Japanese Renewal at Gilroy Hot Springs

Gilroy Hot Springs
Flower Growers Association tree planting at GYHS, 1939.
Courtesy, Tom Oishi

As a young lady and the eldest of 10 children, Aiko Kato was sent with her family to an internment camp in Poston, Arizona, in the summer of 1942. That February, President Franklin D. Roosevelt had signed Executive Order 9066, which resulted in the forced removal and incarceration of all Japanese Americans from the west coast. The Kato family was one of thousands to be removed from their homes and sent to camps in far-off, remote locations. While at Poston, Aiko married Hiroshi Kitaji, and the couple soon started a family. At war’s end, families like the Kitajis had to start their lives all over again, venturing back into territory where they had been excluded. For many, Gilroy Hot Springs was the place where that new life began.

Originally developed in the 1860s, Gilroy Hot Springs contained an elaborate three-story hotel, a clubhouse, two restaurants, cabins, swimming pools, and private baths. During its early glory days, the resort hosted thousands of people, including such prominent guests as San Francisco mayors Adolph Sutro and James Phelan, and philanthropist A.B. Spreckels. The resort was expanded further shortly after the turn of the 20th century by a new owner, William J. McDonald. He upgraded the facilities and built new cabins, baths, and a swimming pool. By the 1930s, however, the popularity of hot spring resorts began to wane, and the resort declined.

In 1938 it was purchased by Japanese lettuce grower H.K. Sakata. He created a place where Issei (first-generation Japanese Americans) could escape from the people who often discriminated against them. Sakata planned a major refurbishment of the resort. The outbreak of World War II, however, changed his plans, as Japanese on the west coast were removed to internment camps.

After the war, Sakata opened his resort to many returning internees, giving them a place from which to begin their lives again. One of those families was the Kitajis. Over the next ten years, five children were born to the family while at Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs. Sakata’s dreams for the resort were realized, as it became a place where Japanese could feel at home and experience an important part of their culture. Many returned year after year. A Shinto Shrine, located on the side of a hill, was built by a grateful guest who was cured of his alcoholism as a result of staying at the resort. The shrine is unique in California, and perhaps on the entire west coast.

Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs is now listed on the National Register of Historic Places as a place of spiritual retreat for Japanese Americans in California. As the only Japanese American-owned hot springs resort in California, it was a focal point for those who, despite their struggle for inclusion in American society, desired a place of retreat and refuge.

Today, more than 25 buildings and structures remain, along with landscape features and introduced vegetation. Unfortunately, the property has been closed to the public for many years. For the past eight years, it has belonged to California State Parks as part of the much larger Henry W. Coe State Park (more than 80,000 acres in size). Staffing and budget shortages in the State Park System have not allowed for the type of attention required by such a complex resource. Many of the buildings are in poor condition with leaking roofs and siding, as well as broken windows and doors. Plantings, both native and introduced, are also greatly in need of care.

Gilroy Hot Springs
Guests enjoying the hot spring pool, ca. 1920
Courtesy, McDonald-Lundblade Family

Over the past few years, volunteers have joined California State Parks in efforts to protect and safeguard this important site. Foremost among these has been Friends of Gilroy Yamato Hot Springs, founded by a Kitaji daughter who herself grew up at the site. In addition, the California Foundation for Architectural Preservation has come alongside State Parks to try to protect the remaining historic structures. Together with scores of volunteers, these groups have worked hard to advocate on behalf of the historic resort.