Powder, Pedalling and Pandemic: Searching for 
Roots in the Mountains of Japan

On a trip to Japan interrupted by the coronavirus, pro snowboarder and environmentalist Tamo Campos discovers that the long, winding road leads him exactly where he needs to be. Words :: Tamo Campos.

 

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Tamo Campos in Hokkaido. Photo: Colin Arisman

 

“The first Chilean samurai!” My Chilean grandpa, Tata, always called me that, referring to my Japanese/Chilean heritage. Growing up in Vancouver, however, I always felt more Chilean than Japanese. Perhaps it was the many summers I’d spent in South America to snowboard and visit family, or that I can speak Spanish but not Japanese. Unfortunately, it could have also been racism.

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Though born in Canada, my grandparents have Japanese heritage, which meant the Canadian government labeled them “enemy aliens” during WWII. Uprooted from their homes and stripped of their belongings, they were forced to live in shacks and animal pens. My experiences growing up in the 1990s pale in comparison to what they endured, but I hold vivid memories of being taunted in elementary school for having skinny, slanted eyes and eating “smelly” food.

After spending our childhood trying to hide that part of our heritage, my younger sister and I set off on a cycling journey in January 2020 to search for our Japanese roots. We wanted to visit the land of our ancestors and find those missing links and pieces of our identities. We kept our plans and schedules loose, open to tangents and impromptu discoveries—but we didn’t know it at the time, a global pandemic was about to transform our journey.

 

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Photo: Colin Arisman

 

January 2020 – North to Hokkaido

I arrived in Japan one month before my sister, having secured a gig filming a short CBC piece about my Japanese heritage and snowboarding as part of the lead-up to the 2020 Tokyo Summer Olympic Games. The little rental minivan, stuffed with snowboard gear, myself and a film crew, left straight from the Tokyo airport and powered up massive tolled highways, across windy ferries, and past a whole lot of unreadable signs that eventually led us to into the mountains of Hokkaido.

 

Back home in Vancouver I was used to people asking, “no, but where are you really from?” So if I didn’t fit in there, and I felt so alienated here, where did I fit in at all?

 

Driving through busy cities and towns, I had hoped, maybe even expected, to feel a reawakening or a sense of belonging to the culture and people, but the reality was quite the opposite. Everyone assumed I was Japanese because of my looks, then would become confused when I could neither understand nor speak with them. Back home in Vancouver I was used to people asking, “no, but where are you really from?” So if I didn’t fit in there, and I felt so alienated here, where did I fit in at all? The thought of spending five more months in Japan intimidated me.

 

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Even the monkey likes Midori’s new bike. Photo: Tamo Campos

 

February-March 2020 – On the Road, on Bicycles

“IMOTO! JITENSHA? GO-KAGETSU? BAKA!”

My translation skills had become good enough to understand that most people thought our journey was unhinged—“Little sister? Bicycle? Five months? Crazy!”

My sister Midori and I laughed it off. Growing up, we’d survived canoe trips, a year in South America, and our entire adolescence together with no problems. A multi-month bike trip south to Kumamoto, the village our great-grandparents once called home, sounded fun and exciting.

I should have expected it—Midori managed to find herself a brand new bike, while the best I could find was a consignment store $100 model—complete with an immediate future of replaced derailleurs, chain rings and brakes, all within the first few days of travel. Regardless, at a cycling pace, we both began to settle into the landscape and culture of Japan.

Pedaling down Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s five major islands, our initial destination was the town of Fukuoka. Here, we visited Nakamura-san, a family friend who’d recently purchased a ryokan, an old Japanese inn, with plans to retrofit it as a gathering spot focused on community healing. With large tatami mat rooms facing the ocean, a traditional tea room and a large community bath, Midori and I could feel the energy as soon as we arrived. Nakamura-san had recently hosted a group of families from Fukushima, ground zero of the devastating 2011 earthquake and nuclear meltdown that led to more than 150,000 residents being evacuated from their homes. Many of the families who visited Nakamura-san’s inn had not been to the ocean since that day, and finally had a chance to return to the water, play on the beach, kayak, and cook and share meals with old neighbours.

 

The same volcanic landscape that makes for excellent snowboarding in the north was a strain on my cycling knees down south.

 

The Japanese government continues to downplay the disaster and its subsequent health effects on area residents (Nakamura-san showed us a chart of dramatically increased mortality rates from autoimmune disorders and stomach and heart cancers after the event), due to powerful lobby interests from shareholders like Mitsubishi and Toshiba. It reminded me of the Canadian government’s militarization of pipeline projects back home in the lands of the Wet’suwet’en First Nations. Mitsubishi recently invested in those projects as well.

Back on the road after a week in Kyushu, I began to realize Japan has few flat sections. The same volcanic landscape that makes for excellent snowboarding in the north was a strain on my cycling knees down south. Midori and I rounded the tip of Kyushu and headed for the small town of Ichiki after hearing of wild monkeys, wild horses, and not-so-wild surfing. But we’d also heard of something called COVID-19, and stories of a potential lockdown back home in Vancouver. As foreigners, we began to worry if our presence would be unwelcomed.

 

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Otaru Fish Market. Photo: Colin Arisman

 

As it was, the opposite happened. Upon learning both Midori and I had experience working with youth, the Ichiki locals immediately welcomed us and involved us in their community programming. Ichiki children are given free time and encouraged to play games outdoors and explore natural spaces through a program that translates to “sea urchin children.” It made perfect sense to me, but local parents (many of them young mothers and families uprooted by the Fukushima disaster) explained that Japanese society generally forces even the youngest students to focus on academics with extended school days, mandatory homework, and a heavy emphasis on clubs and organized sports; free time and play are traditionally not encouraged.

And so, in the starting weeks of a global pandemic, we found ourselves running through bamboo forests, camping on beaches and swimming in the ocean with kids aged 3-16. While there was a definite language barrier (and more than a few snotty noses!) the universal language of laugh and play pulled us through, with no COVID-19 related incidents and a community with values my sister couldn’t help but parallel to our own childhood back home. Despite the poverty that had pushed our great-grandparents to leave their home in Japan, or the racism that put our grandparents in internment camps, my sister and I were always taught that being involved and entwined with your community is one of the most important values in life.

 

Tamo and friend in Ichiki. Photo: Midori Campos

 

April-May 2020 – the Pandemic and Amami

We ferried south to the tropical island of Amami, home to the Amami people, an Indigenous group just north of Okinawa. The plan was to pedal down the less-populated east coast despite repeated warnings of big hills and long stretches between villages. My sister and I have never been the type to shy away from the road less traveled and the coast was breathtaking—a winding road punctuated by steep inlets of lush forest leading down to crystal blue waters. Arriving in the tiny village of Kuninao, Midori and I snorkeled at sunset with the last rays of light shining through the reef channels. It was pure magic, and although we didn’t know it at the time, about to become our home for the next two months.

 

My phone chirped out an email informing us that all flights to Canada were cancelled and likely would be for a few months. A small panic welled up inside me…

 

“Good evening muthaf**kaaaas!” Koutarou had a habit of greeting us this way because he learned most of his English from 1980s American cop movies and had an affinity for Samuel L. Jackson. Along with his wife Kayo, Koutarou owned the Bee Lunch Café, Kuninao’s best (and only) restaurant. The duo opened their home to us after a heavy storm prevented us from biking to the next village and blew our tent over with typhoon-like winds. That evening, Japan officially announced an emergency declaration recommending businesses close and all non-essential travel cease. Not much later, my phone chirped out an email informing us that all flights to Canada were cancelled and likely would be for a few months. A small panic welled up inside me—where would we stay, how long would we be stuck here?

 

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Photo: Midori Campos

 

“OK, kiddos” Kuotarou enthused, “looks like you will stay with us for the long run.”

They opened up a spare room and we began what would become a close friendship over drinks of kombu shōchū (kombu is seaweed and shōchū is the local liquor made from black sugar) and a mutual love of fishing and wild food. Luckily for us, Amami had no cases of COVID-19 so restrictions in town were lax. Our hosts spoiled us, treating us to fresh meals every day and organizing small gatherings so we could meet community members.

While they refused to take our money, our hosts allowed us to help earn our keep by catching dinner every night out in the reef. So that is what we did, catching triggerfish, squid, octopus, garfish, groupers and erabuchi. Kayo and Koutarou joked that it was our ancestors looking out for us. “Must have been your great-grandparents that created the typhoon to keep you here, now we’re your family!” Despite being stuck and having our trip plans completely change, for the first time in Japan my sister and I felt truly at home.

The entire village of Kuninao was equally inviting and generous, explaining that their sense of caring for each other grew from a history of the Amami people being exploited by the Japanese Kagoshima Prefecture government. Hiking a lush green terrain near Kuninao, our friend Chihiro stopped to point out a small tree with little nuts that are toxic to eat. She explained how the Amani people would wash the nuts repeatedly to flush the toxins and make them edible. This survival food helped entire communities survive the threat of starvation after the Kagoshima Prefecture forced the Amami to grow sugar cane for export. Nowadays, the tree is celebrated as a symbol of Amami pride where racial discrimination persists.

 

Tamo and Midori. Photo: Midori Campos

 

Todoganesh is an Amami word used to give thanks, respect and appreciation to the land, animals, spirits and ancestors. In many ways, the story of the Amami reminded me of the smaller Indigenous communities I spent time with back home in BC. Both groups have a deep love of the land and environment and a strong sense of place, cultural tradition, and a need to care for each other. As the pandemic continued to evolve, we were reminded that small communities all over the world often survive adversity because of the care, respect and responsibility they have for each other.

June 2020 – Kumamoto Roots

By the end of May, with very few new COVID-19 cases, Japan lifted travel restrictions and flights to Canada resumed. Midori and I rebooked our tickets home, said goodbye to our Amami family, and headed north toward Sunagawa, a farming region near Kumamoto City where our ancestors had lived more than 100 years ago.

 

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Mount Yotei. Photo: Colin Arisman

 

We didn’t have family contacts in the region but we knew that Tamotsu Sunahara, our grandmother’s father, had left Japan in 1926. The people of Sunagawa speak an extremely fast and difficult-to-understand dialect, but through Google maps, we found a small English language school. The door was boarded up but we took a chance and knocked, hoping someone who spoke English could help us out. A woman named Shawna refused to open the door and peeked out the window. She quickly warmed to our story and began making calls to help us find connections. Within a few hours, she took us to the Sunahara residence.

We entered a beautiful old weathered farmhouse and were quickly ushered into a tatami mat room with a centre table covered with plates of food, and framed photos of family members hung from the walls. Three generations of Sunaharas lived in the house. Midori and I discovered we were closely related to this family. They were the descendants of our great-grandpa Tamotsu’s older brother Masaki. Looking at their thick hair I was immediately reminded of my grandmother back home.

 

Tamotsu Sunahara, Japan, 1920.
Tamotsu Sunahara, 1920.

 

The family held up an old cedar plank that traced the Sunahara name back to its origins. Sunahara means “sandy fields” because the village of Sunagawa stands on the sandy banks of a river. Examining the plank, we noticed there were no names under Tamotsu’s. Several generations of time, a world war, and the Japanese Sunaharas’ inability to read English letters had all played a role in the lost connection. Through our crazy bike trip in a pandemic, we had suddenly bridged that century-old gap.

More than six months earlier, when we started this voyage, we could never have imagined that everything from a creaky bike to a freak storm to a global pandemic would somehow deliver us right into the heart of what we were seeking.

These uncontrollable forces opened us up to the kindness and generosity of the Japanese people and reconfigured my understanding of my own roots and heritage. I learned the kanji meaning for my name Tamo(tsu): “to keep” or “preserve.” That reiterated to me the importance of preserving our stories and our ancestry, but also to appreciate their complexity. Sometimes in life, the long, winding road leads you exactly where you need to be.

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