A short drive away from Kailua’s world famous beach- a favorite vacation spot for President Obama, First Family and busloads of Japanese tourists- is a different destination experience.
It’s not the conventional piece of paradise that most visitors associate with Hawaii. In fact, as soon as you enter its lush grounds, you will feel as if you’ve been transported a world away from the sun and sand that go hand in hand with the Hawaiian Islands.
Located on the Windward side of Oahu, surrounded by the majestic Koolau Mountains, is a place of spiritual serenity. The Valley of the Temples Memorial Park is located on Kaneohe’s Kahekili Highway, right across the road from a strip mall including a movie theatre and McDonald’s of all places. But for the $3 price to enter that barely covers the cost of a Happy Meal these days, you can explore this unique cemetery that’s an escape from the hustle and bustle outside.
Once inside, you’ll be greeted by gardens and a sense of spirituality that’s not limited to one particular faith. Thousands of Buddhists, Catholics, Christians and Shintos have been laid to rest here since it was founded in 1963 by developer Paul Trousdale. As you drive into the memorial park, it’s common to see loved ones having lunch gathered around a grave, paying their respects, as custom has it, not just with flowers, but with offerings of food and drinks.
One of the “must visits” at the memorial park is a replica of Japan’s ancient Byodo-In Temple inside the Temple of Equality. The bright red landmark is a non-practicing Buddhist temple that welcomes all faiths to worship, meditate or simply to visit. The Hawaiian version is a popular backdrop for weddings, photos and productions. It may look familiar to television viewers of two shows that filmed in the Islands. Both ‘Magnum P.I.’ and ‘Lost’ worked the temple into episodes. Fans of Lost may know it as the estate of Sun-Hwa Kwon’s father.
Hollywood interest aside, the temple is a Hawaii State landmark. The concrete replica of the over 950-year old Byodo-In Temple and United Nations World Heritage Site in Uji, Japan was erected in 1968 to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the arrival of the first Japanese immigrants to Hawaii. Here, you’ll also find a five-foot high, three-ton brass bell that resembles the one hanging in the Bell House at the Uji Byodo-In. The tone of the bell is said to sound a message of calm and remove evil spirits and temptation. Inside the main part of the temple is a statue of a unique Amida Buddha statue, seated on a gold leaf, which measures 9 feet tall. It’s said to be the largest one carved outside of Japan, the work of renowned Japanese sculptor, Masuzo Inu.
Catholic statues depicting the Passion of Christ, the Virgin Mary, and Catholic Saints are also found at the Valley of the Temples. But, you do not have to be religious or spiritual to appreciate spending time here. Visitors describe it with similar vocabulary. Adjectives such as beautiful, peaceful, and restful fill reviews on sites such as TripAdvisor.
With its lush landscape and serene setting, reflection comes naturally at the Memorial Park for those looking to venture away from better-known visitor attractions.
The grounds are home to scenery you’d expect to find in the Islands. Surrounded by mountains in an area known for regular rainfall, visitors will find themselves immersed with the natural beauty of Windward Oahu. While enjoying the reflecting ponds, waterfalls, gardens and bamboo, you’ll have company, and not necessarily the kind wearing aloha shirts and carrying cameras.
The Valley of the Temples is home to wild peacocks, Japanese Koi carp, and black swans. You can purchase food to feed the koi at the gift shop to the left of the temple, where you can also buy items such as mini temple bells, Buddha statues and local art. With a mix of natural splendor and spiritual serenity, a visit here may have the same effect that ringing the bell at the bell house is said to do, to bring you happiness.