Maui Wildfires Destroy Japanese Temple

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Gensho Hara, resident minister of the Lahaina Jodo Mission, describes the wildfires while showing a picture of the temple in Wailuku, Hawaii, on Saturday.

WAILUKU, Hawaii — A Buddhist temple established more than 100 years ago to provide spiritual support for islanders migrating from Japan has been destroyed in the recent wildfires on the Hawaiian island of Maui.

Among them is the Lahaina Jodo Mission, a temple founded in 1912 on the tip of a cape in Lahaina, western Maui. A scenic temple overlooking three islands, the mission was a popular tourism spot.

However, the wooden Hondo main hall, three-story pagoda and Kanetsukido facility where a large Buddhist bell was struck were swiftly enveloped in flames and collapsed.

Valuable ceiling and wall paintings in the main hall were all lost. The only things that survived the fire were the temple’s copper Great Buddha statue, the Buddhist bell and a wooden statue of Amida Buddha, the temple’s principal object of worship.

“The temple was burned down, but our spirit is still there, ” said Gensho Hara, the 87-year-old resident minister of the mission.

“I can’t quite take in that am little confused by the fact that the whole town has been devastated,” he said. Then he began quietly recounting what had happened, still wearing the same clothes in which he escaped the fire.

Hara noticed something was wrong on the afternoon of Aug. 8, more than 12 hours after the wildfires began. Strong winds broke the main hall’s glass door and palm trees behind the Great Buddha statue suddenly went up in flames.

By the time Hara had watered the trees with a hose to put out that fire, the temple complex was filled with smoke and hot air. Each time the main hall and the three-story pagoda were exposed to sparks, all the monks tried to fight the fire, but there was ultimately nothing they could do.

About two hours later, police officers told Hara and others to evacuate, so he and his wife got into a car driven by one of their daughters. While he expressed concern about the Amida Buddha statue, a nun in training who had voluntarily remained to protect the temple ran into the main hall, which was filled with smoke, and carried it out of the building.

The nun evacuated safely by car with the statue.

Courtesy of Lahaina Jodo Mission
The burned ruins of the Lahaina Jodo Mission. (left)
People participate in a Bon odori dance in July, at a festival held for the first time in four years.

This is not the first time the Amida Buddha statue has escaped danger. Hara, the eldest son at a temple in Nagano Prefecture, took over the then-vacant Lahaina Jodo Mission while he was in graduate school, at the invitation of a monk in Hawaii.

The temple caught fire in 1968, and Hara’s wife ran into the main hall and rescued the statue. The main hall was reconstructed by carpenters sent from Japan with the support of a businessperson.

“Twice we were able to protect the Buddha, who has provided spiritual support for Japanese immigrants and their descendants in times of joy and sorrow for more than 100 years,” Hara said.

Hara is full of gratitude. In July, many residents gathered on the temple grounds for a Bon dance festival, held for the first time in four years after the COVID-19 pandemic. This event made Hara realize again how much people loved the temple.

He is considering reconstructing the temple again for Japanese people, Japanese immigrants and their descendants, who account for more than 20% of the island’s population of about 144,000 people.

“Good old memories still live on in the burned ruins. I want to think about how the temple can contribute to society in a way suited to the needs of the times, and make efforts to reconstruct it,” Hara said.

Hara is staying at his eldest daughter’s house on the island of Maui. His gaze was strong as he looked ahead to the distant future.