It does not get much better than regular deliveries of small-batch Japanese food. I should know. On the 18-hour-plus haul across the Pacific Ocean from New Jersey to Japan, the one question always weighing on my mind is, “What am I going to eat first?”
I never want anything fancy, just the simple, pure flavors of Japan that I miss from my time living in Kansai: a perfectly formed rice ball wrapped with seaweed, a comforting bowl of piping hot miso soup, a soothing cup of bitter green tea.
And as soon as I take that first bite, I am immediately reconnected to my memories of Japan. I remember my host mother preparing me a warm bowl of udon in hot dashi made from konbu and topped with scallions. I can taste the perfectly-formed rice balls flavored with hijiki and the gentle fragrance of shiso prepared by my colleagues for an afternoon picnic by Lake Biwa.
Now, thanks to the start-up Kokoro Care Packages, I do not have to fly all the way to Japan to enjoy the foods I miss. No matter where I live, I can enjoy a curated selection of Japanese tea, seasonings, snacks, and more delivered directly to my own door! At the same time, I’m helping to support Japan’s small farmers, who face a shrinking future.
When I am missing Japan, my monthly Kokoro Care Package always makes me smile. Seeing the Japan Post sticker and the carbon copy export form gives me a special thrill. When I open my box, I immediately feel reconnected to the country and to my memories in Japan.
Two enterprising women — Lillian Rowlatt and Aki Sugiyama — started Kokoro Care Packages just last year, in December 2018. Lillian, who now lives in Los Angeles, is half-Japanese and grew up in Toronto. Aki lives in central Tokyo. Although both women have different cultural backgrounds and native languages, they share a background in finance.
Amazingly, the two women also share a mutual friend. One of Aki’s colleagues in Tokyo is Lillian’s childhood friend from Canada. This mutual friend saw that Aki and Lillian shared a common interest in fitness and health, and introduced the two of them.
Recalling that first meeting, Lillian says she felt an instant connection. The two discovered they shared much in common, particularly their belief in the power of eating a Japanese-based diet and the values that can be learned from Japanese philosophies around food. The dinner lasted only a few hours, but, within that short time, Aki says they connected deeply, like they just understood each other completely. Their electric connection inspired Aki to travel to Los Angeles.
During their time together in Los Angeles, they hatched Kokoro Care Packages. Recognizing the challenge of finding high-quality Japanese food and ingredients outside Japan, they felt inspired to support local, small-scale producers who are increasingly threatened by Japan’s shrinking population.
In addition, Lillian and Aki wanted to share the many health benefits they had enjoyed from eating a Japanese diet. Since then, they bravely left their careers behind to pursue their dream of bringing authentic Japanese food products and the stories behind them to people around the world.
What’s in the Packages
The two set out to build a community of people passionate about Japanese food, while conveying the value of sharing a meal with loved ones. Selecting products that express both goals is an important part of how they curate their Care Packages.
First, they agreed, the focus should be on sourcing premium Japanese foods, especially regional specialties made by small-scale local producers. They wanted foods that are made naturally from start to finish, from ingredients grown without chemical fertilizers or pesticides, and that do not include preservatives, artificial sweeteners, or chemical flavorings. Some items are not even widely available in Japan — let alone outside Japan!
Next, they recognized the need for English instructions. Tucked inside each box is a brochure with the ingredients of each included food and also suggestions on how to use the products. If the food requires some cooking, like noodles, then the cooking instructions are included as well. Aki and Lillian select the foods for their ease of use, so customers can expect to be able to easily enjoy everything that comes in their care package.
The stories behind the products were also important to them. Thinking of how to build a community between producers and users, the two created a brochure sharing the background of the farmers and producers: how they make their products, and the struggles they overcame to bring you the food you are eating.
They even share “Producer Spotlights” on selected producers on their website. Beyond just experiencing the delicious foods, they want those eating the food to gain a deeper understanding of local Japanese farmers and producers.
In the year since its launch, Kokoro Care Packages has featured around 100 regional products diligently checked for their purity and use of natural ingredients. To find the very best foods, Aki shares that she tasted over 600 products. They make sure each Care Package comes with a well-balanced variety of products so everyone will find something to enjoy. Here are some favorites from the past year.
Yuzu Miso Made by Yuzurikko in Tokushima Prefecture
Yuzurikko was founded by Sumie Misawa, a 66-year-old woman living in Tokushima, an area known for its yuzu. She noticed that many pesticide-free yuzu were left unused because aging farmers were not able to hike into the mountains to harvest the fruit. Sumie launched Yuzurikko to save the natural yuzu from going to waste and to attract people from younger generations back to yuzu farming.
Her yuzu miso is made from just three ingredients: miso, yuzu, and sugar. It has won awards from the Japanese Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries. The miso has a mild saltiness, followed by the delicate citrusy fragrance of yuzu, and makes a delicious sandwich spread or dip for vegetables.
Tosa Vinegar Made by Matsuzuru in Itajuku City
This exquisitely crafted tosa vinegar was once a local cult favorite, available only to devoted customers of Matsuzuru, an assuming sushi shop in the small town of Itajuku near Kobe.
Mamoru Fujiwara created the vinegar for his sushi shop. Customers were intrigued by this unusual vinegar, which, along with a clean acidity, also has a rich smoky flavor that comes from an infusion of katsuobushi and konbu.
People often asked to take some of Mr. Fujiwara’s homemade tosa vinegar home. As requests continued to increase, Fujiwara and his son decided to start bottling and selling their tosa vinegar. Now, thanks to Kokoro Care Packages, you can enjoy this local fan favorite in your own home.
Ishigaki Gourmet Chili Oil by Penguin Shokudo in Okinawa
Born worlds apart, Gyoho and Ari blended their cultures and the local island flavors of Okinawa to create their own chili oil. Gyoho was born in China and Airi grew up in Japan. In Gyoho’s hometown in China, chili oil is a staple. In fact, each family makes their own from scratch following guarded secret recipes. After moving to Ishigaki in Okinawa and starting a backyard garden, Airi challenged Gyoho to use local island ingredients to make his beloved chili oil.
To make this slightly sweet, slightly spicy oil, Gyoho combined a variety of local spices and seasonings, including local sweet and spicy chilis, turmeric, salt from the sea of Ishigaki, Okinawan black sugar, garlic, sesame seeds, and black beans. You can use it anywhere you would use hot sauce.
Supporting Local Agriculture
Without a partner like Kokoro Care Packages, many of the producers would face significant challenges to selling their products outside Japan. Just to name a few, they would have to become FDA-certified to export food products, create marketing materials in English, build a customer base outside Japan, and package their products to be shipped internationally.
Aki and Lillian essentially removed all those obstacles, enabling producers to reach a new overseas market. The producers also learn how their products are received abroad from the feedback of the Kokoro Care Package community.
In the future, Aki and Lillian plan to develop ongoing partnerships with local producers. With Japan’s declining population, many smaller mom-and-pop operations are dying as their aging owners struggle to find successors, and the few that manage to survive face a shrinking customer base.
They are helping keep small farm traditions alive and supporting the local economies of their partners by providing access to new and overseas markets. What’s more, I have found a way to stay connected to my favorite tastes, making for a delicious combination of personal satisfaction and social responsibility.
Learn more about Kokoro Care Packages at this link,
Information on their international subscription service is found here.
The company spotlights selected producers here.
Author: Jessy LeClair