The Samurai of Fountaingrove

The most noble character in the history of Sonoma County’s Fountaingrove commune is Kanaye Nagasawa, the samurai who came to the USA from Japan as a youth and stayed to run the Fountaingrove vineyards and winery. While not as flamboyant or weird as either commune founder Thomas Lake Harris or his spiritual-heir-turned-adversary Laurence Oliphant, Nagasawa quietly shepherded the winery for decades, kept it alive throughout Prohibition and basically god-fathered the county’s wine culture.

The book by Gaye LeBaron and Bert Casey, The Wonder Seekers of Fountaingrove, gives Nagasawa his fair share of attention, even though the behaviors of Thomas Lake Harris and the hedonistic adventurer, Oliphant, are more dramatic and crazy. Nagasawa was thirteen when he left the Satsuma Prefecture of Japan in 1865, along with fourteen other youth from samurai families, to come to the west. In doing so, he was obeying the orders of his daimyo, and committing treason, because the shogun of Japan had forbidden any contact with the west after a number of serious misunderstandings and at least one naval attack on a Japanese city.

That attack had taken place in Satsuma, and the daimyo there realized that Japan’s survival depended on understanding the mentality, and the war technology, of those in the west. The “young students” sent on a visit to Britain would be given tours of factories and plants, and would send home detailed letters. Because they were committing treason, each of the boys changed his name, to protect his family from dishonor and execution. Hikosuke Isonaga, the youngest of the fifteen, changed his name to Kanaye Nagasawa.

The story of Nagasawa’s journey from Japan to England, and then Scotland where he met Laurence Oliphant, to the USA and upstate New York and finally Sonoma County, California, is a fascinating one, but ultimately Nagasawa is a supporting player, although a vital one, in the book on Harris’s utopian commune. Partly this is because Nagasawa hews to the code of the samurai throughout his life. He demonstrates loyalty, mastery and adherence to duty. Nagasawa never forsook his Shinto beliefs and he never participated in the eccentric antics of Harris’s belief system. In his journal, while he always referred to Harris as “Father” (all the commune participants did) he is always a spectator, never personally involved in the growing disputes and emotional tangles of the place.

Harris believed that once humanity became enlightened enough, humans would become immortal – kind of a hard sell since he himself apparently struggled with tuberculosis and a couple other health conditions that were never explained. He also believed that every person had a celestial counterpart. To remain true to that celestial partner, on the earthly plane, people should practice celibacy. For example, he was very quick to separate Laurence Oliphant from his wife Alice, putting a continent between them by keeping Alice at Fountaingrove and sending Laurence back to the original commune in New York. A deeper examination of Harris’ practices, particularly celibacy, though (which LeBaron provides) led me to a reaction more like that of Inigo Montoya in the movie The Princess Bride: “You keep using that word. I do not think it means what you think it means.”

Harris’s personal celestial counterpart was called the Lily Queen. He communed with her during long stretches in a trance state. (Harris also used these trance states, entered by a series of peculiar breathing exercises, to fight off the demons that tried to attack people on the earthly plane.) Frequently, the Lily Queen would take over Harris’s body in order to offer physical comfort to various women in the commune. Hmmm. Harris also designated certain women, like Laurence’s wife Alice, to join him in the breathing exercises and travel to the etheric realms. Um, okay.

Was Harris a complete con man, delusional, or truly some kind of spiritual visionary? LeBaron, historian and journalist, stops short of expressing her personal opinion directly, but the book leans towards “opportunistic but delusional.” To be fair, the answer is not a slam-dunk. Both in New York and California, Harris ran economically successful communes that stayed in the black financially. Part of that success came from the fact that while many people petitioned to join the commune, only people who were wealthy were somehow worthy to join the “inner circle,” and members of the group turned over their wealth to Harris’s control. Still, the several businesses that ran out of Fountaingrove were successful.

One of these was the winery.

Nagasawa kept the vineyard thriving and the winery alive throughout Prohibition, when other Sonoma County wineries either faltered of turned to some form of bootlegging. The winery remained active and was ready to start selling wine as soon as Repeal was enacted. After the death of Harris, Nagasawa successfully fended off several legal attempts to wrest the property away from him (Harris had left it to him.) Unfortunately, the harsh anti-Japanese laws of the 1940s robbed Nagasawa’s USA-born nephew of his inheritance. Still, beyond the circumference of the rich eccentrics who inhabited Fountaingrove, Nagasawa achieved acknowledgment within the county and the wine culture for all he contributed.

Sadly, the firestorms that destroyed so many homes in Santa Rosa in 2017, and also destroyed the historic Fountaingrove round barn, burned Paradise Ridge Winery to the ground and with it the in-house museum they had on Nagasawa. His legacy is ash but it isn’t blown on the wind. When the owners of the winery were cleaning up after the fires, they pulled from the cinders one artifact; Nagasawa’s samurai sword.

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