The Poet Denbei Kobayashi 1878-1968

Tales from the past: An Okanagan Haiku Master

As told by Brian Wilson from an interview with Ruth Koyama

—Brian Wilson -Archivist, Okanagan Archive Trust Soc.

“After bitterness of frost and snow, plum blossoms now scatter fragrance.”

A simple 17 syllable poem invokes an emotional response in the reader. Plum blossoms in Japanese writing signify purity of desire. In the Zen culture, simple is deeply meaningful.

Born in Nishimura, Nagano-Ken Japan in 1878; Denbei Kobayashi left his home at the age of 28 for the United States. He had heard of the open spaces and opportunities of the new world and wished to be a part of it.

Arriving in Vancouver with little money, he was convinced to go fishing on the Skeena River where he could make as much as $500 a month during the salmon season. When it came time to cash out, he discovered that his partner had gambled away their pay.

He returned to Vancouver and was fortunate to join a CPR work gang heading for Sicamous to blast rocks on the spur line to Vernon. But they couldn’t work in the winter and the crew ended up living in a boxcar at Notch Hill just east of Kamloops.

Returning to blast rocks in the spring of 1907, the Japanese crew made up their minds to never spend another winter in a freezing boxcar. Denbei and his friend Osuke Takizawa travelled to Coldstream Ranch in Vernon to visit the camp boss, Eijiro Koyama and ask for work. Koyama was anxious to have them join his crew and offered a dollar forty for a ten-hour day. Denbi was pleased to know that there were over 40 Japanese working at the ranch; several from his native Nagano. From them Denbei was able to quickly learn orchard skills such as grafting, pruning and sapling care.

Even during these long days at the ranch, he and his fellow workers would share impromptu Haiku as they worked. It was Denbei’s love of the work of the famed Haiku artist Kobayashi Issa that influenced his own writing.

“Midst rain, hail and storm, through patience, today, God has bestowed upon me the mountain of blossoms.”

While working at the ranch, the workers were informed of an upcoming visit of the High Council of Japan, the Honourable Chonosuke Yada. He wished to inspect the immigrants’ working conditions and their influences regarding western culture.

Denbei told an anecdote of the visit for the rest of his days: “The Council arrived a couple of days earlier than expected and we were taken unaware. With not enough time to prepare a meal, we asked the camp cook to prepare something quickly for this dignitary. The cook baked a sponge cake with great haste. When the cake was brought in, we discovered many black specks in the cake. As it turned out, the spots were black ants that had infested the flour. We apologized to the Council at length but he just smiled, ate the cake then said, ‘The cake is delicious, and I am told that if you eat ants you gain strength.’ The Council became a friend to us all.”

Denbei Kobayashi became a Canadian citizen in April of 1908. At this time, he began work in orchards in Oyama. (Oyama was named as a tribute to General Oyama Iwao, hero to the Imperial Japanese Army in the first Sino-Japanese War and the Russo-Japanese War of 1904-1906.)

He ended up in Okanagan Centre working for the OK Valley Land Company building fences for the new orchards. Mr. Kobayashi was taken with this small community and made many lifelong friends here. He worked hard and saved his money so he could return to Japan.

In 1913, Denbei returned to Japan to visit and married Miss Hiro Yanagisawa. They returned to Okanagan Centre in the spring of 1914. The reception was held at the Rainbow Ranch workers camp and immediately after the reception; the newly wed Mrs. Kobayashi began work as camp cook. Japanese women were rare in the work camps so she was a welcome addition to the work force.

“At last I have come to the foot of the mountain of blossoms”

Kobayashi brought many favourite plants from Japan to test their viability in the Okanagan. He introduced cherry blossom trees, Japanese peonies, persimmons, bamboo butter burs, coltsfoot and Japanese asparagus. All perished in the cold winter conditions except the blossom trees, the coltsfoot and the asparagus. All Japanese cherry blossom trees in Canada are related to these original few.

With a growing family, the Kobayashi family needed to move out of the camp. It was no place to raise children. They purchased a ten-acre parcel at the Centre, overlooking Okanagan Lake. Denbei developed it into a high production orchard, the pride of the community.

Highly respected for his skills and community involvement, Denbei became the leader of the growing Japanese community of Okanagan Centre. Even today, the Okanagan is home to the children of Toda, Aizawa, Kikushima, Sawa, Koyama, Oka, Ito, and Koide.

By 1922, a community association was formed with Denbei Kobayashi as chairman. It was called “Koyukai” (Friends and Fellowship). During the 13 years he spent with the organization, he formed “Aoba”, a group of 10 Haiku poets who taught and performed their poetry.

By 1924, the Kobayashi family were able to purchase a neighbours property and expanded the orchard holdings. The family grew to three sons and four daughters.

During this time, he filled out the paperwork to sponsor many new Japanese immigrants. He would find them jobs, housing and taught them English. He was friend, council, priest, and matchmaker to them all. He even organized a Japanese hockey team to play the local Winfield team.

During the war years, the local Japanese community was protected by their neighbours who loved them. Denbei had converted to Christianity in 1933 and the local United Church assisted in their safety. Other than a few threats and not being able to shop in certain stores, they came to no harm.

When Hiro Kobayashi passed away in 1960, Denbei retired and spent several years writing Haiku and teaching during several trips to Japan. He published several books of Haiku in Japan and today he is remembered reverently as a master of the art.

He died peacefully January 4, 1968 at the age of eight-nine.

“Increasing glory and peaceful light now shine in the Garden of God as the Yamato cherry bursts into bloom”

(The Yamato cherry being emblematic of the spirit of aspiration)

READ MORE: Getting across: Kelowna – Westbank ferry service 1885-1958

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