Remembering Venetia Stanley-Smith, Eco-friendly, U.K.-born Herbalist in Kyoto

Photo by Tadashi Kajiyama
Venetia Stanley-Smith is seen in her garden in the Ohara district of Kyoto in June 2010.

As I stepped into the more than 100-year-old house covered in Chinese trumpet creepers, my mind flashed back to the day British-born herbalist Venetia Stanley-Smith first welcomed me like an old friend, saying, “It’s so hot, isn’t it?”

A glass of her handmade juice made from shiso leaves quickly cooled me down.

Stanley-Smith — widely known in Japan as simply “Venetia” — died June 21 from aspiration pneumonia at the age of 72 at her much-loved home in Kyoto’s Ohara district. She had previously said that she would likely pass away in her Ohara home.

The noted herbal expert lost her sight due to a brain disease several years ago, and was cared for by her mountain-photographer husband, Tadashi Kajiyama, 63. “I’ve never met anyone who worked so hard for others,” he said. “I feel like she’s still here with me.”

Stanley-Smith was born of nobility in 1950, but grew up questioning British upper-class social norms such as becoming a debutante, partying and becoming a “good wife.”

At a time when the Vietnam War was intensifying, young people increasingly opposed traditional values and expectations, exemplified by such songs as The Beatles’ “All You Need is Love.”

The young Stanley-Smith once dreamed of becoming a singer, but gave up on that desire and also experienced a sad breakup. In one of her books, she recalled that she felt she had nowhere to go in those days.

But at the age of 19 she left her home country, and traveled the Silk Road to India. Eventually, she arrived in Japan. In Kyoto, she began teaching English lessons.

After she married Kajiyama, she moved into her beloved Japanese-style home in 1996. The couple renovated the house little by little, planting Western and Japanese flowers and herbs in the garden.

Stanley-Smith, who had grown up in a palatial mansion, said, “I longed to live with my family in a small cottage in a rural area.”

Drawing on various books and the knowledge of neighborhood elders, she began using herbs for cooking, skin care and cleaning.

Stanley-Smith’s hands were usually colored by soil, and she tried to avoid using chemical products and electric appliances as far as possible. In her home surrounded by trees, she pursued a life that cared for the health of the Earth and her family.

In 2007, she published a popular collection of essays titled, “Venetia’s Ohara Herb Diary,” comprising attractive seasonal pictures shot by her husband and numerous recipes.

In 2009, NHK TV began airing “At Home with Venetia in Kyoto,” featuring the herbalist’s everyday life. Though originally slated to run for only a year, the show proved a hit and became a more than decadelong staple. A movie based on the TV series was made in 2013.

Following the 2011 Great East Japan Earthquake, many people began to reassess the importance of nature and the environment.

“Venetia always did things that were good for health and the natural environment, but she never forced others to comply with her ideas,” said Yukari Suzuki, a producer at Telecom Staff Inc., the company that produced the TV show. “I guess [the TV show] fit the times.”

Stanley-Smith and her husband had an often-tempestuous marriage, with many arguments and reconciliations. “They didn’t hide anything; they showed us who they truly were,” Suzuki said.

Kajiyama delivered a eulogy at his wife’s funeral that moved many to tears. “I think Venetia was happy, and I was happy, too,” he said.