Former Nelson mayor joins Japan trip
The first time Gerald Rotering visited Nelson's sister-city in Japan it took hold of his imagination and didn't let go.
Rotering was Nelson's mayor in 1987 when the city sent its first delegation to Izu-shi, Japan, or what was then called Shuzenji. What he saw captivated him.
"The word that comes to mind: enchanting," said Rotering. "Absolutely snuggled in some river valleys surrounded by hills narrower than the west arm of Kootenay Lake. Just an enchanting place. Steam coming up from hot springs all over the place, jungle looming over the town. Very pretty, very exotic."
Rotering, who now lives in Victoria and is returning to Izu-shi this week as part of a 15-person delegation that includes current Mayor Deb Kozak, was the key to the relationship beginning in the first place.
In the 1980s Rotering was looking for ways to stimulate a suffering local economy, which included finding a tenant for the Tenth Street Campus that had been empty since the David Thompson University Centre shut down in 1984.
At the time, Japan's economy was booming and the formerly isolationist nation was working to establish international business connections. One of Rotering's friends suggested the match.
"The sister-city development and the Canadian International College, although separate, evolved at the same time," said Rotering. "It was through the initiative of [getting] a Japanese sister city. ... We kept saying 'we've got this campus, can anyone use it?'"
An English school took an interest in the Tenth Street campus and the Canadian International College moved in, along with 700 Japanese students. The school stayed at the campus until April 1998 before Selkirk College took over as the primary tenant in February 1999.
Rotering still can't believe how well a predominately white B.C. city welcomed so many foreigners.
"I remember being quite concerned that Nelsonites might recoil, not so much at the Japanese sister-city thing, which you can get involved in or not, take it or leave it. But I was concerned when we heard 700 students."
It turned out his fears were unfounded.
"I never heard a negative reaction of any kind anywhere ever. It was remarkable."
Meanwhile, the civic relationship became official in 1987. After Rotering's delegation went overseas, the Shuzenji city council visited Nelson in 1988.
"They had a whale of a time," he said. "[They] went around on a city bus and golfed, went to Ainsworth. It was really fun."
Student exchanges between the communities continued until 2010 (Rotering's son Keith was part of the first exchange and now lives in Hokkaido). Shuzenji built a miniature Canadian town — complete with an orange bridge — while the Japanese garden at Cottonwood Falls was created by Hiro Okusa in 2005.
Rotering isn't going this time in an official capacity. He just wants to tag along and see how Nelson East has changed since he first visited.
"I thought it would be a real treat to see the town 30 years later, to see some of the people who are still alive who I met and knew back then. I'm simply a hanger-on, I'm going to have a good time."
He also thinks the relationship is as vital now as it was in the 80s, and hopes student exchanges in particular begin again.
"You don't have any idea how parochial you are and your culture is until you get out there and see the rest of the world," said Rotering. "So if this leads to some kids from Japan visiting Canada and some Canadian kids from Nelson visiting Japan, it's going to broaden their horizons, it's going to change their lives."