When she was 20, Mito Kiyoi of Kyoto, Japan started working in Narita Airport near Tokyo. After six years, she had had enough and decided to apply for a job with the hotel industry in South-East Asia.
She clinched a job in Langkawi with the now-defunct Sheraton Perdana Resort.
She didn’t know where Malaysia was but thought she could come here and sharpen her English skills.
“It was a big change coming from chaotic Narita to a tranquil tropical island,” recalls Kiyoi, now 36.
Then she met a Chinese guy from Alor Setar, a tour guide who frequented the hotel. Kiyoi was really impressed by his ability to switch tongues. One second he spoke Japanese, the next Malay, and then he would speak the different Chinese dialects.
Vincent lived and studied in Japan for four years, so the two of them could relate to each other well.
“He’s not any different from a Japanese guy. In fact, he’s very flexible and understands me well,” says Kiyoi, who speaks fluent English. “I’m very lucky.”
After they got married in 2001, she quit her job and they set up a small souvenir shop in Kuah.
“We love small towns and quiet places so we decided to make Langkawi our home,” says Kiyoi.
Today, the couple runs two fine jewellery and handicraft shops in two shopping malls. (Kiyoi comes from a Kyoto family with a tradition in the jewellery business). Most of the fine jewellery pieces in their stores are manufactured in Italy, and the stones are from Mozambique, Israel, Kenya, Japan and Australia.
Kiyoi also incorporates local designs like the hornbill and hibiscus into her drawings for the designers.
In the past 10 years, Kiyoi has seen Langkawi grow into a bustling place.
“When I first came here, it was very kampung. Now there’s a supermarket everywhere, and it’s quite convenient,” says Kiyoi. “The first time I tried sambal belacan, it was too spicy. Now I’m addicted to it. It’s hard to eat my food without sambal belacan.”
Kiyoi and Vincent are thinking about retiring in Japan, but for now, they are happy where they are.