FINDING YOUR NIKKEI ROOTS: Road Trip! Embark on a personal pilgrimage through family history


FAMILY HISTORY ?? Snapshots from a visit to a ryokan. photo courtesy of Okazaki Family Archives

You’ve likely been researching your family history for ages. Are you ready to take your journey to the next level? At some point, you have to step away from the computer and get out of the libraries or archives. It’s time to plan your own heritage adventure.

Every ancestral journey is personal. Many of you have participated in group pilgrimages to incarceration sites. Why not embark on a personal pilgrimage, one that is tailored to walking in the footsteps of your ancestors: the neighborhoods where they lived, the businesses they frequented, the churches/temples and schools they attended, the homes where children were born, the assembly centers and camps where families were incarcerated, the cemeteries where your relatives were memorialized.

Start by reviewing the research you’ve already done:

Organize your data in a timeline

Review the places and events in chronological order

Identify what it is you want to accomplish

Identify and visit relatives?

Learn more about social history?

Pay your respects at the sites of incarceration?

Something else?

FAMILY HISTORY ?? Snapshot from an old visit to Yosemite’s Wawona Tree. photo courtesy of Okazaki Family Archives

Once you have identified your goals, you can plan the details of your trip. Where will you stay? Campgrounds? Hotels? Will you fly or drive? Will you accomplish the entire journey in one trip? What should you bring? Will you do any research along the way? Have you checked the hours of facilities or contacted people before your departure? You certainly don’t want to show up at an archival repository or historical society, only to learn they are closed.

As you plan your journey, don’t be afraid to use tech tools. At the very least, bring a cell phone, camera, tripod, a laptop or notebook to record your thoughts, and appropriate charging devices.

Consider beginning your domestic pilgrimage with immigration records. Have you obtained the passenger records identifying the port of entry where your ancestors first landed in the U.S.? If they arrived at the port of San Francisco and spent several days on Angel Island, you might begin your journey at the Immigration Station (

Google Earth ( and Google Maps ( can be used in conjunction with your documentary evidence to locate where your ancestors worked, lived and played. Look for addresses on the U.S. Census, city directories and old letters. Check to see if the original home still exists. If it does, do a drive-by, or send a letter to the current residents asking if you can take a look. You can also ask them to send you photos of the interior of the home. Even if the home no longer stands, it’s helpful to wander around the area.

Both modern maps and era-specific ones can be helpful. Japantown Atlas ( is an interactive map of numerous Japantowns in 1940 California which can be used to narrow down the lives of family, friends and neighbors, immediately before World War II.

Do you ever wonder if and where your family vacationed? Sometimes photos will give you clues. Did they go to Yosemite? Digging clams at the beach? Fishing on the Sacramento River? Try to visit some of the same sites if they still exist.

Did your ancestors worship in a church or temple? How does that religious organization relate to the life experiences of your family? My husband’s family attended the Japanese Union Church of Santa Maria from the late 1930s. In 1942, community members gathered there to board buses, which took them to the Tulare Assembly Center.

Be sure to include cemeteries in your travel, so that you can pay your respects not only to your family, but the community members with whom your ancestors interacted, as well. Obviously, appropriate clothing and an umbrella are important if you plan to wander through old cemeteries. You might also bring along insect repellant, a hat, and a spray bottle of water with a soft brush for cleaning the ohaka; but do your homework so that you know how to safely clean gravestones ( without causing any damage.

If your ancestors were incarcerated, your pilgrimage wouldn’t be complete without visiting the sites. Use records from the National Archives in order to recreate their journey/s. Our family pilgrimage started at the church in Santa Maria, followed by a drive to the Tulare fairgrounds, Gila River, and Crystal City. We also stopped at the markers for Tuna Canyon and Lordsburg. At a future time, we plan to visit El Centro, where Ichimaru Okazaki was initially apprehended, as well as Santa Fe.

International Research Requires a Bit More Planning?

FAMILY HISTORY ?? Snapshots from a visit to a ryokan. photo courtesy of Okazaki Family Archives

Visiting the ancestral homeland is an emotionally powerful experience, whether it’s your first trip or your 21st, whether your roots are only in Japan, or if you have multiethnic ancestry. Do you yearn to see the ubiquitous cherry blossoms? Then go in spring, but know that this season can be expensive and crowded. Traveling during Obon is a rewarding way to connect with your ancestors, but summer can be hot and humid. Personally, I like traveling to Japan in the fall and winter.

As you start planning the details, think about how much time you have. Will you do any research while there? Do you need to hire a tour guide or translator? A researcher or scholar? Do you already have connections to family in Japan? Do you want to see the old home? Visit the family cemetery? Taste regional cuisine? Make pottery? Take a river cruise?

As with domestic pilgrimages, the devil is in the details. Start with what you know. At the very least, you should have an idea of the prefectures where your ancestors lived. Do some research to find out what those prefectures are known for. It’s always fun to visit the regional castles, but take it a step further, find out the regional delicacies, industries, crops, and such. If your ancestors hailed from Kochi-ken, visit a yuzu farm. If your ojichan was a sake brewer, why not arrange a tour of a brewery? If your relatives were farmers, consider staying at a working farm.

You should plan activities based on personal interest and physical abilities, along with the needs of those who are accompanying you. Do you collect Bizen pottery? Be sure to visit the town of Imbe. If you like crowds and nightlife, stay in a bustling city. If your interests lie more toward physical activity, try climbing Mt. Fuji or take a bike tour of the outskirts of Kyoto. If you are traveling with young children, spend some time in the amusement parks and department stores. If you are traveling with elderly or physically fragile individuals, plan accordingly. And if you are able, try to spend at least one night in a ryokan.

For those of you who have done extensive research and already have your koseki, try to contact living relatives. They might even be willing to show you around the home or village.
Regardless of what you already know, regardless of when or where you embark on your heritage adventure, your personal pilgrimage is an opportunity to connect with your ancestry on a different level. It’s an opportunity to truly climb your family tree.

The Armchair Genealogist: Choosing a Genealogy Travel Guide (2015)

Goodwill Guides (Free; volunteer organization)

Heritage Travel with Ancestry’s Progenealogists

How to Plan a Successful Genealogy Trip (2020)

Planning Your Genealogy Trip: Summer Vacations for Genealogists by Gena Philibert Ortega, Genealogy Bank (2014)

Linda Harms Okazaki is a professional genealogist who is past president of the California Genealogical Society. She specializes in Japanese American records. If you have a genealogical question which might be answered in this column, send an e-mail to The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessari of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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