Shows & Events

The place, the people – it’s just the perfect fit. I love Japan!

15th Mar 2024

Four years have passed since Janet first took LittlePod’s Campaign for Real Vanilla to Japan. What a joy it was to return to Tokyo this month!

Did you know...?

More than 90,000 visitors from all over the world attended Foodex 2024 at Tokyo Big Sight!

From East Devon to East Asia, our Campaign for Real Vanilla has been crossing continents again this month. Delighted to be reunited with Yumi-san and Otayo-san, the LittlePod team had quite a time in Tokyo, taking part in Foodex Japan 2024 and making new friends aplenty, as Janet explained in a conversation with Paul this week. These are her words:

I’ve just got home from Japan. Laura and I spent last week at Foodex in Tokyo. Foodex Japan is the biggest food trade show in Asia and the largest event LittlePod has ever taken part in. It was enormous, spread across a series of halls, each packed with exhibitors from all the countries imaginable. We exhibited under the banner of the UK Food & Drink Exporters Association. It was joyous to be part of something global, with like-minded people and companies from all over the world. Given all that has happened with the pandemic, it felt as though the world had opened up again. It has been a long time since we’ve been able to do something like this. This was a wonderful interaction of people from all around the globe.  

We were supposed to go to Foodex Japan in 2020. We’d invested in everything and it was all arranged. Then Covid came and the show was, understandably, cancelled. I travelled to Japan anyway, just to see what I could do. It was empty, deserted, with no-one around and we found we could go to all these places and have them to ourselves. We even ate at the famous Bird Land restaurant. Under normal circumstances, it takes four years to get a table, but we just walked in. It was very different this time.

The LittlePod team at the Tofuya Ukai restaurant in Tokyo

The silver lining in 2020 was meeting Yumi and Otayo, who have since become LittlePod’s representative distributors and importers in Japan. Back then, I had a cooking class with Yumi, during which I introduced her to LittlePod. Yumi’s background is in marketing and she recognised an opportunity and devised a plan to take LittlePod to Japan. I said, ‘That’s great, but the one thing we need is an importer’. Yumi replied, ‘Meet Otayo, my husband, who has been an importer for 20 years’. I returned to LittlePod full of excitement but soon after, everything closed due to Covid. Japan remained in lockdown until last March but Yumi always carried on working in the background, doing what she could. What happened last week was a great reward for all her hard work. Pictured above, Otayo and Yumi hosted a special meal at the famous Tofuya Ukai restaurant on the eve of Foodex to mark Girls’ Day. This was the perfect start to our week together in Tokyo.

It was a delight to see Yumi and Otayo again. They joined us on the stand at Foodex Japan every day and worked so hard. It was busy, there was never a moment when there wasn’t someone there, keen to see our products and learn about LittlePod. Yumi and Otayo were engrossed and enjoyed the experience so much. They realised how people relate to LittlePod and found it exciting to see the reaction of the visitors to the stand. People were eager and excited, wanting to talk and to find out about our ethos. Someone described it as ‘the noble philosophy of LittlePod’, which was a nice way of saying it. We were delighted people were charmed by LittlePod, what we do and what we’re about.

We met so many interesting people at Foodex Japan. There were visitors from all over the world, from different cultures and backgrounds, yet we had much in common, and so many similarities and shared philosophies. We met one man whose company has been importing vanilla for 60 years and another who represents the vanilla-growing industry in Japan. There’s a small part of Japan where vanilla grows and he was excited when I offered to buy some of his pods. We met a group of government research students from Taiwan, who have been working on producing vanilla pods. They’ve asked if I’d come to Taiwan to give a talk to their research department. There was Chef Catapila Nevin (pictured above left), who introduced me to Shorna-Kay Richards (pictured above, centre), who is the Jamaican ambassador for Japan. Shorna told me that Janet is the most popular name in Jamaica. That’s a first for me! Opposite our UK stand at Foodex Japan was the Ukrainian stand that the Japanese government had funded. I met a couple (pictured below) who make mead in Ukraine and I told them about the vanilla mead we made with Menna here. They’ve taken some vanilla pods to try. I was so impressed. I told them, ‘I don’t know how you’ve managed to keep going, given everything that’s happening there’.

LittlePod exhibiting at Foodex Japan 2024

Remember when the Lord Lieutenant of Devon said, ‘Isn’t it fantastic that a small company in a village in East Devon can reach out and impact the world whilst doing social good at home?’ Well, we were doing that in Japan, at the heart of something global and bigger than ourselves.

The exciting thing about taking part in a trade show is you never know who you might meet. On our first day at Foodex Japan, we met Eugene Yamada (pictured below with Otayo and Yumi), who owns the famous Barakura English Garden in Tateshina. Barakura is the first garden in Asia to be certified by the Royal Horticultural Society. We found we had a lot in common. Eugene is a friend of Chelsea Physic Garden in London, where I’m a patron, and having visited our stand with Ariana, his wife, he returned every day with different members of his team. Eugene has fallen in love with LittlePod and we’re delighted that our products will be used at Barakura’s beautiful café and restaurant, where afternoon tea is always on the menu. I gave Eugene a copy of my Vanilla cookbook, which he said was gorgeous, and told him that he was our number one customer in Japan. Before we left, he came back to seal the deal with all his team from Barakura. Eugene put a finger in the air and said to us, ‘number one’. I was thrilled that he has become Yumi and Otayo’s first customer.

LittlePod exhibiting at Foodex Japan 2024

I love Japan – the place and the people. It’s the perfect fit for LittlePod. People in Japan savour the now. They’re present all the time and recognise the large in the small things. There’s a constant vigilance, a recognition of the quality of things and a desire to do everything properly. I’m not a perfectionist, but when I do something, I like to do it well. I like to learn about new things, otherwise I would have never started LittlePod. I have much in common with the Japanese people, although I couldn’t understand why everyone laughed at everything I said. One day, I asked Yumi and she said, ‘Janet, they’re just not used to a person like you’. They found the intensity of my passion alien to their culture and seemed to think I was rather funny. If I’m ever down on my luck, maybe I’ll move to Japan and become a comedian!

I have a long-held passion for Noh Theatre. It’s a little-known fact, but I once performed in a Yeats play, Calvary, at the Hawk’s Well Theatre in Sligo. I had been taking part in a drama workshop at a Yeats summer school and I have never forgotten the experience. Yeats loved Noh Theatre and Japanese people love Yeats and having performed this myself, I’ve always longed to go and see a proper production. I couldn’t do this in 2020 so I was determined to go this time. I booked in to watch a performance at the Noh National Theatre in Tokyo. It didn’t disappoint.

I’m grateful to everybody. To the FDEA team, Sandra, Karen and Kevin, to Laura, whose vanilla bean fudge was VERY popular, to everyone who came to visit our stand at Foodex Japan and, above all, to Yumi and Otayo, who have worked so hard and had great faith in LittlePod. Yumi has spent so much time researching the products and telling people about REAL vanilla and its importance. She has even translated my cookbook and put it on Instagram in Japanese. Isn’t that amazing?

Just before we left, Yumi said, ‘Janet, I can’t tell you how honoured we are that you have chosen us to present LittlePod’s products in Japan’. The happiness that I’m feeling now is in the reward that Yumi and Otayo have received for all their efforts. They’ve been proper LittlePodders for four years, working so hard behind the scenes, and now that things have opened up again properly, they’re enjoying seeing people’s reactions and are excited at what the future holds. Honour is a big thing in Japan, and Yumi and Otayo have been nothing but honourable in their relationship with us. They’ve never lost faith in LittlePod’s journey to Japan. I am delighted and have much gratitude for their patience and persistence, and their continuing confidence in LittlePod and our Campaign for Real Vanilla.