Second of Two Parts
By JUNKO YOSHIDA, Japanese Section Writer
“Wonderful friends, precious memories, two suitcases. This is our new start.”
Tomoyo and Shigeo Kojima were forced to evacuate from their home because of the Camp Fire on Nov. 8.
Faced with intense flames, they evacuated from their house with their three Doberman dogs and a few clothes.
Named after Camp Creek Road, its place of origin, the fire started in Butte County. The deadliest and most destructive wildfire in California history, it caused at least 86 fatalities and destroyed 18,804 structures.
”Our Hopes Have Been Dashed”
On the day that wildfire broke out, they headed to the next town, Oroville, located about 20 miles south of Paradise, and spent a night in their car in a casino parking lot. After that, they moved to Williams and stayed at a motel for 15 days. Right after the wildfire, their insurance company contacted them and took care of their lodging expenses.
They couldn’t go back to Paradise for a while and couldn’t find out about the status of their residence and restaurant. However, one day they saw photos taken by City of Paradise and were shocked to know that their two houses and restaurant were destroyed. They lost everything.
“When we fled our home, we saw that our back yard started burning. At that moment, we thought that this was not normal wildfire and realized that probably we would not be able to come back to our home easily.” Tomoyo said. “We had hoped that at least one of our houses or the restaurant might be able to survive. However, everything was burned down.”
Tomoyo and Shigeo met 26 years ago. They were brought together by their love of motorcycles. One year later, they were married, and this year was very special for them.
“We were celebrating the 25th anniversary of our marriage and 10-year anniversary of obtaining U.S. citizenship,” Tomoyo said. “And finally we were done with renovating our dream home. It took two years.”
To celebrate their anniversary, they had just bought two motorcycles. “Right after the wildfire, we thought we don’t have enough energy to rebuild everything again.”
Now they bought fifth wheel camper and live at an RV Park in Red Bluff, Tehama County. Many Paradise residents evacuated to the park, so they always share any new information about their town.
The entire town was destroyed. Some residents guess that it would take 10 years for to restore it, while others say they will not go back to Paradise again.
“One day, we want to go back to Paradise. Paradise always gave us strength,” Tomoyo said.
”Even If It Takes Years, We Want to Go Back”
Paradise, with a population of 27,000, is a small town and residents know each other. They create a community by helping each other.
Tomoyo and Shigeo used to live in San Luis Obispo. One day they visited Paradise and it fascinated them so much. They thought, “This is our place to live, where we will enjoy our entire life.” They have lived in Paradise for 15 years.
They opened a Japanese restaurant in Paradise in 2012, and it became popular. Five years later, they finally moved the restaurant to the location where they had originally wanted to open. Their dream came true.
Every year, they created T-shirts representing the Japanese zodiac, eto (干支), and next year’s T-shirt was just finished before the wildfire.
They found out via Facebook that their customers and friends were safe. “We lost our house but our friends are safe. That makes us relieved,” Tomoyo said.
On Thanksgiving Day, one of their employee visited the motel where they were staying and celebrated with them. He had been working at their restaurant since they opened it.
“We miss our employees so much. They are like our family. Everyone is having a hard time now. One of them moved to Reno, Nevada and the other in Georgia. One day we want to reopen the restaurant together. We wish we could go back to our happy days.”
They already have their goal and new dream. “We want to start a new restaurant called Ikkyu Paradise in Red Bluff, where we live now. A food truck is good enough for now. And someday, when people see us, we hope this name reminds them of Ikkyu, our restaurant in Paradise. We definitely will go back to Paradise.”
Appreciation for Japanese Spirit
Many of their friends also worried about them. Right after the wildfire was reported, a Japanese trading company that they work with contacted them. Representatives came to Red Bluff and brought them lots of Japanese food and a rice cooker.
“We really appreciate the Japanese spirit to help each other. We were touched by people’s kindness,” the couple said.
“The most important thing is life. If we hadn’t taken one of our dogs, we are sure that we would have regretted it later … Family is irreplaceable. We support each other, whatever situation we are in. We will survive and we can do it. Ganbaru (頑張る)!”
Tomoyo came to America with one suitcase. She lost everything. However, she has a husband now and the number of suitcases has increased to two. They are now at the starting line to create their new life.
“We don’t want to end it like this. Our employees are waiting for us to start a new restaurant. Wherever we are, we will celebrate our seven-year anniversary, eight-year anniversary and more.”