These Chinatown tours were made for walking

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ravel agents who want to add value to their client relationships should recommend a walking tour of Honolulu's Chinatown for an offbeat cultural excursion that's both cheap and easy on the feet.

Chinatown offers a mix of interesting Asian religious temples, cheap and tasty food, bargain flower lei vendors and a lot of colorful people.

"A lot of people like to go visit those temples for that mystical kind of stuff, and Chinatown, in general, has gone through a revitalization -- even the street lights have been redone," said Rachel Shimamoto, vice president of Travel Ways in Honolulu.

"There's a lot of sidewalk vegetable dealers and Vietnamese restaurants, and those food stalls in the marketplace are good," Shimamoto added. "And, there's a lot of lei sellers that are cheaper than those in Waikiki. To buy them in Waikiki is a convenience, but you pay a lot more."

A survey of U.S. visitors to Hawaii indicated that cultural experiences like a visit to Chinatown are some of the things tourists are seeking here.

The survey said 79% came to Hawaii to experience cultural attractions in addition to sightseeing, recreation and shopping.

Honolulu's Chinatown is adjacent to the downtown financial district and is roughly bounded by Ala Moana Boulevard, River Street, Vineyard Boulevard and Nuuanu Avenue.

For those who want a guided tour of Chinatown, there are two that cost $5 per person.

The Hawaii Heritage Center offers tours on Fridays from 9:30 a.m. to 11:30 a.m. that depart from the Ramsay Galleries at 1128 Smith St. For details, call (808) 521-2749.

The Chinese Chamber of Commerce also operates a Chinatown tour on Tuesdays starting at 9:30 a.m. from its office at 42 N. King St. For information, call (808) 533-3181.

Chinatown also is a great place to walk around unescorted.

The Maunakea Marketplace on the corner of Maunakea and Hotel streets is a good place to start a self-guided tour with a bite to eat.

The market has a busy little food court with all kinds of Asian food booths, including Thai, Vietnamese and Philippine dishes.

The atmosphere is cramped, crowded and fast-paced, but the food is really good, especially the Thai cuisine.

Outside in the courtyard, people lounge around tables, playing board games or just letting the day go by.

The numerous Vietnamese restaurants that specialize in Pho, a bone-marrow-based noodle soup with vegetables and meat, chicken or seafood served in a giant bowl, are a good bet.

"The best places to go for Vietnamese food are the ones where all the local people are eating," said Shimamoto. "Then you know it's going to be cheap and good food."

After getting some food and perhaps purchasing a lei, a visit to one or all three temples in the River Street corridor will offer a glimpse into Asian religion and spirituality.

The Shinto-faith Izumo Taishakyo Mission of Hawaii, the Taoist temple of the Lum Sai Ho Tong Society and the Buddhist Kuan Yin Temple are within a minute or two of one another by foot.

The Lum Sai Ho Tong Society temple, built in 1899, sits above an upholsterer's shop on River Street. All three temples offer relaxed, almost serene atmospheres and are open to visitors and their questions.

The Izumo Taishakyo Mission on the corner of Kukui and River streets is of Japanese origin. The primary god in this temple is Okuninushi-no Mikoto, the god of love, happiness, marriage and agriculture.

The A-frame structure is at the corner of River and Kukui streets.

Visitors wash their hands near the edge of the temple ground in what can be described as a covered square trough with a wooden ladle. This is a form of physical and spiritual cleansing required before proceeding to the shrine.

With clean hands and spirit, guests then mount the steps and pull on a thick rope that jingles a somewhat muted brass bell. The bell alerts the sacred spirits, or kami, that you are in the area.

At the entrance to the shrine, the visitor bows twice, claps twice, then bows again and offers some money to the box on the ground.

Shinto priest Daiya Amano purifies the visitor by covering his or her head with what looks to the unitiated like a wooden wand fitted with fuzzy paper strips at the end.

The temple has been in Honolulu since 1906. It was closed during World War II and wasn't reopened until 1968. It is open daily from 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. Monthly worship services take place on the 10th of each month. An interesting inner area of the temple is open on the first day of every month.

Just across the street is a Taoist temple of Chinese origin, which is quite different from its Japanese counterpart.

The Lum Sai Ho Tong Society sits above an upholsterer's shop, also on River Street.

As you mount the stairs, you can smell more than a hundred years of incense burning in your nostrils. The temple was built in 1899.

Inside, it is filled with burning incense and all kinds of elaborate altars that have the effect of transporting visitors to some other place very different from the world outside on River Street.

The attendant here, like the Japanese priest, will answer visitors' questions.

The Lum Sai Ho Tong Society is open daily from 8 a.m. to 2 p.m.

Where River Street ends at Vineyard Street is the Buddhist Kuan Yin Temple.

This temple is more visually appealing in its color schemes than the other two, with its bright reds, greens and yellows, but tends to be a bit more solemn.

It is clean and quiet inside, where giant buddhas are encased in glass and people can be seen milling about.

The people in charge here are welcoming but not engaging. Still, respectful visitors are allowed.

Sitting on the benches outside the temple and listening to the birds and soaking it all in is a fine way to pass the time.

The temple is open daily from 8:30 a.m. to 2 p.m.

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