Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

East meets West

Why Japanese fishing village proudly flies a Canadian flag

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MIO, Wakayama, Japan The bright mid-morning sun shone across the garden and on to the sliding doors of Komiyoji Temple. I stood there in silence in a village far from the tourist-filled gardens of Kyoto and the car-jammed avenues of Osaka. Removing my shoes, I entered the temple's front vestibule to meet Obon-san (Reverend) Miwa.

Last spring, I had come from Gobo train station to this small fishing village in Wakayama prefecture, with its panoramic views over the Pacific.

Part of the town of Mihama proper, you won't find Mio listed in any guidebook outside Japan, yet here it has modest notoriety due to a TV documentary some years ago about Mio, known more commonly as America-mura.

America-mura? Translated it means American village, because there's a story that leads to North America.

That story also leads to my family and brought me here on my second trip to Wakayama. My late mother, who was born in Prince Rupert, B.C., and spent her childhood on Vancouver's Powell Street, was born of parents from this village. Miwa-san was to show me to a graveyard a short drive away where I could pay respects to grandparents I never knew.

My maternal grandparents were hardly lone pioneers from this remote village though, and Canadians have long visited this place. Mio is linked as with an umbilical cord to B.C., specifically the town of Steveston, now a part of Richmond.

From the late 19th century, Mio immigrants in Steveston were predominant in the traditional Japanese-Canadian fishing community. Until the 1980s, you could stroll Moncton Street and regularly run into their descendants. Since 1973, Richmond has been twinned to a city near Mio.

"It was remarkable, over 2,000 immigrants from Mio were in Canada (in 1940)," said local historian Hisakazu Nishihama. "In Mio less than 2,000 were left."

The first Mio immigrant, Gihei Kuno, arrived on his own in 1888, according to Nishihama, who is a retired teacher and an expert on Canada's Mio story. I met him through local town official Masafumi Morishita whose help was indispensable during my stay.

During the latter half of the 19th century, Mio, with little arable land and a dependency on fishing, suffered a long string of droughts, typhoons and tsunamis causing famine and epidemics.

Gihei Kuno, a prominent master carpenter, had gone to Kobe and then Yokohama to earn money to construct a seawall in Mio's bay. In Yokohama, he heard of the promise of Canada. At 34, he came to this country and found, in Steveston, a handful of Japanese fishermen and boat builders. When he wrote home extolling the Fraser River's extraordinary salmon-fishing potential, small groups of immigrants began to follow his lead, most to fish. My grandfather arrived in 1892.

At a time when contact between the rest of Japan and North America remained limited, people from Mio would regularly wear western fashions and English words were not uncommon in the village.

It is easy to see what lured so many to settle in B.C. Wakayama Prefecture is a spectacular wild inland area of lush forested mountains surrounded on three sides by fish-abundant sea. Mio was a village that lived on the harvests from sea and forested mountains. These mountains became home to important Buddhist communities.

On the edge of Mio village, I ascended a small asphalt path to a two-level graveyard set against wooded hills of juniper, pine, sumac, cedar and bamboo. Soft hued, like brushed watercolour, it looked like a typical Japanese landscape painting.

Most foreigners familiar with Wakayama prefecture know it because of Mount Koya, headquarters of esoteric Shingon Buddhism.

Mio itself has no big tourist draws. Yet it offers a glimpse of everyday rural Japan and extends a wonderful welcome to Canadians -- especially British Columbians. Mio, on a rocky Pacific hillside rising from Wada Bay, has only a single main road hugging the coastline. On the beach, villagers, some quite elderly, step over jagged black rocks to collect and dry hijiki (stringy dark seaweed common in B.C.'s Japanese and health food shops) as locals always have.

Leading off this road are narrow paved paths not much more than a metre wide where villagers young and old climb and descend the terrain on foot or ride bikes and scooters. Each day, I passed women crouched over small gardens and roadside fields, tending their vegetables and flowers. There are many modern and tidy homes in the village, but dominating from any vantage point are the charcoal slate roof tiles over old houses with weathered dark plank walls. Inside the front doors of these wooden houses, the floor is raised off the sandy ground. You remove shoes, and climb to the floor.

The two lovely Buddhist temples, Komiyoji and Hozenji, were established in 1563 and 1672 respectively.

In the entrance way of Hozenji, I gazed at one of the many small natural wood plaques brushed with black calligraphy hung on the wall. It bore the name of my late uncle -- he spent much of his youth here -- one of many Canadians with Mio roots who had donated money to maintain its temples.

One day, I accompanied Nishihama-san up the main road that first skirts the shoreline and then ascends to Hinomisaki, above Mio, through a wooded hillside overlooking the sea, lush with tall verdant grasses, palms, bamboo and cherry trees.

Incongruously, the red maple leaf of a Canadian flag blew on its tall flagpole alongside the scarlet disc of the flag of Japan.

I followed Nishihama and through a plain door stepped into something surprising in off-the-beaten-path Japan: a modest museum of Canadian artifacts.

Here were scratched leather steamer trunks, a lumberjack shirt, dented pots, vintage photos and documents and even a mounted moose head. Prized among these were coastal First Nations pieces -- carved masks, a sweater and a small totem pole.

A photo of pioneer Gihei Kuno hung prominently at the museum's entrance.

Near that were pictures from the commemoration of the centenary of Kuno's arrival. That celebration has inspired an ongoing friendship between Mio and Canada.

-- Canwest News Service

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition May 16, 2009 E5

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