An Interview with Atsuko Mori, Japanese Female Founder of Camellia
Graceful. Elegant. And mired in tradition. These were my three takeaways from my visit with Atsuko Mori at Camellia — the founder of a traditional tea ceremony experience, geared towards foreigners in Kyoto. Atsuko started her company a mere 3 years ago, and already plans on expanding to a new location within the next year.
Now with a steady business under her belt with 13 people working for her, all of whom are women, Atsuko is conducting more PR and making more time for herself. She recently appeared on television, was featured on Facebook Japan’s #SheMeansBusiness to promote female founders, created a video on how to make matcha tea, and married a man from the UK.
And fully bilingual — a rarity in Japan — Atsuko offers a unique experience for her customers by offering them the opportunity to ask any type of question they can possibly imagine.
So I asked, “I’ve heard that the boundaries formed by the tatami mats indicate the borders between the guests and the host. Is that true?”
“Yes, it is true,” Atsuko shared. “In fact, while it looks serene and simple to an outsider, every single item used for the tea ceremony, is not only chosen for a specific reason, but it’s also placed in a very specific, measured location.”
Thus, every time, she sets up her tearoom, she has to physically count how far apart the pot is from the serving bowl, for example. From the eye of an untrained observer, the tearoom looks remarkably simple, yet it houses thousands of minute details that make it painstakingly difficult to create.
Similarly, every utensil, scroll, sweet, and even her outfit, must be well suited for the season and occasion. The one pictured here is a high-quality kimono made of silk that she can apparently wear for any season. But she does have a variety of kimonos, some of which can only be worn during specific seasons or occasions.
When I asked her how she became fluent in English, Atsuko said one word — passion. Ever since childhood, she had been extremely passionate about the Western world. However, since her mother said it was too dangerous for her to go abroad, Atsuko focused instead on mastering English in Japan.
At her local English school, she technically only had lessons twice a week, but she steadfastly went every single day! From a young age, Atsuko demonstrated her persevering mindset towards single-mindedly achieving her goals.
Initially, she was forced to attend lessons for Sado — the traditional Japanese tea ceremony. But she quickly fell in love and continued learning for a total of 8 years. Technically, she is not yet a master of Sado, as she’d have to spend a minimum of 10 years focusing entirely on the art form.
But her ultimate goal is not to become a master; rather, it is to create a world tour, offering her tea ceremony to people from all over the world.
Recently, she emailed all of her of her British customers and offered to come to them. And they were thrilled! Armed with tea ceremony goods and special bowls, she boarded the plane with her heavy suitcase, and embarked on a tour of the UK, visiting people’s homes, offices, and even schools.
But she began with humble beginnings.
An investor and friend, offered her a discounted business location at Karusama Oike, but this was her first huge mistake. Although she had spent over 8 years learning the art of Sado, she knew little about starting a business.
Her service-oriented business — a traditional Japanese tea ceremony experience geared towards foreigners — was not well suited for Karasume Oike, a location frequented only by locals. As such, after 3 short months, her business folded.
From this experience, her biggest takeaway was — location, location, location. Thus Atsuko’s next business venture had to have the most outstanding location.
Backed by her parents and with her own savings, Atsuko started her second business at the age of 39. Since she was a bit older and wiser, she knew that this was her one shot to create a successful business. Thus, she did everything in her power to make sure it was a success.
For example, every single piece of marketing content is available in both Japanese and English. Besides her social media presence, she even offers free Wifi for her customers — a rarity in Japan. And most importantly, she found the most superb location — a two-story house near Kiyomizu-dera Temple. Not only is it one of the most famous places in all of Kyoto, but it is also an area highly frequented by tourists — her target customer.
And now, for the past three years, she has been serving tea to people from all over the world, and receives clients from hotels such as the Ritz Carlton. Within the next year, she plans to expand her business by opening a second store with a garden.
When I asked about how she financially supported her second business in its early stages, Atsuko mentioned that she received some money from her parents, but that she paid them back as quickly as possible. After all, she didn’t want to owe anyone money. With this same reasoning, she also didn’t take any government loans that exist solely to support female entrepreneurs.
If she was going to fail, she wanted to fail all on her own dime.
And finally, Atsuko focused on confidence and passion as the two most important factors to become a successful, Japanese female entrepreneur. Without confidence to go for her goals with the full understanding that she might fail, Atsuko would have never been able to start this business.
And passion helped her overcome any feelings of should I be doing X like everyone around me is doing, or should I tenaciously focus on achieving my goal? Through her passionate zeal to make sure her second business was a success no matter what, Atsuko is now in the wonderful phase of expanding her business.
For those planning to start a business in Kyoto, it is paramount that you fully embrace the importance of connections. She specifically advised, “Be nice to everyone. Hide your emotions. You have to be liked by them.”
Instead of a frank, direct culture like Osaka, where Atsuko originates, Kyoto people will never tell you what they really think.
As a result, you absolutely must be warm and courteous to all of your neighbors, following all of the social customs such as giving gifts, apologizing for any loud noise, and for informing everyone around you, if your building is going to be under construction.
With confidence, passion, and kindness to your neighbors, Atsuko believes that these are the 3 success factors for Japanese female entrepreneurs. And I concur.