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Japanese Temples

by Yuki Ohashi, '02.


Buddhism was brought to Hawai‘i in 1889 with the first large group of 943 Japanese immigrants. Since then, Buddhism has been an essential part of Japanese-American communities in Hawai‘i.

Hawai‘i is often described as the crossroad of East and West. Because of Hawai‘i’s cosmopolitan mix, the forms of Japanese temples have been uniquely affected by other island architectural styles. Several

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temples of Jodo, Shingon, or Zen sects of Buddhism on O‘ahu show no conformity to Japanese traditional style; instead, they reflect Indian religious architectural styles, originally influenced by Byzantine and Moslem architecture and modified again by its passage to Hawai ‘i.

Based upon the teachings and writings of Shinran Shonin, Shin, or truth, is chief among the Buddhist sects in Hawai‘i with its central tenet that salvation is to be won primarily by faith in Buddha. It is Japan’s major contribution to the West, and has 36 temples throughout Hawai‘i’s Islands, including the humongous Honpa Hongwanji Hawai‘i Betsuin temple on Pali Highway, headquarters for Honolulu’s Shin sect of Buddhism. It is the first Buddhist temple in the United States constructed of glass and concrete, and it is the largest and most impressive island building to incorporate Indian Buddhist, Hindu, or Muslim features.


The Jodo, or pure land sect, believes that the goal of all Buddhists is to attain enlightenment and freedom from the cycle of birth and death. It teaches that the pure land is not the final destination but can be considered the easy path to enlightenment. Jodo Mission of Hawai‘i, located next to the H-1 in Makiki, demonstrates the variety of derivative architectural forms and materials used in the design and construction of Japanese temples in Hawai‘i. With its pink stucco,

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minaret towers, bronze domes, and Persian arched openings, it resembles more a Muslim Mosque than a typical Japanese Buddhist temple. These secular Indian influences are attributed to a local architect’s mistaken notion that any Indian building could serve as a model for a Buddhist edifice.
By focusing less emphasis on ritual and more on meditation and intuitional enlightenment, the Zen or Mediation sect has attracted the greatest attention in the West. Soto Zen Mission of Hawai‘i, on Nuuanu Avenue, is an extraordinary temple of the Zen sect of Buddhism, a duplicate of a Buddhist stupa or tower at Bodyhgaya in India, the holy place where Gautama Buddha gave his first sermon. The temple’s pyramidal towers are examples of Hindu architectural influence. However, the tranquil surrounding gardens and their harmony of water, sand, and bonsai are definite attributes of Japanese Buddhist temples.

Shingon sect, the most pantheistic and conservative of the Buddhist sects, differs from other Buddhist sects in its retention of such traditional practices as the washing of hands before entering the temple. For this purpose, a stone basin containing water is available at the entrance to the Shingonsyu Hawai‘i Betsuin, located on Sheridan Street. It is a frame building in plain white and black that retains the classic Japanese architectural characteristics of Buddhist temple. This kind of simplicity is a pervasive characteristic of the island’s remaining temples.

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The Kinkaku-ji in Kyoto Gardens at Honolulu Memorial Park also keeps primary Japanese architectural characteristics. This temple is a replica of the original “Golden Pavilion” of Kyoto. With a golden phoenix, a symbol of everlasting life, on the top of the roof, and a natural or weathered-looking brown and a subdued old-gold color, it represents the mood of quiet inspiration that is significant to Buddhist faith.


Nara Pagoda, a replica of Famous Hokke-ji temple in Nara, Japan, stands right beside the Kinkaki-ji. It is 50 percent larger than the original, and is beautifully decorated with bright colors of red, green, and yellow against walls of white, in keeping with religious appropriateness.

One of the most beautiful temples on O‘ahu is Byodo-In, located in a valley of the Ko‘olau Mountains on O‘ahu’s windward side. It is

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constructed of concrete and is a replica of a 900-year-old Buddhist temple in Japan. An 18-foot statue of Amida Buddha, savior and source of all life in this world, dominates the main room of the temple. Its gardens, which include a temple bell and extensive koi ponds, are the largest of their kind outside of Japan.

Hawai‘i has a rich cultural landscape full of historical treasures. Visiting temples is a great way of exploring the island’s Japanese atmosphere, and finding the real meaning of its mix of diverse cultures.

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