Student Interview: Cathy of Zusetsu

Cathy and Yukki stand in a meadow holding furoshiki bags.

Posted: 4th July 2023

Welcome back to my Student Interview series!

As you all seem to enjoy hearing from students at Ippo Ippo, this month I've invited Cathy to chat about her experience of learning Japanese, as well as her wonderful business, Zusetsu, which she runs with Yukki-san (pictured left in the photo above).

Cathy originally joined me for Pre-Intermediate Japanese Conversation and has just started our next course, Pre-Intermediate Japanese: Learning by Topic. As one of the themes of the course is summer, I'm delighted that Cathy is in fact visiting Japan very soon, where she'll be experiencing wonderful summer festivals and the (less wonderful) summer heat firsthand as we talk about it in class!

As well as talking about Zusetsu, Cathy has some really great tips to share as someone who has been learning Japanese for several years now. I hope you enjoy her interview as much as I did!

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Hi Cathy, thank you for making the time to chat to me today! My first question to you is about Zusetsu. How did it come into being?

I was following my family through Tokyo, and we were walking past the windows of the beautiful Mitsukoshi store in Ginza. And in each of the windows was a plinth with a single furoshiki-wrapped gift elegantly placed on it. There were several of these furoshiki-topped stands. I stopped in my tracks, because what I was looking at was so creative and beautiful, and I had never seen anything like it!

Japan had been quite a big part of our lives for many years as my husband worked with a company in Kanazawa. But I first became aware of Japan when I was 11. I was given a diary from Japan, and it had lots of beautiful photos in it and Japanese text. As I filled in the day-to-day entries, I was fascinated by the photos. I loved the pictures of children playing in an icehouse in Hokkaido, and the beautiful wagashi.

I’m an illustrator, and so when I went to Japan for the first time it was easy to be beguiled by the kimono and furoshiki textiles, the washi papermaking and the beautiful woodblock printing. Over time I began to wonder if I could learn more about these skills and connect with these Kyoto businesses and create a space for their work here in the UK.

I gather you now run Zusetsu with your son's girlfriend, Yukki-san. Was getting to know her what inspired you to start learning Japanese?

Yes, I wanted to be able to speak to Yukki’s family in Japanese – although many of her family are fluent at speaking English! I also feel that it’s polite to try and speak the language with our business friends in Japan.

I've loved hearing about your travels to Japan during our lessons together. Do you have a particular place you enjoy visiting?

That’s kind of you Elly!

For me it’s all about Kyoto. I fell in love with the city on our first day there, having been spellbound by Nijō Castle, Ryōanji and Kinkakuji. There was so much that was different about Kyoto and that I didn’t understand, and I so much wanted to understand this city – it’s incredibly rich history and why it is so beautiful.

I love reading old texts, and so I went back to the beginning, to some of the texts that were written in the early years of Kyoto’s foundation, because I thought I might find some of the answers there. The diaries of the Heian court ladies and The Tale of Genji give a fascinating insight into court life in ancient Heian-kyō and a world of poetry, dance, art, pilgrimages and festivals. I began to see how so much of the immense beauty in Kyoto has come down to us from all those centuries ago.

One of those original festivals is the Gion Matsuri, and I’m very excited to be visiting soon.

I was fascinated by the many-layered robes of the Heian court ladies, and how these evolved into kimono, and how the designs have inspired many of the patterns on the Kyoto gifts that we bring to our Zusetsu store. Our washi paper trays, our furoshiki and our Kyoto bags all feature designs that originated with kimono.

A rooftop of a sub-temple at Myōshin-ji in Kyoto.

A rooftop of a sub-temple at Myōshin-ji in Kyoto.

Speaking of furoshiki, for those who have seen them before, they can seem like beautiful items that must surely be just for decorative purposes. However, the last time I was in Kyoto I was fascinated to have someone show me just how practical they can be. Do you find yourself using them in your day-to-day life?

Yes absolutely! Furoshiki are wonderful because there are so many ingenious ways to fold and tie them that can be adapted for your purposes. We use the larger ones not only for gift-wrapping but also for creating furoshiki bags. You can create a furoshiki bag for carrying books, plates, your lunch – and even a pie! One of my favourites is our double bottle wrap, that wraps two wine bottles securely together with a cute handle – there is no better way of carrying them or gifting them! And what makes furoshiki so popular is that they are reusable, so they can be used over and over again, and they become softer as they are used.

We have a big box of furoshiki, and when our family arrive home for Christmas, everyone dives into it to wrap their presents and place under the tree. They look amazing, and what’s lovely is that after everyone has opened their presents, later in the day we can simply fold the furoshiki and put them away until the next celebration – instead of throwing out plastic tape and paper.

Two gifts wrapped in furoshiki

Gifts wrapped in furoshiki

Do you have a favourite furoshiki pattern?

Well, my favourite would have to be our Zusetsu Snowflower, because this was our first exciting collaboration with a traditional furoshiki printing company in Kyoto. And whenever I open the box and see them again, I am always astonished by their beauty. They were screen-printed by hand.

The design was inspired by small flakes of snow falling on the plum blossoms in the Imperial Palace Gardens, and the stillness of that moment, as well as a grove of flowering cherry trees near our home here in the Cotswolds.

A photo of the Zusetsu Snowflower furoshiki

Cathy's favourite: the Zusetsu Snowflower furoshiki

Having learnt Japanese for a while now, what do you most enjoy about it?

I love learning Japanese. It’s fascinating, and it’s exciting to be able to understand some of the things around you when you’re in Japan! I try and study every evening, and I’m thrilled when I understand something new. I love it when I’m watching a Japanese drama and there are whole phrases I can understand, and I love being able to understand snatches of conversations when I’m in Japan. It’s great to be able to ask questions and have simple conversations.

I’ve had some lovely moments in Japan when people have been delighted that I’ve had a try at speaking. I sat next to a mum and daughter on the shinkansen [bullet train] coming back from Miyajima and we had a chat, and that was a lot of fun!

Some of the people that I deal with on a business level cannot speak English, so it’s important that I continue to learn so that I can communicate with them.

I’ve been having lessons for about three and a half years, and it feels like the further forward in Japanese that I go, the more the earlier learning is becoming bedded in.

But there’s lots I find tricky, and the big one is trying to speak Japanese. But class is great fun and we learn huge amounts, and we have a lot of fun trying!

What would you say to anyone at the start of their Japanese learning journey?

Learning Japanese is an exciting journey. At the beginning it’s got all the fascination of codebreaking because you’re learning about hiragana, katakana, and kanji. And I think a good way to learn Japanese is to try and surround yourself with it – listen to podcasts, watch Japanese dramas and movies, attend a class with all of the accompanying textbook study and homework and speaking practice. Something I do is study from more than one textbook at a time: this means that you inevitably come across similar content explained in slightly different ways, and at different stages. That seems to help bed some of the grammar in!

I feel good about where I’m at right now. I can see there’s a long road ahead, but there’s a good foundation behind me – it’s exciting! So, to anyone starting out – just keep going. It’s amazing how much you can learn and achieve if you just take one step at a time. Isn’t that what "Ippo Ippo" means, Elly?

Haha, you're absolutely right!

So: I have one last question for you. Do you have any special plans for Zusetsu in the next year or so?

There is always a lot going on at Zusetsu! We love hosting furoshiki workshops both in-person and online, as well as our popular JanuaryinJapan Bookclub! Follow us on Instagram @zusetsu_store or sign up to our newsletter and blogs on our website www.zusetsu.com. We’d love to see you!

カシーさん、ありがとう!

Kashii-san, arigatō!

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