The Kokoro Files shares the stories of people who’re connected to Japan through heritage, food, culture and travel experience. The word ‘Kokoro’ is Japanese for heart, but it’s more than the physical organ. Kokoro is passion, love and connection all at once and Lillian Hanako Rowlatt channels that sentiment with Kokoro Care Packages.
Yamato Magazine caught up with Lillian about the story of her brand, her love of Japanese cuisine and her desire to help local farmers share their produce with a worldwide audience.
Appreciate you taking the time to talk Lillian. I think the concept behind Kokoro Care Packages is fantastic, so for anyone who is unfamiliar it’d be great to hear more about the brand and the story.
Kokoro Care Packages delivers premium-quality, artisanal Japanese food straight from Japan to 35+ countries around the world. Our idea began as a way of sharing authentic Japanese foods and flavours while introducing people to foods they may not have tried before.
We also wanted to connect people to the stories and traditions of the local farmers and producers we partner with. For us, food is more than what’s on your plate but an experience that can connect you to the people around your table as well as the people, land and philosophies that created it.
Alongside your business partner Aki, you’re committed to sharing the culture of Japanese food. What do you think makes Japanese food unique?
As with many aspects of Japan, there are deep traditions and subtle nuances when it comes to Japanese food. There’s a focus on eating seasonally and creating harmony on your plate amongst the flavours, colours and even cooking techniques. The idea is to bring out the natural flavours of each ingredient without allowing one ingredient to outshine another. There is a simple yet beautiful balance to Japanese food.
On your website you mention that you were ranked 1st in America for taking Kumon as a child for 14 years. That’s really impressive! What was it about math that you found interesting and how has it shaped your adult life?
I started Kumon when I was only 4 years old and was naturally drawn to math. I enjoyed playing with numbers the same way children enjoy puzzles. I love how logical it is and how it can help explain so much of the world around us. I ended up majoring in math in university and am still fascinated by it!
What kind of suppliers do you work with through Kokoro and how important is it to tell their stories through their food?
All our products are sourced locally in Japan and many are small batch, artisanal products that can’t be found outside of Japan.
They’re all free of chemicals and made from top quality ingredients. We partner with farmers and producers who share our passion for local specialties and have rich traditions, some centuries old, or a unique story.
Food has a wonderful way of connecting people and we hope that each of our products help to bring our community closer to our producers in Japan as well as their traditions and their regions.
Seasonality plays an important role in Japanese cuisine. To what extent does this play into how you craft your food packages?
Seasonality is a very important part of how we pick our products. We have a new theme each month/season and many of these themes focus around the local foods that season, such as sakura, ume and yuzu. Some of our products are only available for a short period each year when the ingredients are at their freshest.
With the pandemic affecting hospitality businesses around the world how do you feel that you’ve adapted, and have you come up with new ideas to reach your customers?
We have a unique ability to connect people with Japan even during a time when many of us are unable to travel there. We’ve included themes based around specific regions – Kyoto, Kyushu, Tohoku, Hokkaido, Kanagawa and Okinawa – as a way of helping people travel to Japan with their taste buds.
Our Care Packages have brought joy to so many during this pandemic and have truly lived up to their care package name. We are also honoured to provide our local farmers and producers access to an international market that would otherwise be unattainable.
As for so many businesses, the pandemic brought about some challenges for us as well. For one, Japan Post, our shipping partner, suddenly announced that they were temporarily suspending shipments to many countries including the US. It took a lot of work, but we were able to find alternative solutions to ensure that we can continue to deliver our packages that mean so much to our community.
We are always looking for meaningful ways to reach and stay in touch with our customers. We’re hosting an upcoming webinar on the opportunity and crisis of Japan’s agricultural system with a panel of researchers and one of our local farmers. We also continue to partnership with international associations and not-for-profit organizations.
How has your interpretation of Japanese food changed over time?
Being half Japanese, I grew up with my mom’s home cooking and always wanted to celebrate special occasions with Japanese food. Over time I’ve come to realise just how deep the traditions, techniques and nuances of Japanese food are and feel like I’ve only scratched the surface of my understanding.
Are there any regions of Japan that you’ve yet to explore and are planning to introduce new culinary products from in the future?
My mom is from Osaka so I’m looking forward to sharing the unique flavours of her hometown. I also enjoy sharing areas of Japan where many people haven’t had a chance to visit, such as our Tohoku themed Care Package. Each region of Japan has its own specialty and a unique flavour that is truly its own.
There are so many great names in the food community who’re championing Japanese food. Who have you enjoyed collaborating with in recent memory and are there any upcoming partnerships you’d like to talk about?
It’s been such an honour for us to connect with so many people from around the world. We’ve partnered with local cooking instructors and personalities in Japan, various organisations and experts across the US, Canada, Europe and Australia.
And we’ve been featured in a wide range of publications and sites. We believe in the power of community and working with others who share our passion for the traditions and authentic foods from Japan.
Where would you like to see Kokoro in five-years’ time?
Our vision is to become the most well-known source for authentic Japanese food, education behind Japanese food and philosophies, and for having built a community where people can share their ideas and learn about how to incorporate these foods and philosophies into their daily lives.
We would also like to give back more to the local Japanese farmers and communities to support their traditions in the face of an aging and declining population, and to work with larger organisations to make a real and meaningful positive impact.