Born and raised in Osaka, Ryoko Hori, 37, moved to Tokyo to study fashion design at the age of 18. As a student she was lucky enough to work for the famous clothing brand Issey Miyake, but she wanted even more experiences in life. She had never been abroad, so after her graduation in 2003, she decided to move to Paris where she stayed for three years.
“My mind was much more into Europe and its history and culture (than elsewhere), and Paris was a city open to the world,” she says over a cup of roasted hōjicha (roasted green tea) in Ryoko, her Berlin shop. “I studied French because I wanted to be part of that society.”
When the office of Issey Miyake called and asked her to return to Japan to work for them, Hori thought it was good timing. But going home turned out to be tougher than she imagined. “Especially when coming back from Paris; life in Japan wasn’t the same,” she recalls. “Nor was being back in the Japanese society.”
After three years, Hori already wanted a new direction — and to leave Japan again. Particularly interested in the mental and physical health benefits of “mind-body connection,” she first thought about studying shiatsu massage. But the three-year courses offered in Japan seemed too long for her, and she felt other options to learn skills she was interested in were limited in her home country.
Instead she opted for a three-month beauty therapy course, after which she immediately left for Australia, a country she believed could help further her education because of its abundant natural resources and popular natural remedies. In 2010, she enrolled in an intensive two-year remedial massage therapy course in Sydney.
Though Sydney proved an enlightening experience and she found the friendly citizens made life more easy going than in Japan, she kept herself busy studying and even set up a weekly popup vintage store, selling items from a small shop that she had established in the Koenji neighborhood of Tokyo while in Japan.
“It was a great pleasure to share mostly Japanese, but also some European design, with the people in Sydney,” she says. “There wasn’t much available like that.”
All this made it difficult to fully enjoy the city or the Australian countryside, Hori says, but when she finished her course, she felt that there was no reason to stay on.
“After fashion, working in massage therapy was like using a different part of my brain. It is more about feeling and understanding, not about analyzing. It made me so happy,” she says. But, she goes on to explain, there was still something lacking for her: a spiritual aspect to her new vocation.
This led to yet more travel, this time to India, in order to learn Ayurveda Indian traditional medicine in an ashram in Kerala.
“That was a completely different philosophy and kind of an extreme switch from the school in Australia,” she says of the six-month experience.
It was an Australian friend who enticed Hori to move again that same year, to her final destination: Berlin.
“I felt there was the freedom to do whatever you want there,” she says, explaining her attraction to the city. “I could see so much potential, and so much space within the city. It felt more relaxed, like in a village.”
Since the early to mid-’90s, the European Union and affordable accommodation had been making Berlin a magnet for the young and hip from all over the world, turning it into an artistic and cultural centre in Europe.
People move to Berlin, “because it is easy,” Hori says. “But it’s not as easy to stay long term and actually create a successful business.”
When she began her massage-therapy practice, it was hard to find a space. Rent was rising in Berlin and the competition for studios was high. Being a freelancer and a foreigner made it even more difficult to find good opportunities. So instead, she opted to use a section of her apartment in the lively Kreuzberg neighborhood as a salon.
In 2015, she finally found a space with her German partner, Daniel, in the trendy Neukolln part of town. Later, the couple were also able to move into a flat adjacent to the shop. All that opened up more possibilities. The front of Hori’s practice now houses a shop space showcasing a selection of Japanese crafts and works from local artists. Among the items, it sells kobako, Japanese incense boxes used for kōdō, the art of appreciating Japanese scents, as well a variety of handmade goods, including raku-yaki, (traditional Japanese earthenware). Artists are chosen carefully, and the couple maintain a relationship with each of them. Recently, Ryoko has also started creating perfumes derived from her aromatherapy treatments. “I guess it all came together naturally because of my massage practice,” she says.
Hori’s massage room is also used by a group for Buddhist zazen mediation and is outfitted with tatami mats. There is a workspace in which to prepare tea ceremonies and a bigger room in the back to hold workshops taught by experts on raku and kintsugi, the art of repairing ceramics with gold- or silver-dusted lacquer. In the past few years, the shop has become a community space for those with an interest in Japanese crafts and relaxation.
“Before, I was always looking for things coming from the outside,” says Hori. “Now I think it’s from the inside, from my Japanese background.”
In Berlin, she says she still sometimes struggles with the German way of communicating and cultural differences.
“In Japan, you always have to arrive five minutes early before a meeting to not disturb the others,” she says. “Also, in Japan, a foreigner is a stranger. In Berlin, people seem to be more open to outsiders.”
After years of being away, however, her opinion of life in Japan has softened.
“Once you live outside your country, you realize your roots,” she says. “I see Japanese society more objectively. For me, Japan has so much beauty and a fascinating tradition.”
The past new year was the first time Hori returned to Japan since she left eight years ago and while traveling, she found the countryside and its residents particularly beautiful. She has no plans to return, and she can’t imagine living in Tokyo but, says Hori, perhaps living in the Japanese countryside would one day be an option for her.
Name: Ryoko Hori
Profession: Massage therapist and boutique owner (ryoko-berlin.com)
Key moments in career:
2003 — Leaves Japan for Paris
2010 — Moves to Sydney looking for a change in career
2012 — Completes diploma in remedial massage therapy
2013 — Moves to Berlin
Words to live by: “Go with the flow.”
Things I miss about Japan: “Delicious Japanese cuisine.”