Kimiko Side, 98, is Colorado’s queen of Japanese crafts

QUEEN OF CRAFTS — Kimiko Side (L), 98, teaches Japanese crafts at the Tri-State Buddhist Temple in Denver. photo by Gil Asakawa

DENVER — Kimiko Side is a teacher and artist who’s leaving a huge cultural legacy for anyone in Denver who loves Japanese crafts. When she turned a spry 98-years-young last year, she was still driving herself to Pacific Mercantile, the Japanese supermarket in downtown Denver’s Sakura Square.

For decades until the COVID-19 pandemic, she also taught monthly classes at the Tri-State Denver Buddhist Temple, and shared her arts and crafts at the annual sakura matsuri, or Cherry Blossom Festival, and events at Simpson United Methodist Church like the annual hina matsuri, or doll festival.

Side has been active in the area’s Japanese and Japanese American community organizations, from the Denver-Takayama Sister City Committee, which she chaired for more than a decade, to the Mile High chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. She and her late husband Gene also ran several locations of a Japanese gift shop.

Kimiko Side grew up immersed in Japanese culture. She was born in China before World War II and was taught traditional arts as a child. After the war, she and her family moved to Japan, which was devastated by the conflict, and she worked for a bank and met her husband, who was a GI stationed in Tokyo. The couple chose to settle in Denver after the Occupation of Japan, and opened Madam Butterfly Gift Shop to sell imported Japanese gifts and arts and crafts. They eventually had locations in the Denver suburbs of Lakewood and Boulder.

She began making her own cards 30 years ago.

For her decades-long dedication to building bridges of culture and personal relationships between Colorado and Japan, she was awarded the kunsho or medal of honor of The Order of the Rising Sun, Gold and Silver Rays, from the Emperor of Japan. She received the Asian American Hero of Colorado Lifetime Achievement Award in 2013.

photo by Gil Asakawa

At the start of the pandemic, she opened an Etsy shop to sell her cards, but has since shut the online operation to only sell the cards at Pacific Mercantile. But she still makes cards at home every day to deliver to the shop. “I go there for groceries,” she says, “so at that time I take the new cards.”

Asked if she still drives to the store, she laughed, “No, no, no, I don’t drive anymore.” Her son now takes her on her weekly deliveries.

That’s a relief, although it wouldn’t surprise any of her students or fans if she did drive herself, because she’s like the Energizer Bunny — she just keeps on going. And Denver’s Japanese community is richer because of her energy.

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