plant2 Documenting the west coast Nikkei experience [and beyond] from the viewpoint of a hapa Nikkei graphic designer, editor, photographer, taiko player & teacher.


A Canadian Nikkei in New Denver

Nikkei INternment Memorial Centre, New Denver, BC

Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre, New Denver, BC

Talk about culture shock. Several weeks after returning from Japan, Amy, the girls and I jumped into our new Mazda5 (with roof rack and carrier added at the last second to accommodate all the gear the four of us need when “roughing it”) and headed for the Kootenays to visit my mum and sister (et al) and do some long-overdue camping. I had driven out to Nelson a number of times over the past year when my father was in the processing of dying but this was the first time in some years that the whole family had made the trek east along Highway 3.

Inevitably, the road trip turned into a mini-history lesson for Emiko and Kaya as they are finally at an age (15 & 13 respectively) where they can conceptualize history and their relationship to it. In Japan they got a taste of their Japanese roots (more about that next month) but on this trip they were able to experience a different part of their heritage as we followed the dispersal route that Japanese Canadians took on their exodus from the coast.

After crossing the new Golden Ears Bridge and passing through the Fraser Valley and Hope, I pointed out Sunshine Valley, site of the former Tashme camp (see article on page 8). I always feel a conflicting sense of claustrophobia and anticipation when driving through the area. On the one hand, the surrounding mountains can feel oppressive as they press in from all sides, while the Hope slide feels somewhat foreboding—the idea of all those tons of rock sliding down the mountain and across the highway gives me shivers. On the other hand, Hope truly is a door to the rest of the province, with a number of roads and routes to choose from as one heads either east or north. As we headed onto the Crowsnest Highway and into Manning Park, memories of my own childhood road trips came back to me. As my father knew, all one needs is a full tank of gas, a good set of tires and a sense of adventure, and anything is possible.

As we’d gotten off to a late start (necessitated by having to buy a rooftop carrier!) we stopped for the night in Osoyoos, where we spent the night in a motel room watching a Russell Peters special on TV. My Bulletin volunteers love him, and I can see why, the man is wickedly funny when it comes to race and culture (which, as he pointed out, are two different things, something I discovered myself in Japan). OK, so it was the uncensored version of his show . . . maybe the girls learned more than they needed too.

The next morning we drove through Greenwood, another former Internment “ghost town.” It’s a postcard-pretty little town, and we marvelled at the beauty of the landscape.

By the time we got to Grand Forks we were seeing the physical remains of Doukhobor structures and communities from the highway, giving rise to another history lesson for the girls. I related the history of the Doukhobors to them (a fascinating and somewhat tragic story for anyone interested in BC history) and pointed out that they were one of the few groups to show kindness and support to Japanese Canadians during the Internment years, perhaps because they themselves had been persecuted.

We arrived in Nelson that afternoon and spent the next few days reconnecting with family and exploring the area, including the Ainsworth Hot Springs. We never did get a chance to visit a real Japanese onsen while in Japan, so this was our consolation prize.

After three nights we said our farewells and headed to Silverton to do some camping. On the way, we passed Lemon Creek (see page 3) and Slocan. I’ve never taken the detour to Slocan City, but I have visited the site of the Lemon Creek camp and find it almost surreal that there is virtually no sign of the thousands of people who called it home for four years. It is like a ghost town without the town—simply ghosts . . . ghosts and fading memories . . .

Silverton proved to have a lovely little municipal campsite, right on Slocan Lake, where we set up camp for a few days. With plenty of shade and water warm enough to swim in (and a fire ban that was lifted the day before we arrived) it was lovely place to relax and spend a lot of time doing nothing.

One afternoon we drove the few kilometres up the road to New Denver and spent several hours at the Nikkei Internment Memorial Centre. It was the first time visiting the Centre for Amy and the girls and the perfect way to end our very informal Internment camp tour. Everything we had talked about and seen on our trip regarding the Internment was reinforced by the visit to the Centre, with its well-thought-out exhibits. The NIMC consists of five buildings, three of which are the original shacks built in 1942. Two of the huts are preserved virtually intact and contain furnishings and stoves used by the original occupants.

It is one thing to read about the living conditions in Internment camps, it’s another to see actual dwellings as they would have looked like, and to imagine two families living in it. Both girls were fascinated by the various artefacts and the attempts to make the places feel like home.
Toilet facilities, in the form of a row of outhouses, are also preserved, and help bring home the less-than-ideal living situation in the camps.

After viewing the buildings, we spent some time in the large central hall with its photos, texts and displays, including tents, desks, boxes and other luggage used in the journey from the coast. One item I found particularly moving was a letter written by a group of women in support of their men, many of whom had been separated from their families and sent to road camps and other isolated locations.

The garden that surrounds the buildings was designed by Roy Sumi at the age of 87 and provides a serene setting for the rest of the Centre. Although he died in 1997, his creation continues to bring pleasure to visitors and residents alike.  A visit to the Kohan Reflection Garden proved to be a perfect and restful conclusion to our New Denver experience.

Our trip concluded with a visit with my old friends and colleagues Paul Gibbons (AKA Garbanzo) and Tsuneko Kokubo (AKA Koko) at their beautiful home overlooking Slocan Lake. My mother, sister Rachel and nephew Charles joined up with us there and we spent a pleasant afternoon renewing connections.
Our holiday winding down, we took our time driving back to the coast, stopping in Greenwood for the night and collecting some delicious fruit from Osoyoos the next day before finally making it back to Port Moody in the evening. Although it felt like too short a trip, we knew we would return soon.

Judging by the stories we have been covering in The Bulletin over the past several months, there is a renewed appetite within the community for capturing the stories of the nisei. It is as if there is a collective understanding that before too long it will be too late, providing a send of urgency.  The upcoming conference, Honouring Our People: Stories of the Internment, is an attempt to provide a safe place to share stories and memories from a time that is rapidly fading into the past. I don’t believe it is intended as a forum for rehashing old grievances or injustices, but rather as a place to share and to learn. I hope that many people, both young, old and in-between, will come together in Burnaby to share and learn and connect as people with a shared heritage and legacy.

We can’t live in the past, we can only go forward, but in moving forward we can take some of the past with us, providing a sense of continuity without which we are adrift.

and when the last memory is gone, Lemon Creek will be simply a field once again . . .

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