Wakamatsu Farm: Japanese culture and history in California

by Jun 20, 2019California

Wakamatsu is an historic farm located in Placerville, California and was the site of the first Japanese colony in the United States, the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony, established June 8, 1869.

As a fourth grader, I was fascinated by our history chapters on Japan and the Japanese culture. I made tea, and I discovered calligraphy (but wasn’t very good). It was origami, the art of folding paper into shapes, that grabbed me. In fact, I still have a shoebox full of origami, from frogs to swans to trees.

So, when I recently learned that the first immigrants from that country to come to the United States and bring their Japanese culture with them ended up on a farm not all too far from our home, I had to go. In the California’s long history of immigration, the Japanese were certainly not the first to cross the oceans or the vast country to seek a home in the state. But I for one had never imagined that the Wild West of grungy gold miners, shoot-outs and gold panning included the first Japanese immigrants to the United States.

In 1869, two decades after the start of the gold rush, the group from the Wakamatsu province in central Japan on the island of Honshu landed in San Francisco, and created quite a stir. They made their way to a parcel of land in the hilly Sierra Nevada Gold Country. And that parcel became the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony. Founders brought with them the rich customs and traditions of Japanese culture, as they grew tea and wove silk into garments.

Wakamatsu Farmhouse

150th anniversary of Wakamatsu Farm

In June 2019, the farm celebrated its 150th anniversary in an event that also celebrated Japanese culture, traditions, arts, music, history and culture. The farm was perhaps short-lived, but it represented the beginning of permanent Issei immigration to the United States.

Now not only a California Registered Historical Landmark since 1969, the Wakamatsu Farm is owned, managed and conserved by the American River Conservancy, the American River land trust for the area.

Visiting the Wakamatsu Tea and Silk Farm Colony

Unfortunately, one can’t just pop in for a visit to the farm even though it is not too far from Placerville in El Dorado County. The American River Conservancy land trust offers special events, farm tours, and public hikes on the property to ensure the history of Japanese culture’s beginning in the United States is preserved.

The Wakamatsu celebration marking 150 years was a special weekend, with the farm’s 272 acres open for all visitors. Three stages held music, art and lectures, while the old farmhouse was open for tours – Signage tells the story of the immigrants, their path to the United States, the creation of the farm, and their destiny, as well as how they lived and worked here.

Wakamatsu Farmhouse Japanese Room

The American River land trust is also raising money to build an outdoor education center at the farm, and donations can be earmarked to that construction. To experience the farm and its history, check the conservancy’s page about Wakamatsu or its event calendar.

Wakamatsu’s 150th birthday weekend

At the Wakamatsu fest, you could do it all.

I got my name written in Japanese calligraphy called shodo (Thanks Stephen Tse!).

Japanese Culture Calligraphy

I watched a silk weaving demonstration (Thanks Bobbi Long of the Sacramento Weavers. and Spinners Guild).

Silk Weaving at Wakamatsu Farm

I sat and contemplated the grave of Okei Ito, who died at age 19 and is buried at the farm on a hillside – making it the grave of the first Japanese buried in the United States.

Wakamatsu Farm Grave Okei

I tasted some deliciously eye-opening sake by the new Shimizu Sake Company in Sonoma County, a craft sake brewer who will be opening a tasting room in late 2019. (“Like” his Facebook page to stay tuned to his progress! It is really yum! Thanks, Bruce Shimizu!)

Japanese Culture Craft Sake Shimizu

I admired the huge Japanese elm keyaki tree that stands guard over the farmhouse.

Japanese Keyaki Tree at Wakamatsu Farmhouse

I wandered through gardens of native plants.

Walking Through the Japanese Culture Garden

And I watched children enjoying the crafts of the Japanese culture and climbing on old farm equipment.

Wakamatsu Children Play

Unfortunately, I did not get to make any more origami frogs.

Japanese Origami Therese

A few of my fourth-grade origami treasures and the books I used.

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1 Comment

  1. Wakamatsu Farm

    Thank you very much for sharing your experience of WakamatsuFest150. Unfortunately, our origami guru was unexpectedly unable to join, but I’m glad you got such a wonderful and meaningful experience of lovely Wakamatsu Farm during the one-and-only Japanese American sesquicentennial celebration. While that exact experience will never happen again, American River Conservancy will offer the public many more wonderful opportunities to visit the Farm in the future. We hope to see you there again soon.

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