Living green, Venetia truly is at home in Kyoto

Her books and popular TV show showcase beauty of a conscientious life in the country

Venetia Stanley-Smith Kajiyama, or Venetia to her many fans, personifies natural, country living in her popular NHK program “Neko no Shippo, Kaeru no Te,” but her first two months in Tokyo exemplified neon lights and city swing as a go-go dancer at a Shinjuku disco.

It was 1971, and Venetia admits cash motivated her unlikely occupation. “I was looking for a singing job, but the owner told me if I wore a T-shirt and shorts and danced for three sets, he would give me ¥5,000.”

Newly arrived, Venetia desperately needed to eat and find a place to stay, but the memory clearly pleases her now. “I stood on a little platform in the middle of the disco, and every time I did anything, everyone on the floor copied me. If I moved right, the whole dance floor moved right. There was some kind of innocence there.”

The allure of Tokyo waned quickly, however.

“I had a very typical, romantic image of Japan,” Venetia recalls, and a fellow ex-pat traveler who was based in Kyoto convinced her to move west toward the temples, shrines and natural beauty in the Japanese countryside.

Venetia now thrives in this countryside, her home an old farmhouse in Ohara in Kyoto’s suburbs, with a sprawling herb and cottage garden, what she calls “a triumph of informality.” Her books on herbs and environmentally sound living, along with her television show, showcase the natural beauty of a conscientious life in the country.

Venetia has lived in the Kyoto area ever since 1971, minus a few years traveling around Japan. The area finally tamed the wanderlust of a woman who sees life as nothing so much as a journey and who started her travels at a young age.

Venetia attended kindergarten in Spain, and her father lived in Switzerland while she was based with her mother in Britain. “We were always flying from one place to another, from a young age going off somewhere in a plane.”

She admits she struggled to become comfortable with her privileged upbringing. “From when I was 7 or 8 years old, I felt totally out of place with the situation I was born into. My mother was part of the jet set . . . my stepfather used to play golf with Sean Connery . . . but I just felt ‘what’s all the fuss about it?’ “

The Stanley-Smith family can trace its ancestors to the Battle of Hastings, and her descendants carried the title of Lord Curzon, enjoying the entitlement and glamour of England’s peerage system. “My mother was very concerned that I should marry a duke or something, so she put a lot of pressure on me, which of course forced me in the completely opposite direction.”

England in the late 1960s meant Mod fashion, Jimi Hendrix and a burgeoning fascination with Eastern philosophies. Venetia, then an aspiring singer who toured during her vacations from school with such bands as Sounds Incorporated, an opening band for The Four Tops and The Beatles, accepted a twist of fate as confirmation a singing career was not in her future.

“Our main song was ‘Scarborough Fair,’ a very old English madrigal we had turned into a folk song. We had even signed a contract with Island Records to record it, but as soon as we made our demo disc, Simon and Garfunkel released the same song. What are the chances they would find that exact song, and do it so much better, with a full orchestra? I felt it was a huge sign that music was not what I was supposed to do.”

The 19-year-old Venetia yearned for deeper meanings, and between family tensions and a shelved singing career, she — like many in her generation — searched for answers in the East.

“I always felt there was something I was supposed to be doing,” Venetia says, and she found a connection when she heard about a boy, only 12 years old, teaching in India. After several serendipitous meetings in London with his followers, Venetia decided to travel to India herself, to hear Prem Rawat in person.

Joining a group of travelers, Venetia stayed in India for 10 months at Prem Rawat’s ashram, learning his “Knowledge” meditation and teachings. Rawat, encouraged that young people were coming from Europe and America to be taught by him, decided to spread his message overseas and asked Venetia to accompany him and his followers to Europe. However, she yearned for more time away from England and decided instead to travel further East — to Japan.

Venetia’s path to Japan wended across land, through Thailand toward the sea. She constantly relied on the kindness of fellow travelers. From Hong Kong to Taiwan to Kagoshima, chance meetings and the generosity of strangers aided her, and from Kagoshima, Venetia hitchhiked to Osaka. She finally stopped to ask for help, unsure even where Tokyo was located.

“I went to a police box in Osaka, and the policeman on duty advised me to take a train. When he finally understood I had no money, he put me into a police car,” she recalls. “I thought I was being arrested, but he drove me to the motorway, pulled over, set out a flashing red sign and began stopping trucks until he found a truck that was going to Tokyo. The driver took me onboard, and bought me my first meal in Japan.”

Although Venetia’s visit to Tokyo lasted only two months, her adventures in Kyoto have stretched into a lifetime. She taught English conversation, married a Japanese man and started a family. Eventually she opened her own school in 1978, thanks to hard work and the kind donation of key money from one of her students.

Venetia settled in the city, near her school, Venetia International in Sakyo Ward, but she longed for a more natural setting. As it turned out, the country life of her future started with a cup of tea.

She had made it a practice from the beginning to serve tea at her school, traditional British or herbal. Gradually, she started growing her own herbs in small pots lining the windows of her city kitchen.

The herbs represented a small piece of home. “I thought I would one day go back to England,” Venetia recalls, and she worked hard to educate her three children at international schools or abroad.

A difficult marriage eventually could not withstand the strains of her pressured, busy life, and Venetia and her first husband divorced in 1986. She spent six years as a single mother, working full time, before she met her second husband, Tadashi Kajiyama, a writer, mountain climber and alpine photographer. The couple welcomed their own child, Eugene, in 1994.

Her fourth pregnancy, at 43 years old, encouraged Venetia to deepen her knowledge about herbs. “My sister sent me a book on herbal remedies, and I realized there was so much more I could do with herbs.” In 1996, Venetia finally realized her lifelong dream of country life when the family moved to Ohara, about 40 minutes from central Kyoto.

Venetia started running classes for herb remedies or alternatives, for everything from toothpaste to shampoo. “After we moved into the Ohara house, we realized everything we used, every artificial product went right back into the stream outside our house. I realized I had to do something more natural,” she explains.

Searching for recipes in use during preindustrial England, Venetia used trial and error to discover the best and most natural homemade products. Meanwhile, she and Kajiyama were slowly constructing a cottage garden to match her dreams.

It took six years and 132 sq. meters to complete the garden, Venetia carefully enriching the soil with handmade compost and planting her herbs. News of the garden’s beauty spread, and Venetia and Kajiyama started a column for the Kyoto Shimbun. It was a popular Sunday feature that ran from 2000 to 2003. The Japan National Gardening Contest invited Venetia to submit her garden in 2002, and she won first place.

After the award, NHK came to film her garden frequently, and with the success of her first book, “Venetia’s Ohara Herb Diary,” which has sold more than 140,000 copies, she got her own program, which premiered in April 2009.

Fans of the show — which NHK broadcasts six days a week in Japan and internationally under the English title, “At Home with Venetia in Kyoto” — embrace her unhurried lifestyle and attention to her garden and herbs.

The most popular part of the show, according to NHK statistics, is when Venetia reads an original essay in English, but she insists the show’s success has little to do with her. “It’s a combination of many elements. The cameraman is absolutely amazing . . . the narrator is perfect, the music, composed by a Japanese woman living in Spain, is beautiful . . . but it is also something to do with Japan now, I think. I realize there are a lot of articles about people being depressed or can’t find a job, but at the same time there is a real desire to take care of nature, a true belief in eating healthy — the show itself relaxes people.”

Venetia, humbled by the chance to share her simple lifestyle, says she feels the most pleasure when the show connects with others in their daily lives. “The most exciting thing for me is when people call or write to share how they are actually making and using the natural products. Housewives in Japan still take time for these kind of details, and they are trying to make their own families and their own environments safe by using natural products.”

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