Special to The Hawai‘i Herald
One of the singular delights of sheltering in place is the stumbling across hidden gardens on the internet that in the fast-paced rush of ordinary times would have remained unexplored. One such jewel is NHK’s long-running television journal, “At Home with Venetia in Kyöto.” Based on the daily meanderings of British expatriate Venetia Stanley-Smith, the series operates on a simple premise that human life is best lived at a slower pace in congruence with the natural world. In 1971, at the age of 19, Stanley-Smith fled her aristocratic roots in the U.K. to wander the earth searching for a more meaningful purpose in her life. Her travels led her to India and then to Japan where she started an English-language school and fell in love with a country that would become her home for the next forty years.
There are no madcap car chases, gratuitous gun battles or titillating family confessions in “Venetia.” Instead viewers are treated to intelligent conversation, sensitive insights and acts of human kindness that are all too rare in contemporary media today.
Shot in a 100-year-old renovated farmhouse in Ōhara, an ancient village on the outskirts of Kyöto, each episode is a meditative philosopher’s walk through Japan’s fleeting past and disappearing cultural memory. Visits to traditional washi-paper makers, lacquerware craft makers and sacred shrines are juxtaposed with interviews of family farmers, neighborhood cobblers and eclectic artists who all inhabit a world where everything is handmade, carefully perpetuated and quietly perfected. With each glimpse into this enchanting realm the show reveals Japan — long stereotyped as a nation of robotic office workers devoid of creativity and individuality — as deeply human and grounded in the timelessness of its historical past.
Structured like an inimitable personal diary, “Venetia” is imbued with an intimacy, warmth and transparency impossible to resist. The series also incorporates the enduring passion of Stanley-Smith, a former musician in her youth, for medicinal herbs, organic gardening and homemade household concoctions — a passion that blossomed as her sensitivity to the natural world increased.
If there is a recurring theme to this wonderful amalgam of a show, it is the diverse subject of food in all of its delicious, irrepressible and seductive glory. “Venetia” intertwines the beloved recipes of Stanley-Smith’s European childhood with the hearty country-style cooking of rural Japan that soothes the soul, as well as the palate. For viewers who are expecting the impossible, such as demonstrations resembling those of Martha Stewart, there will only be disappointment. Stanley-Smith’s fare is simple, easy to prepare and surprisingly affordable. A regular visitor to the local farmers’ market of Ōhara, Stanley-Smith showcases the seasonal bounty of her adopted home, educating her audience on the richness of the broader community that surrounds her.
For all of the joyfulness and ebullience that permeates “Venetia,” however, there is a quiet melancholy and gentle wistfulness that never leaves Stanley-Smith’s world even on the brightest of days. This hint of an ever-present twilight lends the series the poetry and prescience that separate it from the mawkishness of its competitors.
Bounced around from one palatial address to the next, Stanley-Smith was raised in extraordinary luxury and privilege as her distant parents reveled in the trappings and obligations of their social class. The great-granddaughter of the former viceroy of India, Stanley-Smith’s first marriage ended in divorce and her second teetered on the brink of collapse as she dealt with the growing storm of bipolar symptoms that enveloped her only daughter. Stanley-Smith’s journey would take her from Tökyö to Kyöto and then Ōhara where her closer proximity to nature would begin to heal her life.
As “Venetia” concluded its 10th season in 2019, 69-year-old Stanley-Smith’s journey took an unexpected turn once again. Because of her failing eyesight and memory, the host lost her ability to cook or visit with her long brocade of friends; even the simplest tasks now required the assistance of her husband and extended family. The show has since gone on an indefinite hiatus with its future yet to be determined. Even if it never returns, “Venetia” has left an indelible gift for all of us to remember that our greatest treasure lies not in our possessions but in our human relationships and our capacity to see beauty in even the smallest aspects of everyday life.
Alan Suemori teaches Asian American history at ‘Iolani School. He is a former Hawai‘i Herald staff writer.