A feast of sensory experiences greeted those attending the Wakamatsu Colony Festival last Saturday.
A cross-cultural event that attracted between 500 and 600 guests, the festival celebrated the 6,000 year history of the site, while focusing on the strong agricultural and cultural influence exerted by Japanese immigrants who, at one time, operated a tea and silk growing colony on the property in the 1870s.
The current owner is the American River Conservancy, which bought the property last year.
The festival began with a memorial service at the gravesite of Okei Ito, who was one of the original Japanese settlers at the colony and who died at the young age of 19. The ceremony was conducted by two different Buddhist priests, one of whom was from Hawaii. Afterwards students from nearby Gold Trail School sang a lullaby in Japanese in honor of Okei-san while visitors lit incense at her gravesite.
Said to be the first woman of Japanese descent to die and be buried in North America, Okei-san’s gravesite is a shrine for many Japanese-Americans as well as Japanese tourists who visit it to pay homage to her memory.
The rest of the day was a celebration of different Japanese cultural traditions along with tours of the property which highlighted its long and colorful history.
One of the most popular events was a rousing demonstrations of synchronized drumming by the Placer Ume Taiko Drummers. Taiko, which literally means big drum, originated in the festivals and rituals of ancient Japan’s agricultural society. It is now recognized internationally as a performance art and as a way to “focus the mind, body, and spirit.”
Drummers are taught to perform traditional compositions but also to write their own. One of those performed at the festival was called “hot fudge sundae.”
One of their drummers was Barbara Kitz. A school counselor, she said she was attracted to the drumming because the first time she saw them performing she liked the dragonflies on their costumes and loved the music. “I felt it in my bones and down to my feet. It sung to me,” she said.
Another drummer was Clara Hada from Newcastle. A member of the Buddhist Church in Placer, she will be 81 in August and has been drumming since 2003. “I’m living my dream,” she smiled. “I have always loved it and the purpose is to keep the art alive.”
Other events at the festival included dancing by the Placer Tomodachi Dance Group which ended with members of the audience joining in and a musical performance by Naoko on the Koto, which is a traditional Japanese stringed musical instrument.
While the entertainment was going on, other activities were taking place including sake tasting, tours of the buildings, a sushi demonstration, a display of Temari balls which are elegant handmade toys, wine tasting, a pottery demonstration, sales of books and t-shirts featuring Okei-san, an origami demonstration, and a display of traditional samurai swords.
A special VIP was also present for the event. Hiroshi Inomata, the consul general of Japan, joined El Dorado County Supervisor John Knight in planting a “friendship tree” on the site. Inomata donated the tree, saying that the Japanese had donated the cherry trees in Washington, D.C., and this tree was “part of our legacy.”
The balance of the afternoon was spent watching a Tameshi-giri sword and a Ken-jitsu Martial Arts demonstration. Leading the group was sensei, Harunaka Hoshino, who is the president of a group called the San Francisco Nipponto Society.
Besides being a seventh degree black belt in Ken-jitsu and a sixth degree black belt in karate, he is an expert in the buying and selling of Japanese swords and in sword restoration. He said one of the swords in his collection is 1,000 years old and he has a spear tip that is 36 inches long.
Hoshino and his group demonstrated a mock fight with bamboo sticks, cutting techniques demonstrated on bamboo sticks accompanied by the ritual shaking of “blood” from the sword, and other martial arts techniques.
The afternoon’s events closed with a discussion of the mysterious Schnell brothers who brought the Japanese samurai and colonists to the site and a closing circle dance.
Catherine Ciofalo, a member of the board of directors of the American River Conservancy, said they hope to earn $20,000 from the event with the proceeds going towards the mortgage and for upkeep on the 272-acre site.
Ciofalo said future plans include growing and selling vegetables to local schools and putting more of the acreage into use. At present they do monthly tours and plan to partner in the future with local vineyards. They are also in the process of installing a hedgerow between the wetlands and the farm acreage, putting in an amphibian monitoring station, and are working with the U.S. Forest Service to do more wetlands restoration.
“We acquired the site because it was an opportunity to show children how agriculture and wildlife can co-exist. We have springs and amazing wildlife here. People have lived on the property for 5,000 years.
“At one time it was the site of a major American Indian settlement. The Indians settled here because plants grew around the springs. On the property is the headwater for Granite and Shingle creeks.
“The Japanese grew rice, grapes and other foods on the property. Visitors from Japan come all the time and in some cases, several generations have visited the site. Then after the Japanese, the Veerkamp family ran the place and up until the 1970s it was a working farm and later a working cattle ranch. In the past, people in the area used to come here for their food supplies because of the vegetables, fruit, and livestock available. This was also a major dairy and the owners operated a slaughterhouse.”
Ciofalo said because of the depth of history of the site and the number of people with a vested interest in preserving it, they are confident in their plans.
“We have high hopes and lots of community support,” she said.