How I Found One of the Only Japanese Bathhouses in North America

Bob Muckle stumbled across a nikkei camp by accident

Sarah Rose // Contributor

“Archaeology is not just treasure hunting, it’s destructive. You have to have a good reason. You have to have a good question.” On a sunny spring afternoon in 1999, Bob Muckle, an archaeology instructor at Capilano University since 1989, got a phone call from an educational director for kids’ summer programs in North Vancouver. “He said it would be a terrific idea to get a bunch of metal detectors and give them to the kids and dig up stuff! It wasn’t illegal but certainly unethical.” Muckle pauses for a short laugh behind his glasses. “I just immediately hung up the phone and said, ‘Okay, I’ll come up.”’

From a subtle shift in growth pattern and a hint of garbage, they knew within an hour the proposed excavation site had potential as a field school – the paperwork went through in just two days. Upon excavation, in 2003, they discovered something remarkable: an early 20th century nikkei camp – possibly the only one of its kind discovered in North America. “These are some of the artifacts right there,” Muckle gestures to one of the shelves in his office. Hidden in the peripheries is a display of bottles, clocks, china and pill boxes – a brief fragment of the 2000 artifacts that have been recovered from the camp to date. “They turned it into an oasis of Japanese culture,” he said.

This small group of nikkei settlers, who came to the valley through the logging industry, brought the seeds of a traditional way of life: a vegetable garden, a Shinto shrine and an ofuro (bathhouse) – one of the only Japanese bathhouses excavated on the continent. The 12 buildings and the families living in them remained until the Second World War, where Muckle says the volume of personal artifacts indicates they likely faced interment. “None of the Japanese camps have any documentation that they were there,” said Muckle. To protect the water supply from Seymour Lake, the government destroyed any trace of human activity prior to 1950. The Euro-Canadian settlements are all that survived in popular local histories and records.

Muckle has given several talks at the Japanese-Canadian Heritage Centre in Burnaby as well as special tours for Japanese tourists and residents who come out to visit the site. On April 1, the 75th anniversary of the internment of 20,000 Japanese-Canadians during the Second World War, the site was officially designated on the provincial register of historic places. “Which is no small undertaking,” Muckle added. “The designation was important because only sites older than 1846 are protected by legislation.”

Muckle is the author of several books, including First Nations of British Columbia and Indigenous Peoples of North America. His latest project is an upcoming book on the nikkei camps. Of the many places he’s had the opportunity to work, including Egypt, Alaska and Alberta, BC holds a special significance. “What’s here is no less important than it is in Rome or Greece or anything like that, but people tend not to appreciate the heritage we have here that goes back 14,000 years. It’s just not so visible like the Roman Colosseum or the Egyptian pyramids but that doesn’t mean it’s any less significant, it just requires more interpretation.” He looks outside for a moment at the lush forest, “it’s so hard to see because it gets buried really quickly – the leaves fall.”

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