We’ve all dreamt about an early retirement in a place we love. Noboru Kitahama did just that at the age of 55 by selling his business of 25 years and moving with his wife from Kobe, Japan to Canmore, Alberta. 15 years later, he is still living his dream in the Canadian Rockies. He turned his life-long passion for photography into a profession and continues to capture the beauty of the majestic mountains, wildlife and flowers that surround him.
Noboru survived Kobe’s Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake in 1995. The experience profoundly affected his outlook on life. He went from working 24/7 to focusing on doing what he loves so that he can live a life without regrets. He spoke to Japanab about what led to his early retirement and immigration to Canada.
Life of a Rice Merchant
I was born in January 1951 as the youngest of seven siblings. My parents ran a rice shop before the war, but after the war, my father fell ill frequently, and our family became impoverished. I grew up being looked after by my much-older siblings. I worked in the vegetable shop ran by my older brothers and, at the age of 30, opened my own store selling rice and grains.
Business of selling rice in Japan has changed with the times. In 1942, the Government of Japan started regulating the price and supply of food staples such as rice and wheat, and only government-approved merchants were allowed to sell rice. This system lasted until 1995 when a law was passed to transition to a more market-driven approach. Japan then went into full deregulation in 2006, where the government no longer restricted the sale of rice. Because I was fortunate enough to come from a family of a rice merchant, I was able to obtain the government permit to sell rice when I opened my own shop in the 1980s.
Back then, all rice shops made house visits and brought rice to customers’ homes. But this was a costly way of running a business since it required more staff and vehicles. I was the first one in Kobe to start the customer pick-up method, where customers visit our store to buy rice at such a great discount that my competitors accused me of causing a price erosion. We also modernized the store by changing its name and image. My strategy proved successful, and I branched out to selling fresh vegetables and fruits and expanded my operation to six stores.
Great Earthquake Leaves One Fearless
It was nothing but smooth sailing until one morning, I was awaken by a violent shaking. It was the Great Hanshin-Awaji Earthquake of January 17, 1995. My store was located in Nagata-ku, the area closest to the epicentre of the quake. A fire started just behind the store and burned the entire neighbourhood down, but miraculously the wind changed, and my shop avoided the flames. As you might recall, the damage from this great earthquake was devastating and extensive. Those who lost their homes left the area to move into temporary housing units, and our neighbourhood became empty. Without my customers, my business suffered and was awash in red ink for a year and half. But my employees were akin to my family. I felt it my duty to keep all eight of my employees, so I made no layoffs. In return, my staff worked tirelessly and persevered through the worst of times. I was still young and was determined to overcome the setback and worked relentlessly for it. Nothing in life is as devastating as the Great Earthquake, and the experience left me fearless.
Running my own business, the only time I could afford to take off were occasional Sundays and the New Year holiday. Ever since visiting Lake Louise on a ski trip with a friend in my youth, I became captivated by the Canadian Rockies and longed for my annual New Year trip to the Rockies to ski and to do photography. It’s just like love. I fell in love with the Rockies and have no explanation for it. All I can dream of was how wonderful it would be to wake up everyday at the foot of those mountains.
After the Great Earthquake, I said to myself, “All I do is work. If I don’t change my way, my life will end up meaningless. I need to start doing more things I enjoy!” So I began attending photography workshop tours led by professional photographers. This is how I met my wife Junko, who was the tour attendant. We eventually hit it off as the youngest members on the tour joined by mostly seniors. We got married when I was 49.
I’d Rather Lose Money Doing the Things I Love
I began to have doubts about my business prospects in 2005. With rice consumption in Japan declining and the pending government deregulation in 2006, it was only a matter of time before the rice market got fiercely competitive. That’s when I consulted my wife about moving to the Canadian Rockies. I told her, “if we’re going to lose money, I’d rather lose it doing the things we love.” Two days later, we had an appointment with an immigration consultant. She must’ve secretly wanted to immigrate to Canada, too!
While we didn’t have enough points to qualify immigrating as skilled workers, the consultant recommended the investor category to us since having a government approval to sell rice indicated we were creditworthy. At the time of our applying in 2005, the investor category had three requirements. One was to have an experience starting your own business or a managerial experience in certain corporations or government in the past five years. The second requirement was to have a liquid asset of at least $800,000 (of which $400,000 must be cash asset) obtained through legal means. The last requirement was to invest $400,000 cash as directed by the government without earning any interest for five years (after which the principle will be returned), or to pay approx. $120,000 to the government (with no refund). I’ll leave it to your imagination as to which option we chose under the third requirement.
A New Life Blessed with Supportive Friends
My wife has a title of Omotesenke Professor and belongs to the Omotesenke Domonkai Northern California Branch (based in San Francisco). She enjoys promoting Japanese tea ceremony in the Bow Valley region, which includes Banff and Canmore. Her other passion is writing, and she has two blogs that are apparently quite popular with Japanese seniors who dream about living overseas.
We can’t thank enough those who helped us along the way, especially early on when we were just clueless about a life in Canada. We’re so fortunate to have friends in Bow Valley who warmly welcomed us elderly newcomers and supported us. It makes us happy to have made so many friends in different age groups. It’s our hope to pay it forward by helping other newcomers who arrive after us.
Written by Miwa Weninger
Translated by Rin Kobayashi-Wong
Copy-edited by Bill Kaufman
Profile: Noboru Kitahama
Born in 1951 in Kobe-shi, Hyogo Prefecture, Noboru owned and operated six stores that sold rice, fresh vegetables and fruits. He and his wife Junko married in 2001, sold their business, and immigrated to Canada in 2006. They currently live in Canmore. Noboru is a photographer and runs a photo studio, Canadian Rockies Photo.
Inkjet Wallpaoer sold through: www.tokiwa.net/digiwall/kitahamanoboru
Blog by Junko Kitahama: canmorite.exblog.jp/