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Mochi from a Wailuku Temple

December 29, 2011 - Ray Tsuchiyama

On a bright morning I visited a Buddhist temple in Wailuku, nestled tightly among older houses. Traditionally during New Year’s Day in Japan, mochi or sweet rice pounded to a glutinous mass is eaten in various ways, including in a clear broth or in a hot stew of vegetables and meat (or my favorite, broiled, then dipped in soy sauce and sugar). I had read in the Maui News that this particular temple sells mochi for pick-up, so I called up, reserved a pack, and mailed my check.

After picking up my mochi pack, I went to a small room filled with rows of lockers, each with a small name plate. By coincidence, my mochi was made at a temple where my grandparents and other relatives had been cremated, placed in urns, and kept in a “family” locker. I showed my departed relatives the plastic box of mochi and whispered a few loving words, plus lines from the Buddhist sutra. I felt that they were happy that I was continuing a Japanese custom, traveling with immigrants to Maui from Kumamoto Prefecture at the beginning of the 20th century.

A three-foot tall golden Buddha stood in front of a bowl holding burning incense. On both sides of the statue were flowers in narrow vases, from anthuriums to protea to a white flower with tiny delicate petals that I knew the Japanese name, but couldn’t come up with the English one.

What was ironic in this old wooden structure was a box of matches atop the dais next to the incense sticks. The tiny box was emblazoned with “Kapalua Hotel and Resort”: although existing on the same island of Maui, the hotel was another world from the pre-World War II plantation period temple housing my relatives’ ashes. The luxury hotel north of Lahaina would have looked like a wondrous castle by the sea to my grandparents who lived in a plantation camp in Kahului.

I took out a matchstick from the box, struck it, and lit three thin green incense sticks and drew in the familiar scent of Buddhist ceremonies of my childhood.

I held juzu or Buddhist prayer beads in my hands, chanted a few times, then retreated back to the entrance, where there was a sheet listing all the urn locker family names in the room. With my growing knowledge of Maui society, the names of some families were now familiar, the departed ones were at HC & S or at Kahului Trucking or the Maui County government or teaching at Wailuku Elementary – the hard-working Mauian families from before the War to recent times.

Since I was meeting relatives and descendents every day on Maui of the families listed at the temple, I was beginning to see some parts of Maui society in a clearer light, like an endless wheel, as the Buddha said, of life, renewal, connections.

Finally, with the knowledge that my grandparents were literally near-by, I felt encouraged and stronger to go out and meet others, and contribute to Maui, as they did a century ago. And to enjoy my mochi, just as they did during New Year’s.


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