Grandma Nonaka’s Legacy Still Lives
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
“Kyö wa Odaisan yo. Pau kaukau, we go.”
Takano Nonaka of Hanapëpë, Kaua’i, or Baban as her grandchildren affectionately called her, was as committed to spirituality as she was to her family. Every month during the 1960s, she would call to her grandchildren in pidgin English to pray at Odaisan, the 88 Buddhist shrines in Läwa‘i, Kaua’i, known today as the Läwa’i International Center. Little did she know that she would be an inspiration for future generations.
Takano joined the family after tragedy struck, becoming the second wife of Kekaha Sugar Co. worker Jinkuro Nonaka. Jinkuro’s first wife, Akino, had given birth to three boys — Kazuo, Takao and baby Hideo — in Mänä Camp. But when Hideo was just a baby, Akino passed away, leaving the three boys motherless. Takano later married Jinkuro, and together they had seven more children. These 10 children formed the blended, yet strong, Nonaka family.
In 1927, Jinkuro purchased a 4-acre farm in Hanapëpë and moved his growing family there. They found farm work hard, but rewarding. The Nonaka children grew, got married and had their own children. The four Nonaka sons — Takao, Hideo, Masatoshi and Iwao — took residence in separate houses on the family farm. The four families and grandparents lived and worked together on the property with a large mango tree in the middle. The cousins did chores together, helping with the family crops of bell peppers, tomatoes and cucumbers, or doing seasonal chores such as cleaning mango and lilikoi.
Through the years, proud matriarch Takano watched all four families grow up and work together on the farm. But she wanted to make sure her grandchildren learned about their spiritual roots too.
On the 21st of each month, she would say, “Kyö wa Odaisan yo,” and take the 10 youngest grandchildren to the 88 Buddhist shrines in Läwa‘i. With Uncle Iwao and Baban in the cab, the grandchildren would pile into the back of a pickup truck and head over to Läwa‘i.
Grandchildren Nancy (Nonaka) Kurokawa and Dean Nonaka fondly remember those days. Takano sewed each grandchild a small fabric pouch with a long strap that hung from their necks. Inside the pouch was an offering of rice grains for them to place in the glass jars next to each of the 88 shrines. After the children finished their prayers, they were always rewarded with nishime (stewed vegetables, sometimes with a little meat) and ohagi (a sweet rice ball usually enjoyed during spring or fall in Japan) made by the caretaker, Mrs. Fujimoto.
A fabric pouch played another important role in the Nonaka family. When four of her sons went off to war, Takano filled fabric pouches with dirt from each of the 88 shrines to carry with them, ensuring their safe return. One son, Iwao — Dean’s father and a Korean War veteran who was injured in battle — carried that bag with him all his life.
The healing properties of Läwa‘i Valley and Odaisan were powerful, and Takano used that healing power to help her grandchildren.
“Whenever one of the grandchildren was injured or [felt] unwell, she would take us to Odaisan to pray at the main altar,” Kurokawa explained. With her ojuzu (Buddhist prayer beads) “she would touch the area of the Buddha’s anatomy that corresponded with the injured part of our body. For example, for a broken arm, she would rub the Buddha’s arm with her ojuzu, then rub our injured arm.” The power of Odaisan was apparent, as those visits always resulted in a “speedy recovery with no complications,” remembers Kurokawa.
For decades, Odaisan’s healing power was known far across the island. Eighty-nine-year-old Hisayo “Evelyn” Kurasaki Hanki remembers her mother taking her and younger sister Masako on the hour-long bus ride to Läwa‘i from their home in Kapa‘a in the 1930s.
“Odaisama mairi ni ikimashö,” she would call to the girls, and they would prepare for the half-day-long trip.
The bus driver would let them off on a curved stretch of what is now known as Kaumuali‘i Highway overgrown with lantana bush and grass. The three of them would climb down the steep hill until they found the narrow dirt path that led to the rock-covered hillside where the shrines were located. Their mother, Hide, always carried a list of friends who needed healing prayers.
The two young girls would obediently follow their mother, all carrying ojuzu. Stopping at each shrine, they would place their hands together, bow their heads and say a quick “Namu Amida Butsu” at each stop.
If Hide had six friends to pray for, she and her two daughters would make two rounds to each of the 88 shrines. It was not an unpleasant task, but Hisayo and Masako remember praying very quickly so they could finish sooner. The girls never remembered praying for the same person twice, proving the healing power of Odaisan to be real.
When the girls were asked how their mother knew about Odaisan in Läwa‘i while living so far away in Kapa‘a and having access to neither telephone nor car. Hisayo and Masako supposed that through word-of-mouth, the Japanese-speaking plantation-working women learned about the 88 shrines. And eventually, Odaisan became a well-known place of healing, even in the remote areas of Kaua‘i.
Eighty-one-year-old Pat (Kamioka) Sekiya of Honolulu also fondly remembers Odaisan. Her grandfather, Rev. Kodo Yamamoto, along with his son, carved the original Buddhas by hand in the early 1900s and helped construct the shrines that protected them. Although she grew up in Honolulu, Sekiya visited Kaua‘i often. She remembers visiting the old temple where the main altar was located. Walking up seven steps towards the temple, there was a Buddha on the right hand side of the länai. That Buddha is still at Odaisan today, the same Buddha on which her mother would also rub her ojuzu for healing. Sekiya’s grandparents are buried just a few feet away from that special statue.
This year, the Läwa‘i International Center celebrates its 30th anniversary, drawing visitors from all over the world to visit its carefully manicured path of 88 shrines and the beautiful, yellow cedar Hall of Compassion with its 13th century Japanese architecture.
Lynn Muramoto, a former schoolteacher who now serves as president of the Läwa‘i International Center, explains its history, “From the earliest inhabitants of Kaua‘i, the Läwa‘i Valley had been recognized as a sacred place. Hawaiians journeyed there by foot from all over the island. In 1904, [Rev. Yamamoto and other] workers from Japan built the 88 miniature shrines visible today at the center to honor a 750-mile pilgrimage on the island of Shikoku, Japan.”
After the many decades when families made regular visits — like the Kurasakis and Kamiokas in the ‘30s-‘40s and the Nonakas in the ‘60s — Odaisan fell into neglect. In 1991, a community effort headed by Muramoto created a non-profit organization that raised funds to purchase the land, clear the overgrown foliage and help restore the shrines, which are maintained today by a team of volunteers. Läwa‘i International Center seeks to “create a center of compassion and cultural understanding,” said Muramoto.
Muramoto also looks to the future. “We are in the planning phase of creating a Welcoming Center for the community … to help ensure the continued stewardship of this precious place for generations to come,” says Muramoto. “In the fall, the Center hopes to provide its popular taiko drumming workshop, tea ceremony event, Hawaiian herbal lecture and calligraphy workshop where everyone can experience these timeless traditions.”
Dean Nonaka still remembers the old days. He is the only grandchild left on the Nonaka family property in Hanapëpë and still works the farm, growing some of the same crops that his grandparents did.
He still visits Odaisan, always on the 21st of the month, as his grandmother Takano, who passed away in 2003, had taught him. One time, he took his father Iwao for a visit, pushing him in his wheelchair. At other times, he takes along his grandchildren so they can learn about their family history. When they stand among the modern, manicured landscaping, Dean hopes his grandchildren will still feel the sacredness of the old land and the healing power that, through war and five generations of hardship, have always kept the Nonaka clan healthy and their family bond strong.
Läwa‘i International Center is currently closed to the public due to the COVID-19 health crisis. For more information, please visit www.lawaicenter.org.
Carolyn (Kubota) Morinishi resides in Kapa‘a with her husband Ron and her mother, Marian Kurasaki Kubota. The live together on the site where Marian was raised. Carolyn, a former software engineer, and Marian are the talents behind the Herald’s monthly Culture4Kids! column. Carolyn is also involved in Japanese cultural arts. In addition to her academic degrees, she holds natori (master) and shihan (master instructor) degrees in Nihon buyö at the Azuma School in Tökyö, and was given the dance name Kikusue Azuma. She continues to teach dance on Kaua‘i and in Los Angeles.