NOTE: A version of this article was published in the Hawaii Herald prior to the re-roofing of the shrine. The re-roofing project has since been completed.
HELP SAVE OUR SHRINE’S … ROOF!
Story and Photos by Kevin Kawamoto
Contemporary travelers along South King Street just about a block before Honolulu Stadium State Park in the Mo`ili`ili neighborhood are used to seeing the McCully Bicycle and Sporting Goods store with its shoebox-like architecture and turquoise-colored upper siding. Granted it’s hard to miss this familiar landmark, but local old-timers might also remember a quite different structure in that area for about six decades beginning in 1918. Visitors to the property during those years were not seeking road bikes to carry them along life’s circuitous journeys; rather, they sought spiritual sustenance and blessings from a small family-owned Shinto shrine known as the Wakamiya Inari Shrine.
Originally built in 1914 in Kaka`ako, the Wakamiya Inari Shrine was moved to the South King Street location in 1918. As Japanese immigrants began to leave the plantations for urban living, Mo`ili`ili began to take shape as a community with a heavy Japanese presence. The shrine was built in traditional Japanese style by a Hawaii architect known only as Haschun and was painted bright red in the tradition of Inari Shinto shrines in Japan. Inari signified the kami or spirit of harvest, which probably appealed to the Japanese immigrants, most of whom came from rural, agricultural areas of Japan to work on Hawaii’s sugar plantations. Near the front of the shrine was a white torii or gateway symbolizing the passage to a sacred place, and seven steps – also painted red like the main structure – that led visitors to a porch-like area surrounding the shrine’s main room. The shrine’s central space contained assorted objects of significance to the Shinto belief system and were used in rituals during holidays and special occasions.
Shinto is often referred to as the native or indigenous belief system of Japan. Unlike Buddhism, Confucianism and Taoism – which trace their origins outside of Japan – Shinto is homegrown, although like other belief systems, Shinto has its variations. For example, Shinto was largely practiced at the local level for hundreds of years without much of a national organizational structure up to the late 1860s, when the long era of the Tokugawa Shogunate ended. This historical time period was followed by the Meiji Restoration, and it was during that time that Shinto was declared as a kind of state religion.
When Japanese immigrants came to Hawaii in large numbers in the late 1800s, many of them continued to value their traditional forms of spiritual enrichment. Buddhist temples and organizations were influential in Hawaii when the number of Japanese immigrants in the Islands were large. Relatively fewer Shinto shrines in Hawaii were erected, but there was usually no problem for a person to participate in both Buddhist and Shinto services, since Shinto does not require any sort of exclusive membership. Even today, many Japanese in Japan and Hawaii go to Shinto shrines as well as Buddhist temples as part of their spiritual expression.
The Wakamiya Inari Shrine was built under the direction of Reverend Yoshio Akizaki, the founder of this shrine. When the founder died, his son Takeo took over the priestly duties in 1951. The shrine remained in the Akizaki family’s possession until the family sold the property in 1979. The shrine was slated to be demolished so that a sporting goods store could be built, but a group of dedicated community members banded together to save it. Educator Gail Okawa was one of them.
“One day in 1979,” Okawa remembers, “Michael Molloy, a religion professor at Kapiolani Community College, stood up after a program on the Moiliili neighborhood at the Honolulu Academy of Arts and announced that the Inari Shrine in Mo`ili`ili was in danger of being demolished. Would anyone be interested in working to save it?”
Okawa said that several people remained after the program to talk about what could be done to help preserve the shrine. Among them were journalism professor Beverly Keever and her husband Chuck, as well as Nancy Bannick, who was in charge of the program that night and was a well-known historic preservation advocate and Hawaii correspondent for Sunset magazine.
“Our small group met several times and was unable to find a place in the urban core to relocate the Shrine,” Beverly Keever remembers.
Not long thereafter, a public event was held near the Wakamiya Inari Shrine, most likely at the Honolulu Stadium Park nearby, and then-Gov. George Ariyoshi was present. Molloy suggested that Bannick ask Gov. Ariyoshi to visit the nearby shrine, and the governor obliged. The committee that had organized to save the shrine had put a big banner along the shrine’s roof saying: “Save Our Shrine.”
Gov. Ariyoshi enlisted the help of community leader “Major” Hideo Okada, who made it possible for the shrine to be relocated to Waipahu, where it would become part of the planned Hawaii Plantation Village, an outdoor history museum that today helps tell the story of Hawaii’s working class history and sugar plantation days.
Moving an entire shrine from Mo`ili`ili to Waipahu was no simple undertaking, of course. “That (the move) cost us a lot of money,” Beverly Keever remembers. “We had to cut the roof off to get it under bridges and at midnight had to have a police escort in front and back.” The early morning hour was necessary so as not to interfere with traffic. Despite the cost and logistics, the mission was accomplished.
The grassroots preservation group that organized around the shrine managed to raise money to restore the shrine to its original appearance. Today the Wakamiya Inari Shrine sits on the grounds of the Waipahu Cultural Garden Park and is one of various historical structures that comprise the Hawaii Plantation Village. While the shrine is no longer regularly used for Shinto rituals, visitors can learn about Japanese immigrant history in Hawaii and its cultural manifestations from staff and volunteers who work at the village.
Buddhism is perhaps better known in Hawaii because of the number of Buddhist temples and organizations that exist in the Islands. Shinto seems to have a quieter presence in Hawaii’s history. Followers of Shinto do not worship one single deity but rather see spiritual forces in many different kinds of things on earth including mountains, trees, rivers, animals and renowned people. It goes back many hundreds and possibly thousands of years in Japan but has evolved over time as a belief system.
The thousands of Shinto shrines in Japan come in a wide range of sizes and architectural complexity. Many are much larger and more elaborate than the Wakamiya Inari Shrine. For example, the Fushimi Inari Taisha in Kyoto with its thousands of towering red torii lined up one after another to form the visage of a tunnel is a famous point of interest and tourist attraction. Many Inari-type shrines also feature figurines and representations of the kitsune, or fox, which is said to be a messenger of the harvest kami or spirit. While the Wakamiya Inari Shrine may not be as large and elaborate in comparison to Japan-based counterparts, it is nevertheless rich with historical and architectural significance. It is difficult to neatly define or characterize Shinto in a short article of this nature, but it has been widely written about and discussed in other sources for those interested in learning more.
The Wakamiya Inari Shrine is listed on the State and National Registers of Historic Places and is seen by large numbers of park visitors each year, including school children, tourists and community members interested in revisiting or learning more about the history of working class families in Hawaii. On Saturday, Feb. 10, the Hawaii Plantation Village opened its doors to the public to celebrate the Lunar New Year and the 110th anniversary of Korean immigration to Hawaii. Visitors to the Wakamiya Inari Shrine were able to pick up omamori (amulets, charms, talisman, etc.) as well as ask for blessings from a Shinto priest dressed in traditional garb. They were welcome to walk up the stairs to get an up-close look at the shrine’s architecture, design and accessories. It provided a modern-day glimpse into what Japanese immigrants and their families might have seen and experienced almost a century earlier.
The happy ending to this story is that the Wakamiya Inari Shrine continues to have a permanent place to call home and is cared for by a concerned group of citizens dedicated to ensuring its welfare. After 30 years, however, the shrine’s roof badly needs replacing, and anyone who has had to replace a roof knows how costly that can be. Money is extremely tight these days for many non-profits, including the Hawaii Plantation Village. The Freeman Foundation has provided a grant of $20,000 to get the job started, but $30,000 more is needed to finish it. Repairs will commence in March of this year. Donations of money, which the preservation group says is tax deductible, as well as specific materials and contractor services are welcome. For more information, please contact Bev Keever (firstname.lastname@example.org) or Gail Okawa (email@example.com), both original members of the committee that helped saved the shrine in 1979, and who continue to look after its welfare more than three decades later. Or contact Hawaii Plantation Village’s Executive Director Jeffrey Higa at 677-0110.