Ariko Inaoka | Apiece Apart Woman
Ariko Inaoka was working as a fine arts photographer in Tokyo, often traveling overseas for story assignments, when the call came; the family needed her back in Kyoto. It was her turn to lead the family business, a soba shop that has been serving noodles in Kyoto since 1703 (after its original incarnation as a cake shop some 550 years ago).
As the first woman ever to lead Honke Owariya, and as an artist and prodigal who spent much of her adult life outside of Japan, Ariko's return to Kyoto (with her American husband, Sean, also a fine arts photographer) was filled with challenges. But over the last 11 years, including the Covid pandemic and Japan's travel ban, Ariko established her role as a businesswoman, an artist, a mother and a piece of Kyoto's creative community. Here, she's interviewed by Taryn Penner and photographed by Martin Penner, the husband and wife team behind Quartier Collective.
Are there any parallels between your previous life as a freelance photographer and your current role as owner/operator of your family’s restaurant?
Honestly, these roles are quite different. Through photography, I was able to experience different cultural societies and lifestyles. I was particularly inspired by Iceland and Denmark, not just as a photographer, but also as an admirer of their social systems. I feel like Japan can learn a lot from their educational system and their tolerance of others to live their lives with more freedom of identity.
You’re the first woman to lead the company in its 550 years of business. What was it like to step into that role? Did people push back? Do you still feel pressure in the old school soba circles?
I don't feel pressure being a woman in this industry. For example, I can opt out of many unnecessary social engagements because I'm not in the Boys' Club. I do go to some dinners that are important for my business for me to participate in and I am often the only woman there besides the geisha entertaining us. That's kind of weird. It's amusing to me as an amateur anthropologist.
How did your experience living in New York, working as a fine arts photographer help prepare you for running Honke Owariya?
For both lifestyles, I needed a positive vision for how I needed to get things done. Unexpected challenges will come all the time, but in both areas of my life I needed a strong outlook, knowing that I can overcome these problems and not give in to defeat. It's also important to find the pleasure in whatever you do, whether it's photography or running an old business.
What is one unique thing about life in Kyoto (vs other places you’ve visited/lived)?
Kyoto is a pretty big city, and Japan is modernized of course, but psychologically, it often feels like the Kyoto population mindset is operating in somewhat old-fashioned thinking. It can be a challenge to break through group consciousness and find new methods of working harmoniously in the 21st century.
Japan is not a country of immigration. But you spent years abroad, you’re in a multicultural marriage and are raising a third culture kid. Does this put you in a unique position in your community? Does it give you a unique role?
You're right, immigration is limited and there aren't a lot of foreigners here, but in my own personal community I'm not that unique. Most of my friends have lived or studied abroad at some point (or are living abroad) and I have a number of friends in culturally mixed marriages, including my sister, who also married an American.
For your husband Sean, also a photographer, Kyoto has been a sort of muse. Running a business can surely feel consuming, but are you still able to feed your artistic side?
It depends on what's going on with the restaurant. Since taking over Owariya, I published a book after working on it for ten years and have done numerous exhibitions as well. However, it's been challenging to conceptualize a new artistic project, when I have to put so much of my creative energy into managing the restaurant through various challenges, most especially those that came during the pandemic.
Your son Tennbo is quite like our Viggo: energetic, long-haired and fiercely original. How hard is it to parent a « spicy one » in Japanese culture?
We've been fortunate to have very good schools suitable for Tennbo's personality in kindergarten and elementary school. He's an energetic and free-spirited child, but he seems to listen to his teachers and participate in group activities well. He challenges us more than he does any other authority figures. But we believe in his own speed of learning and growing and we enjoy his funny and unique personality.
Could you share the best advice you were given when you took over the restaurant?
There are two things my dad said before he passed: He said, "You can do this," which gave me some confidence. He also said I could make changes to the business because a long history suggests a synthesis of innovation and tradition, as long as I honored the most important facets that make the restaurant what it is, which is a quality of deliciousness.
Do you have a lifelong mantra or quote you love?
Everything is happening for the best.