By MIEKO BEYER
Whether an expatriate, immigrant or student in a place far from home, all can relate to that instant connection when seeing a postmark on a package from your native country at your door. It’s a heartfelt reminder that though home is far away there are still ways to feel physically linked.
Kokoro Care Packages creates curated boxes of Japanese food products that give its subscribers that same feeling. Their packages are shipped direct from Japan once a month after founders Aki Sugiyama and Lillian Hanako Rowlatt personally select each item with equal parts research and love.
“We want to show people the full spectrum of food in Japan and keep people connected to Japan as well,” explained Rowlatt. “People who subscribe are not our customers, they’re our Kokoro community.”
The company has already shipped to 35 countries and their “Kokoro community” is populated by everyone from Japanese expats living in places as far-flung as Mauritius to former visitors to Japan who loved the food to people of Japanese descent in America. “There are kids who grew up in the U.S. who tell us they wait to open their boxes with their mom,” Rowlatt shared with a heartfelt smile. “And we have people who have simply just heard that Japanese food is awesome!”
“Awesome” is definitely something Kokoro Care Packages specializes in — the products they select connect people not just with the food of Japan but also its culture. From umeboshi made in Wakayama Prefecture to a handmade brown rice jam to a pesticide-free yuzu miso, the company strives to support smaller, specialty producers as much as possible and learn the stories about the farmers and producers behind each product.
Their focus on products that aren’t available outside of Japan help make each care package that much more special. Not to be confused with a monthly meal kit, Kokoro simply aims to help people add variety to their diet with everything from sauces and seasonings to teas, noodles and snacks accessible to the chef and non-chef alike.
Kokoro’s debut took place in December 2018 after a successful Kickstarter funded their first batch of packages. Supporters of the fundraising campaign were the first Kokoro community members, receiving boxes by the holiday season. Their first official packages launched in January and the initial feedback they received was incredibly positive. Just as Sugiyama and Rowlatt had predicted, people loved the products and stories that came with them.
However, the dynamic duo still had a few kinks to work out at first, such as sharpening their discernment for when a product might be too complicated for the average user. But with their strong connection to their subscribers coupled with their ardent dedication to testing and finding products, they’ve been able to find the sweet spot, bringing authentic products that are both accessible and exciting.
“We’re adding bits and flavors of Japan and also the health benefits as well,” said Rowlatt. “We’re not always sure if people will like it, but the point is to try new things and be creative.”
Healthy eating has always been part of Rowlatt’s life. Raised in Toronto by her Osaka-born mother and British father, she fit into the multicultural city and grew up feeling proud of her cultural heritages. She was an active child who competed on her high school volleyball team and carried her athleticism even into her busy career in finance after graduating from Queen’s University.
Despite Rowlatt’s lifelong interest in healthy eating and athletics, her long work hours covering both the U.S. and Japanese markets took a toll on her health. When she met Sugiyama they clicked instantly in their personalities, backgrounds and interests. Sugiyama also worked in finance and is athletically inclined. She’s a competitive bodybuilder who has represented Japan on the world stage. With their mutual interest in the health benefits of Japanese food and wellness in general, it was a match made in heaven to bring Kokoro Care Packages to life.
Sugiyama works from Japan and sources all their products direct from producers. Rowlatt travels to Japan to meet with her partner in person when possible and their producers. On her most recent trip, Sugiyama coordinated a visit to a farmer and the Kokoro Care founders were invited to plant peppers and have a memorable, hands-on experience. “I was moved by how the farmers feel their biggest drive is to feed their community,” Rowlatt recalled. “It was great to put our hands and feet in the soil and get in touch with what they do.”
Now their passion for bringing others in touch with the amazing products they find is thriving as Kokoro Care Packages. “We cherish the people we meet in Japan,” said Rowlatt. “Hence the name of our company, ‘kokoro’ meaning ‘heart’ — it can also mean ‘soul’ or ‘emotion.’ It’s truly a care package.”
Kokoro Care Packages will host a booth at Keiro no Hi Festival. Come learn about their products and the stories behind them in person from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. on Saturday, Sept. 14, at the Japanese American Cultural & Community Center, 244 S. San Pedro St. in Little Tokyo.
Experience Kokoro Care Packages at your door by visiting https://kokorocares.com/ to subscribe and receive a monthly box. Follow their delicious updates on Instagram and Facebook by visiting https://www.instagram.com/kokorocares/ and https://www.facebook.com/kokorocares