The twists and turns that her life has taken have given Kikumi Nakamura a range of experiences that, early on, were steeped in the very traditional. Through circumstances and her own wit, she operates today at a prominent level in a contemporary milieu. “I’ve had many difficulties and crises, but my friends have always helped me,” she said. “Perhaps because of my many hard experiences, I became stronger.”
Kikumi might have stayed in a sheltered life, as she was born in Maebashi before the war to the family descended from the founder of the Fuji Bank. Her mother gave violin lessons to neighbor children, and later opened a kindergarten.
Kikumi had literary aspirations, which lapsed temporarily when her mother became ill. “I thought I had to be responsible for continuing the kindergarten,” she said. “I came to stay in Tokyo and entered Ochanomizu high school, intending to advance to Ochanomizu University and specialize in children’s education.”
Circumstances let her move back to the study of English literature, and she entered Keio University. In her second year, though, she asked for leave in order to marry. She became the wife of the owner of a factory making “miso” — soybean paste — and went to live in Utsunomiya.
“I got up every morning at 5, and helped my mother-in-law chop wood and prepare breakfast for over 20 employees,” she said. “Then I carried miso barrels weighing 40 kilos, heavy as rocks until I learned the way to roll them along.
“As well as the miso business, we operated a high-quality restaurant-hotel. I had a son and two daughters, so there was no prospect of going back to Keio.
“At first everything was a great cultural shock for me, but my husband and my in-laws were kind. From my mother-in-law I learned about cooking and preserving food, and planting rice and vegetables. My father-in-law was proud of his business. He used to say he could hear the miso talk.”
Kikumi remembers the decade of the 1960s as very happy years. “Times were changing, and we became more interested in the hotel business. We decided to broaden our services, and my husband and I went on a European tour to research hotels.”
They opened the Utsunomiya Grand Hotel in 1971 to such effect that they received royalty and celebrities as their guests. “Among them we welcomed the Japanese Emperor and Empress, the queen of Jordan, Margaret Thatcher of Britain.
“But then, suddenly, my husband died.”
She thought that was the end of her world, but realized she had to carry on.
“I took over all my husband’s businesses. I thought I had to make the hotel special, so we arranged firefly evenings in summer, stocked a stream in the garden with fish, maintained our own vegetable and herb garden, and invited famous non-Japanese chefs to prepare healthy, good food. We built a chapel in the garden, and brought a London taxi to carry the newlywed couples.”
Kikumi continues as board chairwoman of four related companies. On her broader canvas, she is a board member of Tochigi FM Broadcasting and of Tochigi TV. She serves on several foundations and councils, and is particularly keen on supporting the Tochigi Prefecture Opera, an initiative her husband founded. She has received official awards from Tochigi, Utsunomiya and national bodies.
Amongst her volunteer activities is a committee that she organized and named Aoba Kai. This committee, in the Women’s Chamber of Commerce in Utsunomiya, raises nursery trees for planting out in the city, “in order to preserve nature, history and city status,” she said.
She established Take-no-Kai, which plans events for children. “The main purpose of this society is to give scholarships to Asian students to help them buy their books,” she said. “Many friends have helped. Charlotte de Rothschild has sung at charity concerts for us. Polly Ferman has played the piano for us. Emirio Greco has demonstrated sculpturing, and Japanese champion shogi players, competing at our hotel, have invited children to watch.”
Currently at Japan 2001 in Britain, Kikumi is demonstrating Japanese cooking in Ditchling, Sussex. With her are the chef from her hotel, teachers and students from her cooking school, and members of Take-no-Kai. She has also taken 30 calligraphic works for exhibition in Ditchling library.