Kyoto grass roots business employs Kyoto women and shares culture with tourists


By Bill Jaynes
The Kaselehlie Press
October 24, 2015
Kyoto, Japan—When I looked at the detailed program for Pacific Islands senior journalists participating in an invitational tour of Japan sponsored by the Association for the Promotion of International Cooperation (APIC), it never occurred to me that I would come to think of an opportunity to wear a kimono and to participate in an authentic tea ceremony as the most profound visit of all of the many visits we would make.
As a photographer I thoroughly expected our visits to a very small portion of Kyoto's thousands of temples, shrines, and palaces to be the experience that I would cherish the most after our visit.
That was before I met Michi Ogawa, the Executive Director and founder of the Kyoto Association for Women (www.wakjapan. com). Her story resonated with me on a number of levels like any good story should do.
kyoto 02She had never had any business experience when she founded the business at 47 years of age after her children were grown. That didn't stop her. She read everything she could on how to start a business and just got started. She said that like many women in Japan, she found herself to be unemployable despite her Bachelor of English Literature degree. When she lived as a foreigner in France, she enjoyed learning about the French culture and tradition and that experience formed the basis for a business idea of helping foreign visitors to Japan to experience her own country's rich culture and tradition.
She knew several women who had expert traditional skills but who had no other skills they could use to get a job. She called on them and they excitedly joined Ogawa in her new business teaching foreigners about the depth of Japanese culture.
Today the company she founded employs 55 people and has offered cultural experiences to foreign Ministers from around the world, Middle Eastern Royals, famous writers, Hollywood celebrities, and hundreds of tourists who were able to find her business. Meanwhile she has been employing dozens of women that might not otherwise have had employment opportunities; women who were taught traditional ceremonies at an early age and who knew them well enough to demonstrate them and teach them.
WAK Japan's elegantly printed multi-page brochure of its "luxury programs" announces that its programs offer visitors an opportunity to "feel the essence of Japan in Kyoto". Customers can have a Kyoto wedding experience. They can have a custom kimono made for them by a Japanese dress maker. There are Budo (Japanese Martial Arts) experiences. They can have private tours of temples that are not usually open for public access and a meeting with a Buddhist monk. They can meet with a Geiko (traditional Japanese performer, also known as Geisha) who will explain her everyday life and etiquette for traditional Japanese ceremonies, or a Maiko, a Geiko in training.
WAK also provides custom experiences and sometimes extends its opportunities to Tokyo for clients who request it.
Their special "home visit" programs offer training in flower arrangement, calligraphy, origami, Japanese dance, cooking, preparation of Tempura and rolled sushi, and also specialized programs for children. It has also published several books on Kyoto culture.
WAK also provides translation services and can provide guides for arriving tourists.
Last year alone, WAK served 1800 individual clients and 3000 people participating in group experiences. In 2012 WAK had gross revenues of 49.9 million Yen. In 2013 the revenues were 64.7 million Yen. Last year the company had gross revenues of 86.1 million Yen but Ogawa says that she excluded from her calculations, "the unusually big amount of sales which rose from being involved with a two-day MICE event (Meetings, Incentives, Conferences, and Events, a type of tourism in which large groups, usually planned well in advance, are brought together for a particular purpose, according to Wikipedia) last year since the earnings from that event were an unusual occurrence.
The gross revenues are not huge but they do represent significant growth in the business from its humble beginnings based on one woman's dream; a woman who didn't sit around waiting for someone to do something for her but instead reached out to others and formed a group that together, helped themselves while also providing a much needed service.
During our visit, WAK facilitated the opportunity for the journalists to not only properly wear a kimono with the help of female staff members who are well versed in the art, but also for the journalists to parade down a public street to a temple just over a block away. There we inadvertently "crashed" a photo session after a traditional Japanese wedding.
I was surprised that I didn't feel the least bit embarrassed. Our kimono wearing group of foreigners did attract stares from locals but I didn't gather the impression that any of them was laughing at us. Rather, I preferred to think of the attention as a form of respect that we would at least try to experience the culture of Japan even if it felt a bit odd for individual participants.
Upon our return from the temple we didn't just watch a traditional tea ceremony like an audience watching a show, we participated in it. Emiko Ashida explained the graceful "Way of Tea" ceremony, which had its roots in 9th century Japan as she demonstrated each step in the elegant ceremony and the significance of them. She explained that when participants enter the tea room through a very small door it signifies humbleness, respect, and the equality of the participants. She explained the positions of importance in the room, along with each and every movement she gracefully made as she prepared the tea. Every movement had a meaning. After the formal ceremony was completed, Ashida invited us to make our own Matcha green tea using the split bamboo whisk that is part of the ceremony.
I'm afraid that it wasn't in me to assimilate the true depth of the ceremony on a personal level. The centuries old Japanese culture is still foreign and new to me but I still came away with the feeling that I had participated in a centuries' old act of reverence, respect, and communion that was no less significant despite its foreignness.
I found myself wondering, as the story incubated in my mind, if tourists in Pohnpei would feel similarly if they were to be given the opportunity to learn by participating in one of the many traditional types of sakau ceremonies here. Would they return home slightly changed and grateful to the people who offered them that kind of immersive experience? I suspect that they would.
"One of the eldest instructors of tea ceremony in WAK Japan is 81 years old," Ogawa wrote in an email. "She understands well and can explain the spirit of tea ceremony in English like Ms. Ashida. Always she say, 'I found this work is worth living for me.' Her words made me happy and also I can feel my work is worth living, too. Then, I try to create next new work for my colleagues."
I was so engrossed in the experience that, other than Emiko Ashida's name, I didn't take a single note. I lost myself and basked in the luxury of just participating and experiencing but the experience touched me deeply and I found myself wondering about Michi Ogawa and her group of women. The story grew bigger and bigger in my mind the more I thought about it and I found myself wishing that I could spend days watching her do her work and learning about it rather than just hours.
Kyoto boasts over 2000 shrines and temples, many of them World Heritage sites. There are over 1500 Buddhist temples of various sects and approximately 500 Shinto shrines in Kyoto. From 794 through 1868, Kyoto was the "capital" of Japan. It was the home of the Emperor of Japan during that time and from 1192 through 1867 was also the home of the Shogun, the hereditary military de facto leaders of Japan.
Certainly Kyoto is steeped in tradition and culture and the women of WAK are sharing that culture with curious people from around the world. They are a Kyoto treasure in and of

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