“It’s Our Kuleana,” Say Deron Furukawa, President, Japanese Cultural Society of Maui

Kathy Collins
Special to The Hawai‘i Herald

The site of one of the bloodiest battles in Hawaiian history seems an unlikely location for celebrating birthdays and communing with nature, but for several generations of Mauians, Kepaniwai has been that and more. Nestled in Central Maui’s ‘Ïao Valley, Kepaniwai Park encompasses over seven acres of verdant vistas nourished by ‘Ïao Stream, with picnic pavilions and the picturesque Heritage Gardens sprawled throughout.

The park and gardens receive hundreds of visitors daily, most of whom are startled to learn that this serene spot derives its name from the Battle of Kepaniwai, fought between the forces of Kamehameha I and Kalaniküpule, son of Maui’s ruling chief Kahekili.

From Hawai‘i Island, Kamehameha’s fleet of war canoes landed at Kahului Bay with 12,000 warriors and a complement of muskets and cannons. The Maui defenders fought fiercely but could not overcome Kamehameha’s firepower. After three days of battle, thousands of warriors from both armies lay dead in the riverbed, blocking the stream’s flow; thus the name Kepaniwai (“the damming of the waters”).

In 1951, the County of Maui cleared four acres at the site for picnic grounds; in July 1952, Kepaniwai Park was dedicated as the first County park with swimming facilities and meandering trails for nature strolls. Wailuku Sugar Company donated additional acreage, and a Japanese garden and teahouse were installed in 1961.

A few years later, the County engaged Richard C. Tongg, the premier landscape architect of the time, to create a master plan for further development of “international gardens” which would appeal to both residents and tourists. Known for his masterful use of nature in architectural design, Tongg envisioned a sprawling series of tropical gardens, each representing one of the ethnic groups emulating the islands’ multicultural community.

Built around 1960, the Japanese Tea House sits on one end of the Kepaniwai Heritage Gardens within Kepaniwai Park of ‘Ïao Valley, Maui. The Gardens were established in 1952 to honor the different cultures that shaped Maui’s history. (Photos by Kathy Collins)

Starting with the original Japanese teahouse, Kepaniwai’s Heritage Gardens now include structures and sections honoring the contributions of the Native Hawaiian, Chinese, Portuguese, Filipino, Korean and Puerto Rican people. There’s even a small-scale replica of a New England saltbox home – a tribute to the missionaries who introduced Christianity to Hawai‘i in the early 19th century.

The rustic teahouse still stands as the main feature of the Japanese Garden, overlooking a koi pond once fed by ‘Ïao Stream. In keeping with the philosophy of chadö (the Way of Tea), the teahouse sits in a quiet corner of the garden fostering tranquility, harmony, respect and purity.

Throughout the 1960s and ‘70s, it served as a popular backdrop for wedding ceremonies, family portraits and high-school yearbook photos. Children attending birthday parties at the nearby picnic grounds would scurry over, Dixie cups in hand, to gather tadpoles and guppies from the shallows of the koi pond.

Stone lanterns, a pagoda, and several sculptures honoring the Issei immigrants to Hawai‘i were added to the garden over the years. Most recently, in 2012, the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui and Maui’s Sons and Daughters of the Nisei Veterans erected a karesansui (dry stream garden) in appreciation of the veterans of the 100th Infantry Battalion, the 442nd Regimental Combat Team and the Military Intelligence Service. The dedication plaque reads, in part:

Three large stones are the focus of this garden: Strong and steadfast, yet with gentle flowing curves, they represent the attributes that made these menʻs lives so special! The beauty that surrounds these stones symbolizes the family and community that flourished as the veterans planted their roots firmly, back home on Maui … It is appropriate that this karesansui is at the base of the Japanese Heritage Garden’s stone-laden stairway. In these steps, one can see the journey to great heights for the Japanese in Hawai‘i … We have benefited immensely … thanks to the foundation laid by the Nisei Veterans and their Issei parents … Okage sama de (Because of you, I am).

Stone lanterns, a pagoda and several sculptures honoring the Issei immigrants to Hawai‘i were added to the Japanese garden near the tea house over the years.

Decades of natural wear and tear compounded by recent major storms and flooding have left the teahouse and its surroundings in disrepair. Although care and maintenance of the Heritage Gardens fall under the County Parks Department’s jurisdiction, the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui has stepped forward to take the lead in restoring the teahouse, just as other cultural organizations and civic clubs have done for their respective sections.

JCS Maui president Deron Furukawa explained, “We wanted to do something for the (groupʻs) 50th anniversary (in 2019) … we walked around the garden and saw that the teahouse, the pagoda, the gate, it’s all in shambles … why build another monument when everything around is falling apart? We decided to fix up the place, make it functional again.”

After nearly a year of fundraising and applying for grants, the society was forced to place their efforts on hold, due to the COVID-19 pandemic. Then, in November 2020, over a year after meeting with County and State officials to discuss their proposal, the group received a $10,000 County grant toward the teahouse restoration. The funds must be utilized before the end of the year; fortunately, JCSM had already selected Akinaka Construction as contractor, so the project is already underway.

Kit Furukawa, Deronʻs wife, is in charge of the renovation project. She is confident that, with the $15,000 donated by members at the JCSM 50th anniversary gala, the grant will cover all of the cosmetic needs of Phase 1: restoring the garden fence, repairing the bridge over the koi pond and rejuvenating the teahouse exterior. Phase 2 will tackle the interior of the teahouse and Phase 3 will encompass repairs to the pond and possibly repopulating it with koi.

Deron Furukawa recalled posing inside the now-shuttered teahouse for family photos as a child, and mused over the possibility that the Chado Urasenke Tankokai Maui Association might someday conduct an actual tea ceremony there.

“The restoration is just the start,” he said. “We should be the ones to clean and maintain this place. It’s our kuleana to take care of the garden. When I first joined JCS, when there still was water in the pond, we used to volunteer to clean it, clear out all the overgrown water lettuce.”

Kit added, “We still get calls from older members, asking when the next garden clean-up will be. They really do want to help. And maybe the teahouse restoration will spark more interest in JCS. Hopefully, it will inspire the younger generation to get involved and volunteer, to perpetuate the culture.”

Note: The purpose of the Japanese Cultural Society of Maui is to promote and encourage the preservation and perpetuation of Japanese culture in Hawai‘i through education; to work for the common good and general welfare; to promote and cultivate good fellowship among members; and to participate and support activities which enhance and enrich the life of the community. For more information about the organization and the progress of the teahouse renovation project visit jcsmaui.org.

Kathy Collins is a professional storyteller, actress, radio and television personality, emcee, comedian, newspaper columnist, freelance writer and, first and foremost, a Maui girl.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here