A Woman of Many Colors: Yoshi Akiba

Jill Kunishima


Yoshi Akiba's energy is incredible. From the moment I arrive at her house in the Rockridge area of Oakland, she is in constant motion. With her black hair tied back in a loose ponytail, and her petite body clothed in purple kimono-like robes, she is like a small whirlwind of color.


The first thing she does is point out the Buddhist temple in her backyard and introduce me to her dogs and cat. As she talks to the dogs, she also brushes the cat vigorously; a master of multi-tasking. After a few minutes of cat hair dancing around my face, she invites me inside, and offers me some mountain tea. It's not cold this particular morning, but I take it anyway as it seems to calm those butterflies in my stomach, which are as active as the cat hairs a few minutes ago.


Yoshi is an amazing woman. Known for her world-renowned jazz club at Jack London Square, she is what most people strive to be: famous, successful, and happy. But what brings her that happiness is not what most expect.


As I sit drinking the tea, Yoshi continues on with her bustling, and looks at me: "So why are you doing this again?" There are many reasons, I assure her. Technically, it's for my feature writing class. She looks at me skeptically, her black eyebrows furrowed. "There are some other people I could introduce you to, people that could use more publicity than me," she says. I explain my reasons more: you're Japanese, you're a great role model, you attended my alma mater. "I just don't like people to interview me just because I'm 'interesting,'" she sighs. "There are plenty more people with more interesting lives. But you're too sweet and I can feel that you are not here to just do that." And finally, she sits down at the kitchen table with me. "So what do you want to ask me?" I start asking her general questions at this point. I hope that by doing this it will allow her to answer the questions in any way she feels best and not take more time than she is able to accommodate. "I think you need to ask me more specific questions," she says. That, too, is perfectly fine with me.


Yoshi was born and raised in Yokohama, Japan in 1942, right around World War II. This made for difficult times, and she became an orphan early in life. Some of her first memories include hunting for grasshoppers and snakes to eat, and diving for seaweed to make nori, or dried and salted seaweed to sell. She came to the United States in her late teens and attended The Peabody Conservatory in Maryland for a short amount of time, and got married to a United States naval officer at the age of nineteen. They eventually separated, and she came to California where she attended UC Berkeley, and graduated with a B.A. in Art. Some time after that she went on to Mills College to pursue her M.A. in Dance.
It was during these years that she became very conscious of spirituality, and what it meant to her. To this day, this remains her main drive in life, and what brings her true happiness, as evident in the three things she enjoys the most: Japanese tea ceremony, dancing, and Zen Buddhism.


Japanese tea ceremony, or Sado, is a very structuralized and spiritual ritual in Japan. Sado itself means "Tea Way," which implies that it is a way of life. In the ceremony, people serve tea to one another in a certain way, which emphasizes its spiritual, social, and aesthetic values. Yoshi felt that it was a great way to "bridge the gap between social and spiritual." "Meditation [an important aspect of Zen Buddhism] is not for everyone. It requires a certain type of spirit that not everyone can maintain, at least not at first. I feel that Sado is a good way to take the aspects of meditation and mesh them with something more active," she says.


Sado, which originated in China, has been practiced in Japan for nearly five hundred years. "It was a good way to keep warm and stay awake in those early mornings," chuckles Yoshi. In Japanese Zen Buddhism, four principles are upheld in the practice of Sado: harmony, respect, cleanliness, and silence. "All four are needed to conduct the ceremony, and they all need to be balanced," she says. Balance is something she speaks of often, as she believes that our society is becoming more and more imbalanced. "There is far too much greed and selfishness in this world," she says under her breath.


At this point she stands up and beckons to me: "I will show you," she says. I find myself following her down the hall to a small room covered by straw mats. The lighting is soft, and the decorations are minimal. "This is one room. You see why you need harmony when these rooms are so small, ne?" She then ushers me into another room, which serves the same purpose, but is considerably larger. Just being there makes me feel at peace.


Buddhism is another large part of her life. It became a part of her life after reading the ideas of Alan Watts. "I really liked the ideas of being in the moment and being awakened," she said. She also feels that it keeps her strong, because it affects her outlook on life. "Life is full of suffering, but, in some ways, we should enjoy it. It's all about how we respond to it," she said.


In addition, Buddhism intertwines with Sado so much for her that she could not imagine doing one without the other. Besides that, her second husband is a Buddhist priest. Together, and with the help of a couple other friends, they helped incept Kojin-an, the Buddhist temple on her property, which means "good people gathering place."


Every morning at 7:00 a.m. at Kojin-an, Yoshi arises and practices zazen, or meditation there. "I believe you find out who you are when you are quiet," she said. "I have to do this almost every day. It really helps to bring me back to where I am, myself, my roots," she said.


We venture into her backyard to see the temple at this point. "Pieces of the temple were made in Japan, then brought over here, and then we reconstructed it here," she says. As we make our way into the temple, she tells me what one does on a typical visit. As I follow her to the alter, she thrusts a stick of incense in my hand. "Here! You can do it too," she says. She begins to instruct me how to do it, but to her surprise, I actually know how to do it, as I attended a Buddhist church when I was younger. She smiles at me approvingly, and then we leave the building.


Dancing is something else she spends a lot of time on. "I love to dance. It is my form of expression," she says. From her days of dance in Japan to her years with a dance company to attaining her degree at Mills College to her performances now, she has come a long way. "I now refer to myself as a 'spiritual interpretive dancer,'" she says. "I don't know if you know what that is, but sometimes I'll dance for something like a funeral, but that's just one part of it," she said. In addition, she loves that dance gives her ability to reach out to the community, especially children. "It makes them so happy! That's the best part!"


Another thing about dancing that she appreciates is its ability to transcend mind body and sprit. "It's just another way to do what tea ceremony and Buddhism do," she said. In addition to transcending mind, body and sprit, it also transcends all cultures. "Art has that ability that other things do not."


As our interview comes to an end, I thank her for her time and the tea. "You're welcome; I enjoyed it too," she smiles. As she leads me out the door and onto the street, she turns around, her robes and hair swishing around as she moves: "You know, you should come to tea sometime." I grin and wave: "I'll see you soon, then!"