More than in the most recent disasters around the world, I have found myself following news about the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear devastation in Japan. Because Creston has a sister city — Kaminoho — in that island nation, and because I’ve visited there, I feel a genuine connection to the people.
Our local connection to Kaminoho (which is about 500 kilometres south of Sendai, where the original earthquake was centred) came about because a former Creston resident and her husband were living there. He was teaching English and they were the rural community’s connection to Canada. Mayor Lela Irvine was the catalyst on this end — always a visionary, she saw a great opportunity for Creston to form a relationship with a small town in Japan.
After receiving delegations for several years, Irvine decided it was time for Creston to return the favour. About 16 of us signed on, including a number of youngsters, among which was my son, Evan, and his best friend, Mark. They were about 13 at that time.
We were only in Japan for about a week, but it was a memorable time. Kaminoho still had its own local government (it has since been absorbed into a larger area) and we were treated like royalty. The students were all staying with families, as were some adults. Rand Archibald and I were offered accommodation in a newly built house owned by the town. When we arrived at the home, we found the refrigerator stocked with food and drink. I fell in love with sleeping on tatami mats, which are much more comfortable that one might think.
The fellow who had spearheaded the sister city relationship had moved on and our translators were Scott and Faye Cobb, who had arrived a few months earlier. Scott would remain teaching English for a couple of years before the Cobb family relocated to Creston. Kaminoho had a small new bus and our group was taken on a new adventure every day. We visited Gifu City, the capital of the prefecture, toured a sword-making operation and traveled to other larger cities, including Kyoto. We visited cultural and historical locations, watched a spectacular fireworks show and tried all kinds of different food.
On most of our travels we were accompanied by the town’s most gracious mayor. On one memorable morning we were headed out onto the highway in our bus when the mayor instructed our driver to stop at a rest area. He popped into a store and returned with his purchase. Once we were back on the highway he went down the aisle of the bus, offering us shots of sake. He didn’t get any takers, it being only about 8 a.m. and some of us (not to mention any names) having consumed more than our fair share of alcohol on the previous evening. He ordered the driver to pull in at the next rest area. This time he returned with ice-cold beer. It was wonderful.
Archibald and I were happy with our accommodations but they weren’t to last for long. One evening we were invited to the home of the family that was hosting Evan and Mark. A selection of meat was barbecued, beer and sake were poured and the kids were given bag after bag of fireworks to light once it became dark. Somehow our hosts, who spoke next to no English, learned Rand and I weren’t staying with a family, and they insisted we move our belongings into their house. There was simply no way for us to decline.
When we walked around the picturesque village I don’t think anyone ever passed by without giving us a demure little bow. Our group was honoured in the town council chambers. On one night a huge community barbecue was held at a beautiful park, and a group of female taiko drummers entertained. Another large group assembled on our final night to give us a farewell party at the community hall. When we drove off in our bus the next morning we felt like we had, for a short time, entered into some sort of fantasy world where manners and generosity ruled.
Last week, when news hit about the earthquake the first thing I did was check on a map. Because of our connection to the wonderful people in Kaminoho I was relieved to find that the town is a good distance away, distance being an important luxury with nuclear reactors creating their own special kind of havoc. Former Advance employee Jim Jacobsen, who also taught English in Kaminoho, reported this week that he had heard no bad news from the many people he came to know in his stay there.
We can only hope, for the sake of Japan and the entire world, that the damaged nuclear reactors won’t cause even more problems. The country’s recovery from one of the strongest earthquakes on record will be a big enough challenge.
Lorne Eckersley is the publisher of the Creston Valley Advance.