Catherine Defina is the owner and manager of Shizuka Ryokan. Perhaps you have encountered Catherine (who wears red Swedish hiking pants) and her dog Cleo (who wears a checkered jumper) walking around the grounds of Shizuka, or spied her preparing sashimi through the kitchen door.
Prior to taking over Shizuka Catherine was a corporate high-flyer. She worked for a Swedish company as a general manager in the healthcare sector. It was during this role that she lived in Japan for four years, “That’s where I fell in love with Japanese culture and way of life.”
By early 2012, Catherine sensed that the corporate world was no longer the place for her, “Moving to Japan changed my life, totally.” She travelled to San Diego to undertake the Perfect Health Program at The Chopra Center. “That was my introduction to meditation. They said if there’s only one thing that you take away from this program and keep doing — meditate twice a day. So I did. And it changed everything for me.” Back in Sweden, meditating twice a day, Catherine was trying to do a password retrieval when she noticed an email saying somewhere she had never heard of called Shizuka was for sale.
Catherine is passionate about hospitality. A visit years ago to Chiva Som, a health spa in Thailand, left a deep impression on her. Catherine realised that it was a lovely place to be because the general manager was always on the floor, “He was just ever-present.” Catherine says, “I’d always said to my husband at the time that I’d always like to do something like that. There was something in me that knew I would be good at making the experience really special for the guests and staff.” So when Catherine saw that Shizuka Ryokan was for sale she had a feeling. She thought that with just six guestrooms it was small enough that she could try it out.
In March 2015 Catherine was a guest at Shizuka. She didn’t let on to the owners Peter and Margie that she was a potential buyer. She was impressed, “I felt like I’d woken up in Japan. I felt this is real; this is authentic and I reckon I can do it.” In July 2015 Catherine moved back to Australia. Despite doubts she decided to buy Shizuka, “The heart knows better than the head.” The process from deciding that she wanted to do it to taking over Shizuka was a lengthy one. In November 2016 Catherine took over.
At Shizuka Catherine prepares traditional Japansese cuisine. Prior to living in Japan she had never cooked in her life but she points out, “I had a subscription to Donna Hay magazine. I must have had some sort of latent desire to be a chef that I was suppressing!” When she moved to Japan she lived alone for the first time in her life so she had to cook. “When you live in Japan it costs an absolute fortune to cook western ingredients so I started cooking Japanese food.”
Catherine points out that teaching herself how to cook Japanese had some interesting side benefits. One night she tried to shallow fry something in olive oil. Olive oil has a low smoking point but Catherine was new to cooking and didn’t know that, “The exhaust fan didn’t cope. I set the smoke alarm in the whole building off. The elevator stopped working.” Catherine went downstairs in her slippers and apron to find the reserved elderly building manager to explain to him that the building wasn’t on fire. He accompanied her back to her flat and noticed the mackerel tatsuta-age. “All of a sudden I had this totally different relationship with him.” He encouraged Catherine’s attempts to cook Japanese. The encouragement spread to the team of people that she managed,“My whole team were Japanese. In the morning they would ask ‘What did you cook for dinner last night?’ I was no longer your average expat, I was actually trying to fit in with the Japanese culture.”
Once Catherine decided to learn how to cook Japanese she went for it, “I immersed myself in what I needed to know.” In the town of Seki, Gifu she found chef Shuji and the Ozeki Cooking School. Under Shuji’s guidance, and over weeks of study, Catherine dove into Japanese cuisine. Just before taking over Shizuka she went back to Japan and did a follow-up immersive course at the Ozeki Cooking School to get ready for her first adventure as a cook. While there Shuji advised, “Catherine I’ve taught you everything I can teach you. Now what you need to do is cook.” Catherine has been cooking at Shizuka for over two years now. She will be returning to Shuji’s teaching in the future to grapple with what she calls her weak points,“I’m after tempura perfection. ”
It is two years since Catherine took over Shizuka and she is excited, “This isn’t any old guesthouse in any old tourist town. This is really quite special.” She has big plans for Shizuka. For example, she intends to build an onsen so that guests and members of the public can experience traditional Japanese bathing under the pines. In collaboration with the groundskeeper she has begun plans for hanami, or cherry blossom parties, “The first of the cherry blossoms went in last winter. Next winter I’ll plant 20 more.” She has introduced yoga and meditation classes to the resort. “It is a private class. Three hours worth with Riki Edelsten.”
Catherine sips tea and looks around across the row of bearded iris, “So much potential.”