mass celebrated entirely in the Hawaiian language or a tour of a Hindu temple being constructed from imported Indian granite in the rainforest.

Earlier this year a friend tipped me off to another amazing site, so while on vacation earlier this month I scheduled a visit to the Lawai International Center. There is a remarkable story behind this amazing place and the dedicated volunteers who are creating it.

Located on the Kaumaulii Highway near Kalaheo, the center is open for tours on the second and fourth Sundays of each month, at 10 a.m., noon and 2 p.m. There is no charge for admission, but donations to support the center are always welcome. Once a year a Pilgrimage of Compassion is held in remembrance of 9/11.

“The Lawai Valley has been a place of natural healing,” said Lynn Muramoto, president of the Lawai International Foundation. “In the earliest days there was a ‘heiau’ (temple) where Hawaiians brought their wounded and sick to heal, and Queen Emma had her summer home here because of the healing waters.” In modern times it has been home to both Taoist and Shinto temples.

A century ago, young Japanese farmers immigrated to Kauai to work in the sugar cane fields. Remembering a pilgrimage trail in their homeland established more than 1,000 years ago that covered some 900 miles, they built a replica on a 32-acre site in the Lawai Valley. Beneath each of the 88 dollhouse-sized shrines they reportedly buried a pinch of sand or dirt taken from the original ones in Shikoku.

Families lived in the valley and cared for the site until the pineapple- and sugar-processing plants closed in the 1960s. Then people moved away, and vegetation nearly obliterated the site.

In 1990, Muramoto visited the sanctuary and was so impressed that she resigned from her job as a teacher and set about restoring the area. Her foundation is non-profit, non-denominational and volunteer-driven. Its goal is to establish a place for peace and healing.

Volunteers have since cleared the front of the hillside, re-established the path and restored the shrines. The concrete structures held palm-sized statues of various Buddhas; approximately half of them had disappeared over the years, but many of those have been returned.

A tour of the center is quite pleasant. Visitors are welcomed with a friendly hug and cup of hot hibiscus tea. Muramoto gives a short history of the project, followed by a five-minute documentary narrated by Richard Chamberlain. It was raining the day I visited (Kauai, remember), so guests were provided ponchos and walking sticks to navigate the steep, winding and slick trail.

The path begins mysteriously through a tiny cave formed by the roots of a living tree. In silence visitors climb the trail, stopping briefly before each shrine to meditate. Many of the shrines have offerings left by the pilgrims: stones, coins, seashells, rosary beads, crosses, green twigs. Afterwards visitors are provided more tea and delicious, sweet red bean cakes. Volunteers are available to answer questions.

There are several hints of miraculous connections with the Lawai International Center:

– When Muramoto’s group expressed interest in purchasing the property, the owner asked for $6 million, but eventually settled for $250,000.

– The money was raised through unexpected donations and years of fund-raisers selling beef stew, mango seed and orchids.

– In the 1940s, a local mother collected soil from beneath the shrines and put it in small pouches for her sons to wear: they all returned from World War II combat uninjured.

– Work is progressing on a Pavilion of Compassion, and recently a stranger called and offered to donate some roof tiles that turned out to be the precise kind called for in the plans.

For additional information, visit www.lawaicenter.com or call (808) 639-4300.

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