By NAO GUNJI
RAFU ENGLISH ASSISTANT EDITOR
Some time last year, The Rafu Shimpo received a press release from Watsonville, Calif., regarding the preservation of a local farmhouse that once belonged to a Japanese American family.
The article indicated that construction crews took the first step toward bringing the Redman-Hirahara House back to life in September (This story was originally published in October 2008) by lifting the two-story house off its foundation.
“Interesting,” I thought. City planning and historical buildings are some of my main interests as a reporter. I Mapquested Watsonville to find out that the city is located about 330 miles north of Los Angeles. Hmmm. The Rafu doesn’t usually send its writers hundreds of miles away to report on a farmhouse preservation. I kept the article copy in a folder and put it away.
On one particularly slow spring afternoon, I went through the folder and reencountered the Watsonville article. These days, reporting often starts from a visit to google.com. To my surprise, the site quickly informed me that Watsonville has historically been a diverse, agricultural town in Northern California, which once had a very active JA community.
For example, in April 2002, the Watsonville-Santa Cruz Japanese American Citizens League did a re-enactment of the forced evacuation of Japanese Americans in 1942. The $35,000, 2-hour production called “Liberty Lost… Lessons in Loyalty” featured the stories of 13 JA families during the war and honored those who served in the U.S. Military Intelligence and the 100th/442nd Regimental Combat Team. Local media reported that more than 1,000 people showed up (2000 Census showed that the population of Watsonville was 44,265) to watch the re-enactment despite the fact that some residents said it would only bring back sad memories.
Ultimately, reading another article about the disappearance of Japantown in Watsonville made me decide to visit the area. The city is now made up of an over 70 percent Latino population, and it’s changing its face rapidly. I figured that I had to see Watsonville before it forever lost its Japanese roots. I was determined.
So last May, my husband and I took the I-5 Freeway and drove north. Prior to the trip, Sandy Lydon, historian emeritus at Cabrillo College in Aptos, gave me fabulous tips on the Monterey Bay region via email. Looking back, it was sort of a guerilla trip, but I was excited about the prospects of following the footsteps of the early Japanese immigrants in the area.
First, we hit the Henry W. Coe State Park off U.S. Highway 101. This 87,000-acre park is located about 10 miles northeast of Gilroy—self-proclaimed garlic capital of the world. According to Sandy’s tips, it houses the site of the Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs Resort, which used to be a popular Japanese onsen in the late 1930s and 40s. It usually doesn’t take much convincing to allure any Japanese to onsen, and I am no exception.
Although Sandy mentioned that the site is currently closed to the public, the idea of checking out the retro onsen resort in the middle of a mountain range was too tempting, too magical.
Coe Park is not exactly your neighborhood playground. It is the largest California state park with lofty ridges and canyons, lakes and a broad range of wildlife, from quail to coyote, deer to mountain lion. We drove up the mountain for a good 30 minutes, then hiked 10 minutes to reach the park headquarters visitor center. The park is beautiful, but its rough nature was almost eerie. We didn’t encounter anybody until we were finally welcomed by two friendly rangers manning the visitor center.
The rangers told us that we had to go back the way we came and find a different park entrance to get to the hot springs site, which was over an hour away from where we were. Also, as Sandy warned me, the site can only be accessed with a ranger, and only by appointment due to its hazardous condition. They kindly gave us the ranger’s phone number to inquire about the tour, but told us that he was probably on his day off.
There we were, back on the winding roads, then the freeway. I called the ranger, but sure enough, it was his voicemail. I left a long and urgent message explaining that we drove from Los Angeles and only had that afternoon to check the hot springs. By the time we found ourselves in front of the closed gate to the former Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs Resort, it was nearly 5 p.m. The area was so secluded, it was hard to believe that this was once a popular resort destination for many Japanese Americans in Northern California.
Staring at the “No Trespassing” sign on the gate, I damned myself for not having prepared enough for the trip. It was getting dark. At the same time, my curiosity grew stronger and stronger as we stood there. After a quick gather-around, we decided to jump over the gate and run to the site. (* Readers are strongly recommended to make an appointment and follow the park rules. The site condition is hazardous and it’s isolated from the hiking trails.) My heart pumped faster and my adrenaline rushed through my body. Stories of reckless tourists who ended up getting killed crossed my mind.
I thought about a mad man (or a group of mad men…) attacking us for money, or just for fun, perhaps. “When that happens, you run and get help,” said my husband. I guess I was thinking aloud…We must have run a mile or so up the mountain. I felt the sweat forming on my face and back. There were a couple of small, abandoned shacks on the way, but we kept going, looking for the images I saw on Google prior to the trip. Soon, we arrived at an open area, which could have been parking in the past, and found what used to be a hot springs resort on the steep mountain hill.
It looked like a ghost village, but the California historical landmark plaque and a water tank unmistakably pointed that it was indeed the Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs Resort.
According to a source, the Gilroy Hot Springs was established around 1870 and famed for its mineral hot springs. In 1938, the resort was purchased by Kyozaburo Sakata, a successful Japanese lettuce farmer from Watsonville. It became the first and only Japanese American-owned commercial hot spring in California and served as a recreational center for JAs before World War II. The 160-acre property was sold to Philip S. Grimes, a landscape architect from Portola Valley, in 1964 and was operated as a private resort until 1988, when it was purchased by Fukuyama International Inc. from Osaka, Japan. Fukuyama attempted to rehabilitate the resort, but it was eventually sold to the California Department of Parks and Recreation without ever reopening.
A rundown hut, which housed the Church of New Born (Kosei Kyokai), and a small Shinto shrine at the top of the slope is evidence that the Gilroy Hot Springs Resort was once a spiritual center among the local Japanese. Although the modern graffiti on the walls indicated otherwise, standing among those surviving structures enabled me to experience instant time travel. Despite the initial ghost town-like spookiness, it was as if I could almost hear and see children laughing and running down the hill and people sipping sake in the hot springs. I guess I could see why this place never regained its popularity after being sold to a Japanese company in the 80s. The area is too secluded and lacks a certain sense of glamour to be a modern, successful, commercial resort. However, one can easily see how the Gilroy Hot Springs Resort became a powerful symbol to the early Japanese immigrants. The surrounding nature is calming and majestic, and the hot springs reminded of similar physiographic features of their native land.
Rain…I was prepared for the “long-sleeve” weather in No. Cal, but I didn’t expect the “sweater” cold in May. We checked in at the Holiday Inn in Watsonville the evening before, but didn’t have much time to explore the town. It didn’t take us long to find out that we had indeed seen most of the town the day before while driving from Gilroy to the hotel, which is located at the west end of Watsonville.
I called Mas Hashimoto, a longtime Watsonville resident, to see if he could accompany us to the Hirahara-Redman House and give us a tour of the town in the afternoon, but unfortunately, I got his voicemail. Later on, I found out that both Mas and Sandy were volunteering in the fights against the Summit Fire, which burned more than 4,000 acres in the Santa Cruz Mountains that very weekend. Despite the proximity to the fire, things were calm and quiet, no smoke was in sight from Watsonville.
Undeterred, our first agenda of the day was Castroville Japanese School. In 1936, the Japanese community built an elementary school in Castroville to serve the growing number of Nisei reaching school age. Many of the JA kids living in and around the neighborhood attended the school until it was closed immediately following the bombing of Pearl Harbor in 1941. After returning from the internment camps, many families suffered anti-Japanese sentiment and extreme housing shortage. Several young men from those families used the school as a bunkhouse. In the 1990s, former Castroville Japanese School student, Kunio Sumida, of Los Angeles, began a campaign to have the school building placed on the National Register of Historic Places. Currently owned by Monterey County, a local group has decided to preserve the school as a community center.
Located 12 miles south of Watsonville, today’s Castroville is the self-proclaimed “artichoke center of the world,” producing 75 percent of the U.S. artichoke supply. The drive from Watsonville on Highway 1 was very scenic, field after field of green. Not sure what those green crops were (artichokes would be my first guess), but miles of green in the drizzle looked mysterious and somehow sacred to my eyes. With the population less than 7,000 (86 percent are Latinos), Castroville is a rather sleepy town. No Wal-Mart, no Mcdonald’s. It’s one of those towns that have one main street and pretty much everything is located around it. Although we didn’t have the exact address of the school, we were able to locate it right away.
Perhaps it was because of the gloomy, cold weather. Or maybe kids were helping their parents on the fields. Whatever the reason, the rundown building of Castroville Japanese School stood quietly that Saturday morning. There was a Little League baseball/softball field adjacent to the school on the site, but there were no kids, no adults, not even a cat, seen nearby. That, with the deteriorating condition of the building, made the school look like it was left behind and forgotten. I guess the construction to renovate the school into a community center hadn’t started yet. There was wire fencing around the building, and the windows and doors were boarded off. I looked for any sign of school activities left around the building, like textbooks, notes, chalk, and chairs, but had no luck. We took a bunch of pictures and quickly rushed back inside the car, shivering.
On the way back to Highway 1, we stopped by at a local produce market to take a quick picture with the “World’s Largest Artichoke.” When one has a chance to be photographed with a 20-foot-tall steel vegetable, why not… right?
All the artichoke signs (and the giant artichoke) made us hungry, hungry for the hearty vegetable. Unfortunately, we have never been the kind of tourists who look up a guidebook in advance to investigate promising restaurants in a neighborhood. Well, I used to, but I’ve learned that you often have a hard time locating them and looking good in print doesn’t necessarily mean good food. We figured that it would be impossible for any eateries not to serve delicious artichokes in the vicinity of the artichoke center of the world. We tried whatever looked semi-decent. And we hit the jackpot, big time.
Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery is situated in Moss Landing, off Highway 1 between Watsonville and Castroville. We spotted the “Welcome to Moss Landing: Heart of the Monterey Bay” sign from the highway and made a speedy U-turn to check it out. From my experiences, going to a touristy eatery is often suicide. I had never heard of Moss Landing, and the sign looked very touristy. But you know what, when you’re hungry, you eat anything. I repeated the mantra in my head and followed the sign. Soon, we saw a dozen people standing on the side of the road looking down a small landing. Between the leisure yachts and fishing boats, there were a handful of sea otters swimming and floating in the water. Wow, Moss Landing seemed suddenly so promising. We snapped some photos and then drove a couple more blocks to find Phil’s Fish Market with its parking nearly full. It wasn’t even noon, yet. Another good sign.
Housing a fresh fish market inside, Phil’s Fish Market & Eatery serves an extensive list of fresh seafood dishes including Phil’s famous Cioppino (tomato-based seafood stew) and, of course, French-fried artichoke hearts. Not knowing the size of the dish, I ordered Cioppino-in-a-Bun ($18.95) served with Green salad and Garlic Bread, and Fried Smelt ($7.95) for me and New England Clam Chowder-in-a-Bun ($6.95) and French-fried Hearts (12 pieces, $6.95) for my husband.
My husband loooves New England clam chowder. He tries it at every occasion possible, and he had just eaten chowder-in-a-bun on the Santa Cruz pier the night before, which he apparently was not satisfied with. So when it comes to clam chowder, he definitely knows what he’s talking about, and he said Phil’s chowder made it in his “Top 3 Ever.” I like clam chowder too, but can’t stand sourdough bread. Despite that, I gave Phil’s chowder-in-a-bun a thumbs up. It was very rich in butter and thick with fresh clams. The artichokes were also great. Mouthful hearts were coated with crispy breading. The dish came with Mayonnaise sauce, but the artichokes had more than enough flavor to be eaten just with sprinkles of Parmesan cheese.
I have to say that my Cioppino and fried smelt were, by far, the real winners of the day. I have this side-to-side rocking motion with a grin I do when I am eating something really tasty, and the victory dance didn’t stop at the table. The smelt was fresh and had no fishy smell. They smelled like the ocean, an appetizing fragrance, not an aggressive odor. I tried them with the Italian dipping sauce and with fresh squeezed lemon. One of my favorite seafood dishes is grilled shishamo with eggs, and the fried smelt tasted like a bit bland version of shishamo. I devoured them one after another, soon the heads of those poor smelt piled up on my plate. My taste buds are typically that of a Japanese person, I think. I love fish, I can eat mackerel, squid, snapper for breakfast, lunch and dinner. But my husband, he is more like a shrimp and salmon guy. Nothing wrong with it, but they are the seafood 101, beginners’ choice, if you ask me. However, to my surprise, he liked the fried smelt. He didn’t spread his nostrils with excitement like I did, but he thought they were quite all right.
And the Cioppino! This was an obvious hit for both of us. Once featured on Food Network, the tomato-flavored seafood broth was so tasty and chunky with Dungeness crab, prawns, calamari, mussels, scallops, clams, and white fish. It made my list of potential Christmas gifts (Phil’s Cioppino is available for purchase online at www.philsfishmarket.com). I would come back to Phil’s just to have a sip of this delicious soup.
Back on Highway 1. Our next destination was the main attraction of the trip: the Redman-Hirahara House. Driving back from Castroville and Moss Landing, the house functions as the entrance to the City of Watsonville along the highway. Accompanied with 10 acres of organic farmland, the 4,000-square-foot Hirahara House stood inside wired fence, which bore the banner, “You Can Restore This House. Please Donate.
www.REDMANHOUSE.com.” I expected to see an information booth or a gate to sign in, but the house sat there casually among tractors, farming equipment and a barn. As we approached the house, I saw a woman inside the small residence located a few feet away from the Hirahara House. “Can we take a look at the house?” I yelled at her. “Go right ahead,” she yelled back. It must be her family who’s leasing the organic field from the Redman-Hirahara Foundation.
Built in 1887 for sugar beet farmer James Redman, the Queen Anne Victorian house was sold to the Hiraharas in 1930. The Japanese American family occupied the house until it was sold to investors in 1989. The land was leased for commercial strawberry farming and the house was left to deteriorate. In 1998, a group of local residents formed the Redman House Committee to save the neglected house and develop a new public facility. The Committee added the house to the National Registry of Historic Places to prohibit demolition and designed a conceptual master plan to transform the site into a landmark visitor and cultural education center. In 2001, the Redman-Hirahara Foundation was formed and the group purchased the total 14-acre property in 2004 for $1.9 million. As I mentioned before, the two-story structure was lifted off its foundation last year so that the damaged underpinnings can be replaced. The Foundation hopes that the $4.2 million restoration will eventually draw in hundreds of thousands of tourists who pass by the house each year.
The house is elegant, despite its ghost-house like condition. It has an intimidating presence, and it’s not hard to imagine that this was once a farming headquarters in the area. There are many Victorian gems still existing in Watsonville, but this one is special in its size. It was said that the interior of the house was furnished in eastern oak, birds eye maple and natural hardwood and contained all the conveniences of modern housekeeping. I looked at the details of the roofing and the gables in awe. I am no architecture expert, but I know that Queen Ann is the most elaborate and eccentric of all the Victorian house styles. It is often called romantic and feminine. I thought maybe I would see a ghost of a little girl looking down on me if I stared at the windows long enough. The Hiraharas must have been pretty successful farmers. Like in many other cities on the West Coast, Japanese Americans in this small city of the Pajaro Valley couldn’t escape the internment. The Hiraharas opened up the house as a temporary shelter to several JA families who lost their properties during the internment. I’ve heard that a few of the family members still live in the area, but I wasn’t able to get in touch with them unfortunately.
“I knew of them,” said Mas, a Watsonville native, speaking to me over the phone a few days after my return to Los Angeles. He said he went to school with some of the Hirahara children.
Mas’ father had an udon restaurant and sake brewery in the heart of Watsonville Japantown in the early 1900s. The family became farmers after his father passed away. According to Mas, in those days, 10 percent of the Watsonville population was Japanese American (approximately 800), and the Japantown on Union Street consisted of grocery stores, a tofu shop, bicycle repair shop, boarding house, clinic, Buddhist temple, Japanese school, community center, baseball field and a number of restaurants and barbershops.
Today, Japantown is almost non-existent with only a couple of JA businesses left. The population has decreased to less than half of what it used to be.
“A lot of Japanese Americans had their start here in Watsonville. There are so many families who have their roots here,” Mas, 72, said. “We had good relationships with Filipino, Chinese and Caucasians. One of the things we all had in common was we were poor. We went to school together, we worked together.”
“Today, kids don’t stay (in Watsonville). They get their engineering degrees and get engineering jobs in bigger cities,” the retired high school history teacher said.
He was responsible for the 2002 re-enactment of the internment in Watsonville. Mas, who was interned at Poston as a child, remembers a JA family who used to own a gun store in Japantown, Watsonville. Their business was raided after the attack of Pearl Harbor in spite of the fact that the owner took precaution by going to the police and followed their instructions on what to do with their merchandise. After the war, local politicians voted 15 to 3 for resolutions opposing the return of the JA internees to Watsonville.
“We didn’t care about the 15, but we wanted to know who those three were,” Mas reminisces. “One of the really important things is what we call ‘kansha.’ That’s to give thanks to those who supported us when it wasn’t a popular thing to do.”
Last Day. We left Watsonville in the morning and headed to the Point Lobos State Reserve in Carmel. It was only a couple days in Watsonville, but we already felt at home—small town charm. We got back on Highway 1, through Monterey, then Carmel which was just a 30-, 40-minute drive away. One of the first things tourists from Southern California will notice while traveling through Northern California has to be the greenery. Trees, trees, trees everywhere. It was truly refreshing to my eyes, my nose and to my lungs.
Carmel is a small coastal town in the forest. It has a mile long white sandy beach and is known as a cultural mecca for performing and visual arts. There are many cute coffee shops and boutiques on the main street, but to me, Carmel is too neat, kind of uppish. But I won’t miss a chance to go back, solely because of the local state park—Point Lobos State Reserve.
We made this park our final destination due to Sandy Lydon’s suggestion to check out the Whalers Cabin and the Whaling Station Museum situated inside the park. Other than that, I had no idea what this place had to offer, but figured hiking around the park would be a nice way to get some exercise.
Pay $10 for parking, and you enter what is known as a “living museum” and “the crown jewel of the State Park system.”
Point Lobos can be summed up with these key words—cypress, irregular coves, sea creatures, nature trails and the Pacific Ocean. When we drove into the park, I immediately thought about my mother, who loves sceneries of nature, particularly wild, rough and poetic nature. Cypress is often a symbol of sorrow, death and eternal life. I hate to say it, but if I ever decided to commit suicide, this place would be the venue. Point Lobos’ beauty is nothing cheerful, sweet or dreamy. It’s rough, intimidating, scary, crisp and majestic. Big, white waves slap the dark rocks in the coves, and the dark greenish ocean glistens with mystery. The Monterey cypress trees have survived the salt spray and wind for centuries with their roots seeking nourishment in cracks and crevices. The 554-acre park offers 13 trails (range from a mile to 7 miles), three beaches, close encounters with sea lions and seals, and numerous scenic points.
First, we headed to Cannery Point to visit the Whalers Cabin and the Whaling Station Museum. As we got out of the car, the chilly winds from the ocean brushed off my face. There was a group of scuba divers putting on the gear and preparing to submerge into the dark water. I love water sports, but there is no way I would dive into this scary, cold water, ever. My husband pointed out a dead sea otter floating on the water. See, it’s hard even for a sea creature to survive here. “This is no place for humans,” I said to him.
We took a 15-minute hike to the Whalers Cabin and the Whaling Station Museum. My breath was white, but I was finally getting warmer. The significance of this place to us is that early Chinese and Japanese immigrants pioneered whaling and abalone harvesting the late 19th century. The small wooden building, which houses the museum today, was originally built as a residence for a Chinese fisherman and his family in the early 1850s. The Cabin is adjacent to the Museum and is one of the oldest wood-frame buildings of Chinese origin remaining in Monterey County.
Perhaps the most noteworthy venture at Point Lobos was the partnership between a local entrepreneur, Alexander Allan and a Japanese marine biologist, Gennosuke Kodani. Kodani arrived at Point Lobos to investigate reports of rich beds of abalone in the area and soon sent for workers from his native village of Chiba, Japan. Allan and Kodani established and operated an abalone fishery in 1898. The abalone cannery was built in 1902. It was so successful it eventually accounted for 75 percent of the abalone sold in California. The museum brochure states that their full-fledged partnership continued for over 30 years. The State of California purchased Point Lobos from Allan’s heirs for $631,000 in 1933. Although the abalone cannery was shut down, Japanese divers continued to harvest abalone, which was a delicacy in Japan, until shortly after WWII. Today, divers are permitted access to Whalers Cove under strict regulations to preserve the underwater environment in its natural state.
We took a quick look in and around the Cabin and checked out a nearly 100-year-old fin-back whale skeleton. With the advent of kerosene lamps in the late 1880s, demand for whale oil slacked off and the Point Lobos whaling industry fell on hard times. There was a brief revival of whaling operations in the area in 1897 when a Japanese company set up business, but this lasted only a few years.
The Museum documents the historical whaling activities at Point Lobos with displays of whaling equipment and exhibit panels describing the lives of the whalers and their families. A knowledgeable guide at the Museum told us about some of the must-see trails in the park, and we decided to head to one of them, Sea Lion Point.
Everyone else must have been thinking the same thing. Unlike other parts of the park, Sea Lion Point Trail was packed with families. We had to loop a few times around the parking to finally find a spot. My husband left the car keys with a ranger to rent out a pair of binoculars, and we started the hike. Instead of heading to the sea lion sighting directly, we walked part of Cypress Grove Trail for a mile or so to enjoy the views.
Interestingly, the ocean view from the trail reminded me of Japan—Sea of Japan, to be precise. Sea of Japan, which is located east (left-hand side on the map) of the nation, is often considered to be rough. Many enka (Japanese country music) songs sing about the Sea of Japan due to its images associated with “cold,” “perseverance” and “sorrow.” Did the early Japanese immigrants think of their homeland when they stood here and looked down the ocean? I remember I used to think about my family every time I saw the ocean when I was still new to this country. That’s the “they are looking at the same moon I’m looking at” nostalgia. The dark, choppy water and evergreen trees at Point Lobos certainly highlight the effect.
After snapping several photos, we made a U-turn to join the Sea Lion Point Trail. Soon, my husband pointed out a herd of sea otters in the distance. We whipped out the binoculars and looked at the tiny black dots floating and playfully bobbing on the surface of the water. Through the lenses, I could see them biting on the kelp, which they used to wrap themselves, and looking absolutely adorable.
This sandy trail was much tougher than the almost flat Cypress Grove one. A rocky staircase led us to a lower trail, which is made of 55-million-year-old rock conglomerate. Some tourists were admiring magnificent ocean views and the sedimentary rocks, but most of us were very much distracted by the sea lions and seals lying on the rocks about 100 feet away. They were everywhere, and the park brochure warns visitors to remain a safe distance from them.
I have seen wild sea lions at the piers in San Francisco, but that’s a pretty controlled environment. You are up there on the pier, looking down on them. At Point Lobos, you’re on eye-level with those lovable creatures. Only the water between you, and that’s wild.
We saw baby seals, we saw them napping on the rock, we saw them moving their body slowly and jumping into the water, we saw them black, white, brown and multi-colored. We kept pointing them one by one tirelessly and giggled over each move they made. We were told that the name Point Lobos refers to sea lions and their barking. The earlier Spanish name was “Punta de los Lobos Marinos,” translating to “Point of the Sea Wolves.” I personally thought they sounded too humorous to be wolves, though.
So, the trip ended. It ended with an unexpected Discovery Channel-like adventure. Well, actually, we stopped by in Monterey to have lunch and had a very interesting drive off the major highways through Central California, but I will save that story for another time. As I previously mentioned, this truly was a guerilla trip, but I felt fortunate to have the opportunity to learn about the Japanese American history outside of Los Angeles. I am happy to report here that the efforts to preserve the history are blossoming. The JA population may be shrinking in the region today, nonetheless, their legacy still has a big presence.