Memorial Day is often considered the official kick-off of barbeque season. But on the island of Oahu, it’s the weekend to light a different kind of fire.
Just around dusk on Memorial Day, the waters off Ala Moana beach get really crowded. It’s here where 6,000 small lights set sail across of the harbor carrying wishes of love for ‘ohana passed as part of the island’s annual Lantern Floating Hawaii ceremony. Lantern Floating Hawaii was started in 1999 by Shinnyo-En, a school of Buddhism founded in Japan in the 1930s, with the church’s head priest, Her Holiness Shinso Ito presiding over the island ceremony every year since. Open to all, the mix of peoples and religions who gather are the melting pot of Hawaii on its best day, where native Hawaiians, islanders of other origins and tourists all mingle peacefully under the spell of the island’s beauty.
“Dad, I miss you every day more and more. I moved to Hawai’i and I have been receiving God’s blessings abundantly. You taught me so well. I remember our wonderful times together. I wish you would have met your Grandson. Your namesake. He has your Spirit. He is a very good boy. love you.”
The origins of Ala Moana beach hardly foreshadowed it as a site for memorial and remembrance. Originally a drudgy spot best known for its location between Honolulu and Waikiki, in 1912 the Dillingham Dredging Company purchased 50 acres of the plot, putting it to use as a dumping ground for excavated earth and coral. Converted to a public park as part of Roosevelt’s New Deal projects, it wasn’t until the 1950s that it received its crown of sand, gifts trucked in from beaches from the island’s west coast. Today Ala Moana is a favorite for family gatherings, loved for its flat beach and calm bay, sheltered by an offshore reef.
Although the vessels don’t set sail until dusk, Lantern Floating Hawaii is an all day, full-sensory event from the initial sounding of the Pū, or conch shell, to sanctify the area and announce the beginning of the ceremonies. Throughout the day chants, hulas and blessings fill the area. At dusk, the festivities settle, with all eyes and thoughts centering on the ringing of the bell. When it rings out, it’s time for the lantern’s entry into the waters and for 6000 wishes to set sail.
Six large main lanterns lead the float, carrying prayers to all spirits on behalf of all people. The other 5,994 lanterns are offered on the day of the ceremony on a first-come basis. Space is set up, along with pen and papers, for those who make it to the bay to inscribe their wishes to family on one of the specially-made wooden lanterns.
“WE MISS YOU TREMENDOUSLY… WE ARE SO PROUD OF YOUR DAUGHTER JAZMIN WHO GRADUATED LAST WEEK FROM THE UNIVERSITY OF KANSAS. WE KNOW YOU WERE THERE IN SPIRIT. TILL WE MEET AGAIN DEAR BROTHER…”
Long after the last lantern has sailed, the volunteer ‘ohana takes to the waters to collect the boats, held back from floating too far into the Pacific by special lines set out before the ceremony. The volunteers collect each one, respectfully removing this year’s messages and preparing the boats for next year’s journey.
“Your humor and presence is always felt whenever we gather to laugh, to joke, to share cigars and scotch. You touched so many and were such an example to all of us. Rest well knowing you live on with all of us! Your other brother, Jan”
All images and quotes courtesy Lantern Floating Hawaii.