When I was thirteen years old I began studying and practicing the art of cooking macrobiotically, and I developed an intense reverence for Japanese culture. At the age fifteen, I attended a class in Shiatsu given by Shizuko Yamamoto. It was her Yamamoto’s encounter with me during that class which led me to Ohashi. Yamamoto had only worked with me for a few minutes when she looked at me and with profound gentleness she took my hands and said, “You must learn Shiatsu.” That summer of 1976, I went to the Shiatsu Education Center of New York in search of learning Shiatsu; the only other school that existed was much too far away in San Francisco.
On my own, I arrived on a warm August afternoon at the tiny apartment office of the Shiatsu Education Center on 55th Street, in New York City. Unbeknownst to me that day, the nice lady behind the desk in the, Valerie, would two years later sign my diploma as one of Ohashi’s first graduating students in the class of 1978. Valerie introduced me to Ohashi who emerged from another room. Ohashi’s warm smile and large hands that shook mine made him seem much bigger in every way than his height. I told him I had come to learn Shiatsu, if it was possible, at his school. Ohashi smiled and said “You are lucky! We have a beginner class starting in a few weeks. You can join!”, and I did. I have always felt profound and sincere gratitude for Yamamoto’s words that led me to Ohashi.
Between 1976 and 1978 I came and went from New York, between classes and between parents. Ohashi taught all of the classes in those years. I graduated in 1978 alongside Pauline Sasaki, Pamela Hannay and Michele Schuman. I was 18 years old and the “youngest graduating student” Ohashi would ever have; (a later New York law required students to be 18 to enroll in the school).
I believe it was in 1978 that Sensei Master Masunaga made a trip to the Shiatsu Education Center to teach our class. During his lecture, Master Masunaga chose several subjects to demonstrate upon, and at one point he chose me. During the demonstration something happened that was very profound - I spontaneously began crying from whatever Master Masunaga had done, but it was not from any physical pain at all. An emotional floodgate opened from a manipulation of my spine. I don’t know how everyone there perceived what happened or if there are any others who are still alive that would remember that day besides Sensei Ohashi and Michele Schuman. My kindest friend and fellow student, Steven Chernesky, was there, and would always remember it, but he passed away in the late 1990’s. Pamela Hannay and Pauline Sasaki were there that day, of course, but, sadly they too have passed away. I recall so many times of practice with Chernesky, Sasaki and Hannay and how all we learned from Ohashi and each other.
For the two years of my studies with Ohashi, I had learned how Shiatsu could help people physically. It became even more clear when Master Masunaga had worked on me for only those few minutes, that Shiatsu can heal more than just the body, but can reach into our emotional and spiritual level, too.
Because I was so young when I graduated, and unlike the other graduates of the first class of 1978, I did not stay on in New York to teach at the Shiatsu Education Center. Ohashi wanted to see me to go to college, and I did that. I returned to study and apprentice with Ohashi again for a time during college in the early 1980’s.
Some twenty or more years later, when I was a practicing equine dentist, I had returned to New York. During that time, I had the chance to visit with Pamela Hannay who taught me her methods of applying Shiatsu to horses. I often reflected back at how fortunate and grateful I was to have had the opportunity to learn from Pamela, and to practice what she taught me for many years thereafter.
While I didn’t become one of Ohashi’s instructors at the Ohashi Institute school in New York after the 1978 graduation like Pamela, Pauline and Michelle had done, I did practice and teach Ohashi’s Shiatsu methods over all these decades of my life. I will always have the deepest gratitude and reverent remembrances of all I learned from Ohashi and my fellow students at what began as the Shiatsu Education Center of America and became the Ohashi Institute. To have learned Shiatsu from Master Ohashi was a great privilege and honor. To now know and work with his niece, Kumiko Kanayama is an equally great privilege and honor.
In 1978 hardly anyone had heard of Shiatsu. Now, forty five years later, in 2023, perhaps we can say things have changed a little for the better in that more people have at least heard of Shiatsu. In the late 1990’s, I had the opportunity to meet Ohashi’s niece, Kumiko Kanayama, who was directing the Ohashi Institute. I have found that few practitioners other than Kumiko, and those who studied with Ohashi, or Masunaga, really know how to practice and teach Shiatsu in this country. When you have received true Shiatsu, it is an experience that leaves an indelible impression upon your body and mind.
Kumiko has been tirelessly teaching Shiatsu for many years and her dedication follows the way that Masters Ohashi and Masunaga devoted their lives to sharing true Shiatsu with the world. I thank Sensei Ohashi for teaching me Shiatsu, for allowing me to learn from him, and for touching and affecting my life for the better so long ago. I thank Kumiko for her dedication to Shiatsu in the spirit and tradition of her uncle, Master Ohashi, and that of Master Mansunaga. I hope that others who have the means to make it happen, will be able to contribute to and support Kumiko Kanayama’s work at the Five Lights Center in Manhattan. I hope that more people will be able to create spaces for learning and sharing what Shiatsu is and how to practice it, and that it can be shared more widely. True Shiatsu will greatly improve your life in some way.
The four basic principles Ohashi shared for truly learning and understanding Shiatsu are also life principles: be natural, don’t “press”, use both hands and continuity.
Thank you my dear teacher, Wataru Ohashi, and to all who know and appreciate his teachings and practice of Shiatsu.
About the Author:
Dara Kustler was born and raised in New York City. She graduated in Ohashi’s first class of students in 1978. She is an attorney, and currently resides in Florida.