The Blue Door and the Green Bottle
This episode is supported by JapanCulture•NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Toshiki interviews Rona Tison, the Executive Vice President of Corporate Relations and PR of Ito En (North America) over a sake tasting at Brooklyn Kura in Industry City in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Known for their signature Oi Ocha green bottle, Ito En is a multinational corporation specializing in tea founded in 1966 in Japan, and they expanded to the United States in 2001, where they now have corporate offices in DUMBO, Brooklyn. During their sake tasting, Rona talks about the history of Ito En and how the company popularized unsweetened green tea in the US. She attributes the success of Ito En to American love for Japan (see Hugh Jackman’s Instagram post with an Ito En vending machine) and the company’s innovation in committing to sustainability practices, addressing Western consumer tastes to eat “clean” and try authentic ethnic cuisine, and providing convenient on-the-go products. As a half-Japanese American and having lived in Tokyo, Okinawa, and the Bay Area, Rona was surrounded by the ritual of tea, and Toshiki asks her how her upbringing influenced her career path.
Founded by Brandon Doughan and Brian Polen, Brooklyn Kura is the first sake brewery in the state of New York. Rona and Toshiki try their signature Blue Door, a junmai-style sake, made from 4 ingredients: water, koji, yeast, and rice. Brian also serves them a special-release shiboritate (or freshly pressed) sake called Lake Suwa. Neighbors in Brooklyn, Ito En and Brooklyn Kura share a mission in educating the American public about Japanese cuisine, a commitment for which Rona has been recognized by the World Tea Expo.
Toshiki brings back a bottle of Blue Door to the recording studio (Toshiki’s Upper East Side Manhattan apartment) to enjoy with Susan, and they talk about their motivation to create The Big Root and celebrate its first episode.
Redefining Japaneseness: Japanese Americans in the Ancestral Homeland by Jane H. Yamashiro (book)
”Born in Japan, and Now Made in Brooklyn: Sake” by Rachel Wharton (The New York Times)
”Inside Japan Village, a Massive Food Hall Dedicated to All Things Japan” by Carla Vianna (Eater)
This episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige. Special thanks to Brian Polen and Brandon Doughan for the sake tasting.
Susan McCormac: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City.
Toshiki Nakashige: Isn’t that your website?
SM: Well, yeah. I’m kind of like funding this podcast, in a way…
TN: Welcome to The Big Root.
SM: A podcast about everywhere Japaneseness. I’m Susan McCormac.
TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige.
SM: Hello, Toshiki!
TN: This is our first episode!
SM: Umm, so should we introduce ourselves?
TN: We met through a non-profit organization called USJC, or U.S.-Japan Council. Its goal is to make interpersonal connections and to run leadership and community service programs between the U.S. and Japan. The members are mostly Japanese American. And we met through this networking type organization, but we’re… friends now?
SM: Yes, Toshiki. We are friends.
TN: Ok, well, you’re older.
SM: Thanks. I’m 50.
TN: Oh yeah, I went to your birthday party, and you wanted to KonMari your life.
SM: Yeah, well part of that process is to go back to my birth name because McCormac sparks joy! Hahaha. Okay, so how old are you?
TN: 28…Umm, OK, well, we’re friends. You’re pretty obsessed with Japanese things in New York. And I’m a scientist, but because I’m easily distracted, I wanted to do something where I can talk about Japanese culture and businesses and community as it relates to my life.
SM: Yes, so you asked me to do this podcast with you. What’s it about?
TN: The podcast is about Japaneseness. So “Japaneseness” is a concept that I’ve thought a lot about in the past couple years, especially since I moved to New York. My idea for it is based on a sociological book I read called Redefining Japaneseness by Jane Yamashiro. For historical reasons, I think there are two broad groups of Japanese Americans in the United States, namely, pre-World War II Japanese immigrants and their descendants who have the incarceration camp experience, and post-World War II Japanese immigrants who have moved to the US more recently and maybe have retained more Japanese language and cultural values.
SM: There’s a term called nikkei, which means “of Japanese descent,” and the new wave of Japanese immigration to the US is called shin-nikkei, where shin means “new.” Japanese Americans define themselves in terms of their generational number.
TN: Right, like I’m shin-nisei, or “new second generation” because my parents migrated to the US after World War II. Of course, there are Japanese Americans who fall outside these categories, like mixed race or Japanese Americans who now live in Japan. But based on my experience, the organized spaces that revolved around these two groups seem kind of exclusive. Some of the World War II historical aspects feel a little removed from my experience as a child of Japanese immigrants in the ‘70s, but I also don’t really seek out social events where it’s expected to speak the Japanese language like many of my classmates from Saturday Japanese school might. I feel that the term “Japaneseness” is a way to encompass all of these experiences and to celebrate the ways that people think about the meaning of the being Japanese.
SM: So you want to be inclusive.
TN: Yeah. Sometimes I think there can be a dichotomy between pre- and post-World War II experiences, like what’s more Japanese, but I want to celebrate that we’re all touched by Japaneseness in some way. Because of globalization and diaspora, there’s Japanese influence in a lot of things people experience even if you’re not of Japanese descent, and I think that podcasting is a great way to tell stories that are diverse. I came up with the title The Big Root based on the daikon radish or daikon.
SM: Because the daikon is served many ways in Japanese food.
SM: It’s grated, like when it’s served with sushi and in soups.
TN: When it’s raw, there’s a really sharp and spicy taste to it. But when you let it simmer with dashi and other ingredients like mirin, daikon can become a sweet and hearty dish on its own. Which is kind of a metaphor for what this podcast is about.
SM: Japaneseness can take different forms, just like you and I are different.
TN: I think I have a pretty standard experience of a post-World War II second-generation Japanese American person. I grew up speaking Japanese with my family and visited Japan regularly. But your story’s a little different.
SM: Yes, you might not be able to tell from my name or how I look, but I am indeed Japanese American. My mother is from Okinawa, the southernmost prefecture in Japan, and my father was an American of Scottish descent. He served in the US Army, and he met my mom while he was stationed in Okinawa during the 1960s. We bounced around a little, but my after my dad retired when I was seven, I spent the rest of my childhood in his home state of North Carolina, which in the ‘70s and ‘80s was totally devoid of Japanese culture. It wasn’t until I was 30 that I embraced my Japanese—or Okinawan—heritage.
SM: So every episode, we’ll have a Japanese or Japanese American guest, and we’ll typically feature some sort of Japanese or Japanese American activity. The first season will focus primarily on New York, New York, where we both live.
TN: So for the first episode of The Big Root, I wanted to start off with one of my favorite activities: drinking. So Susan, when you think of a Japanese drink, what do you think of?
TN: All right, I’ll be back.
SM: All right, what’s going on?
TN: I have here a bottle of Blue Door from Brooklyn Kura.
TN: Brooklyn Kura is the first sake brewery in the state of New York, and it’s in Industry City in the Sunset Park neighborhood in Brooklyn.
TN: All right, so we have sake. What’s the first non-alcoholic Japanese beverage you can think of?
TN: No. OK, something more traditional.
SM: Green tea?
TN: Yes. For the first episode of The Big Root, I interviewed an important person at the multinational tea company known for their green tea, Ito En. I interviewed Rona Tison.
SM: I love Rona!
TN: She’s the Executive Vice President of Corporate Relations at Ito En (North America). On the theme of Japanese beverages making a splash in New York, I thought it would be fun to go for a sake tasting, and we went to Brooklyn Kura.
SM: Ah, that makes sense; you brought a bottle of Brooklyn Kura here!
TN: Ito En (North America) has corporate offices in the DUMBO neighborhood in Brooklyn, and they also a have a blending room in Industry City, where Brooklyn Kura is also located. Industry City has some outdoor areas and a number of old warehouses that’ve been transformed into restaurants and shops. There’s a new complex there called Japan Village that opened last fall, where there’s another location of the New York supermarket chain Sunrise Mart. Rona was doing a workshop on matcha at a restaurant called The Frying Pan before our interview. And I got to Brooklyn Kura a little early and met one of the founders, Brandon Doughan.
Brandon Doughan: Hi, I’m Brandon Doughan, I’m co-founder and head sake maker here at Brooklyn Kura.
TN: Brandon and his business partner Brian Polen met in Japan in 2013, and after discovering a mutual love of sake and harnessing the opportunity to serve the sake-drinking population of New York, they opened Brooklyn Kura in Industry City in 2018.
BD: We specialize in junmai and namanama sake.
TN: Junmai includes 4 ingredients—
BD: Water, koji, yeast, and rice
TN: I think most people know that yeast converts the sugar into alcohol, and it’s used in all types of alcoholic drinks. But for sake, there’s another microbe called koji that’s essential. As Brandon mentioned, they also specialize in namanama sake. Namanama literally means raw. It means that it’s unpasteurized and not heated and therefore is stored cold and kept cold until it’s served.
SM: This Blue Door is a type of namanama, and we’re enjoying it chilled.
TN: Rona arrived soon after, and she brought bottles of Oi Ocha and cans of Matcha Love from Ito En’s blending room.
TN: I should just drink tea out of wine glasses like this.
TN: We were there when the bar section of Brooklyn Kura was technically closed, and Brandon had to go to the back to bottle sake. So you’ll hear bottles clinking in the background throughout the audio. In the meantime, the other Brooklyn Kura founder, Brian, came to serve us their signature Blue Door Junmai.
SM: Which is the one we’re drinking now!
TN: Their signature Junmai.
SM: It’s delicious. It’s crisp and refreshing, but it also has a fullness to it instead of being light.
Rona Tison: It’s good. Kanpai! Oishii.
TN: Ito En is famous for their bottled green tea called Oi Ocha. You definitely see it in bodegas around Manhattan. Even though I’ve had Oi Ocha all my life, I didn’t really know the history of Ito En, so I asked Rona about it.
RT: We were established in 1966, and we are definitely the global leaders, I think, of green tea. But I think what’s unique about Ito En is, you know, we certainly do a whole range: We do the leaf teas, matcha as well, but we were the first company that created the canned green tea unsweetened. Unsweetened green tea in a can. And then later we launched a ready-to-drink in a PET. And we really revolutionized green tea drinking because it was said, you couldn’t bottle green tea because it would oxidize. Because green tea is steamed after harvesting, and it’s quite fragile. So we developed the technology where you can, you know, it’s bottled so you have that moment of optimal taste. It’s nothing other than water, and green tea, and natural vitamin C, whereas there are a lot of bottled green teas that have like citric acid, so it gives it kind of a really tart kind of aftertaste. But you know, I think what we do well is really creating a really quality, authentic taste.
TN: Rona went on to talk about how Ito En expanded to the US market and about cultural attitudes toward unsweetened drinks.
RT: So, we have been growing—I think we started obviously in Japan—we’ve introduced our teas here in the United States, and it really has been quite exciting to see the demand today for an unsweetened, healthy tea. You know, I think when we first came to the United States, and New York, people knew green tea was good for you, but they would be drinking it with a lot of the fructose corn syrup, and they liked it really sugary, and if they prepared leaf green tea, they would say it was very bitter, and that was because they put boiling water on it, and they didn’t know how to prepare a proper cup of green tea. So I think over the years we’ve been able to sort of cultivate and sort of help educate in how to enjoy an optimal cup of brewed green tea as well as sort of on the go. Initially I think it was difficult, but now it’s sort of the preferred beverage, and we’re seeing in areas of the United States where one wouldn’t expect seeing kind of a traditional, authentic Japanese green tea.
SM: When I think about iced tea served in American restaurants and convenience stores, they’re sweetened and almost taste like soda. As someone who grew up in the South, that is how I think of tea. But tea in Japan isn’t served sweet, so I think Ito En introducing this type of product to the Western market really stood out.
TN: Rona went on to talk about the importance of the company’s relationship with Japanese tea farmers.
RT: We work very closely with the tea farmers in Japan, from you know, the tending of the soil to the planting, the harvesting, all the way through the processing. So we really know where our tea comes from. We’re also very committed to the sustainability—we’ve actually been recognized for our commitment in nurturing tea farmers and the tea plantations. So, actually, we were recognized by Fortune as #18 out of 50 companies changing the world for our sort of commitment to, you know, sustainability and our farming practices, and so forth.
TN: As I mentioned, Rona was leading a workshop on matcha before we met at Brooklyn Kura, and a theme that came up in our conversation was the cultural education of Japanese tea and the rituals that surround it. When I think of matcha in traditional Japan, I think of these long choreographed tea ceremonies. Even for someone who understands Japanese culture, I sometimes get intimidated or nervous about offending Japanese people because I’m not following certain traditions. And one of the reasons that Rona does these workshops is to make these rituals around Japanese tea less esoteric and to encourage using matcha in food besides tea.
RT: People were really intimidated, saying matcha you had to take, you know, tea ceremony for years on end. But we wanted people to kind of feel like, hey, it’s approachable—you can actually do your matcha at home. You can use the whisk, which is traditionally used—the chasen—or if you want, you can throw it in a shaker, a tumbler, and make a smoothie out of it. It’s a really versatile ingredient, so you can kind of create all sorts of great beverages, whether with spirits, or you can actually cook with it and bake with it. So we really encourage people to kind of experiment.
SM: I can see where you’re coming from about tea ceremonies being intimidating, but I think matcha is also really popular now. Just as Brooklyn Kura is the product of non-Japanese people brewing a distinctly Japanese beverage, a lot of non-Japanese people are jumping on the matcha bandwagon and harnessing the health attributes of green tea.
TN: Yeah, I definitely see that matcha is popular in America because of millennial trends about eating clean and a desire for authentic traditional ingredients. There is this popular demand for products that are authentic, but there’s also an urban lifestyle surrounding convenience in the US, which might not always go hand-in-hand with authenticity. Based on that, I was curious about how some Ito En products translated to the US market.
TN: Are there products by Ito En that are more successful in the US versus Japan just because there’s this element of convenience in a bottle, in a can? I feel like in Japan—I mean, I guess there are like a lot of vending machines, like, everywhere in Japan, which probably is where a lot of the sales of your products are?
TN: But I see less of people, just like, grabbing a cup of coffee from like a Starbucks and walking out the door.
RT: Right, right. Well, it’s interesting. I mean, everybody who goes to Japan and comes back says, “Oh my gosh, I’ve seen your vending machines all over; when are you gonna bring them over here?” Yeah, it’s great. Actually it was funny because we just had, Hugh Jackman just was in Japan and he posted, leaning on our Ito En vending machine and said, “I love Japan.” So I was kind of hoping that that meant he loved Ito En, too. But umm, you know, when we first came here, it was a challenge. The first thing was like, “What? No sugar?” And when they’d say, “Oh, I drink green tea,” it would be, let’s say, a bottled green tea that would have fructose corn syrup or syrupy-sweet, and not even brewed with real green tea leaves—it would be like a powdered green tea. But, as time has come—and I’d have to say today it’s been to our favor—people are much more conscientious, I think, in terms of what they’re eating and drinking. People are looking for things that are cleaner, as well as they like the authentic fact. And our Oi Ocha is our number one-selling green tea in Japan. And that is kind of our signature product. Initially it was not as easy to introduce—it was in Asian markets—but now we’re seeing a tremendous demand that they want the real thing. I think, particularly, you know, young millennials, they want—they’re intrigued with more ethnic things, they like authentic things, and they like the clean fact that we brew it with premium tea leaves, and there’s no additives and all that. So it’s really been amazing for us. We are delightfully surprised how we have seen our Oi Ocha—but you know, we also had created prior to that our Teas’ Tea. We have a whole line of organic Teas’ Tea, which we were inspired here, and we worked with our product development team here. We’ve created flavors that [don’t] exist in Japan. For example, we created a lemongrass green tea, rose green tea, and also green/white. And these were things that were kind of inspired here in the United States, an organic line, which, you know, at this time in Japan is not as in demand, but we’re seeing that growth in lifestyle being important. So, you know, one of the great things about Ito En, I think, is that we do have kind of a full range of products that can sort of be fitting into a lifestyle, whether you want something kind of an energizing kind of a power drink, or sort of an organic, clean tea of a rose green tea. I get Japanese people saying, “Why don’t you sell this in Japan?” So, I think you, part of our history is innovation, and we continue to innovate based on listening to our customers.
SM: I didn’t know that certain Ito En flavors aren’t available in Japan! But it makes sense that Ito En has had to adapt their products to suit a Western palate and survive in this market.
TN: I didn’t foresee this before recording the interview, but I realized that Brooklyn Kura and Ito En have similar missions in terms of education. When I was talking to Brandon Doughan, who you heard earlier, he said that a big part of what they do at the sake brewery is to teach the American public about sake. I think sake is sometimes called rice wine, but as the name “sake brewery” implies, the process to make sake looks a lot more like brewing beer.
SM: Yeah, people have a lot of assumptions about sake, so it’s great that we have people here explaining it in plain English.
TN: And on the theme of teaching people about tea, Rona explained that all tea—black, oolong, green—comes from the same plant called Camellia sinensis. It’s just what happens to it afterward that determines what kind of tea it is.
RT: So I think one of the great things, even in terms of our tea education, is letting people know that, you know, tea actually—all tea comes from one tea plant, which is the Camellia sinensis. And it’s actually how it’s, you know, processed, where it’s cultivated, so forth, that differentiates the different teas. Whereas let’s say, wines, will be different varietals of vines, the Camellia sinensis and in Japanese teas it’s steamed and unoxidized, whereas let’s say an oolong tea is semi-oxidized, and a black tea is fully oxidized—so you know, it all really comes from the one Camellia sinensis. And just that alone, being able to share that, has been really kind of rewarding with the, you know, the young students that we have come through, and you know, we really do take the opportunity of doing a lot of different events. You know, I’m part of a lot of the tea festivals. Any opportunity that we have, we like to share.
SM: Oh, I didn’t realize that!
TN: I know Rona had mentioned it before, that some people add boiling water to green tea and then complain that it’s too bitter. But at one of my favorite cafes in Boston when I lived there for grad school, the instructions for the loose-leaf green tea said to include a cube of ice into the cup before adding hot water.
TN: On the instructions on the green tea, they actually said to put like a cube of ice in the cup because the hot water that they use is a certain temperature, and I know that black tea and green tea, like, what classifies the difference is that green tea never hits a certain temperature compared to black tea, and so whenever I make green tea myself to always like use not boiling water, but a little bit cooler.
RT: And I think that’s very much a part of the education is when, you know, we first started people would say, “Gosh, I know green tea’s very good for you,” and then they would say, “But it’s so bitter.” And we would say, “Well, what water temperature are you using?” And it would be boiling water because they did not know. Because green tea is unoxidized and you need a lower temperature or else you will bring that astringency out. So that in itself was an education, so a lot of times, you know, we would say there’s a vessel called a yuzamashi in Japan, which is actually, literally a cooling vessel to remind people to cool your water down before pouring it over the tea leaves. Black tea: boiling water, not a problem. But with green tea, you have to be conscientious of that.
SM: A yuzamashi to cool the water. I’ll remember that.
TN: This episode of The Big Root is supported by JapanCulture-NYC, the English-language website about all things Japanese in New York City. My podcast co-host Susan McCormac started the JapanCulture-NYC blog in 2011 to help promote Japanese-related events that take place in the city and to introduce New Yorkers to organizations that are dedicated to Japanese culture. She tries to update the website every week, but sometimes she gets busy. I discovered a Japanese Peruvian restaurant in Midtown that I love. Discover your next favorite Japanese anything at JapanCulture-NYC.com.
TN: So at this point in the conversation, we finished our first glass of sake and called Brian from the back to let us try another drink.
SM: So you just yelled for him?
TN: Yeah, basically.
Brian Polen: So what you have is our Lake Suwa, which is a special-release sake that we make in very small quantities. Essentially, every batch of sake that we make, we produce about four or five cases of shiboritate. Shiboritate is the sake that comes directly off the press.
TN: We had a special-release sake called Lake Suwa, which is a shiboritate type sake, or sake that comes off the first press. I think at this point, I was feeling the alcohol.
SM: I think I’m on my 3rd glass of the Blue Door right now.
SM: Should we just do this whole thing drunk, like Drunk History?
TN: Earlier Rona mentioned “PET” to describe the plastic bottle. Well, PET stands for polyethylene terephthalate.
TN: In Japan, plastic bottles are called “petto botoru,” where petto is a Japanese pronunciation of “pet.” Japanese people are pretty strict about the different categories of recycling, and I know that in the United States, it’s a bit controversial because recycling plastic is so expensive that most of it ends up in landfills. And I think globally there’s a problem with plastic getting into the ocean. Ito En has been praised for its sustainability practices regarding tea farmers, but I wanted to ask her about how the company deals with plastic waste.
TN: Earlier you described like a plastic bottle as PET, and I think that’s probably an artifact of, like, that’s what Japanese people call it. In light of recent attention on plastic waste, what has Ito En done in terms of plastic waste?
RT: Well, I’m glad actually that you brought that up because it is something we are actually, you know, seriously addressing. We realize that, and we actually have options in terms of cans, and we do offer, you know, the leaf teas so you can brew your own. We also do the matcha powders if you wanna brew your own. Interesting with Ito En is that we actually have been recognized for our innovation in recycling tea leaves. We recycle our tea leaves that we do to brew, and with the PET, recycle and make a sort of eco product. And from that, we create a lot of other products. We’ve created benches; our vending machines are made out of this. You know, household goods, toys, something there are about 16 different products made from our recycled tea leaves and our PET bottles.
TN: Oh, cool.
RT: And some of the uniforms are made out of the PET bottles. So but this is really something that we know is an issue. I think it’s definitely been brought up in the forefront from the banning of plastic bags, to straws, and so forth, and so, you know, this is not something that we are ignoring. We are dealing with it; we do have options at this point, and we’re taking a lot more initiative to make changes because we realize lifestyles and landscapes change, too.
SM: Recycling tea leaves sounds like a pretty interesting process. Especially for such a company that’s been innovative in bringing traditional tea to the masses, I think Ito En probably feels a lot of pressure to address plastic waste.
TN: Yeah. And at this point in the conversation, Rona talked mostly about the company. She brought up the concept that Japanese cuisine was named a UNESCO World Heritage cuisine, and the rituals surrounding tea probably contributed to that honor. It seemed like she was pretty proud to bring her own Japanese background into her work, so I asked her about how that influenced her career in tea.
RT: You know, I grew up—I’m half Japanese, and every summer the first thing my grandmother would say was, “Ma, ocha wo dozo,” you know, “Please, sit down. Let’s have a little tea.” So a lot of our conversation and time was spent over tea. In Japan when you go to home or even a business, the first thing is, “Please, ocha, tea.” So, it’s very inherent in my upbringing, and we’re seeing that more and more people are really embracing sort of a tea lifestyle.
TN: Could you describe how you got involved in Ito En? Like, where did you start your career, and what has that trajectory been like?
RT: Well, I’m half Japanese and ironically this is interesting in that my mother is from Tokyo, Japan, and my father was born in Brooklyn, and here I am working for a Japanese company based in Brooklyn. So I think it was maybe meant to be. But I went to UC Berkeley in California; I actually was born in New Jersey, lived in Hawaii, lived in Tokyo, and then many of my formative years was on Okinawa. And I would spend every summer in Tokyo and was of course, used to tea ceremony and Japanese teas. And I say—this is a personal experience—when I was about 17, I was at a Japanese restaurant with my mother, and being Japanese—and I don’t know if you’ve ever taken a lid off of a miso bowl, but sometimes it’s almost like a suction cup, and I was sort of wrestling with it—so she looked over, glanced over at me and said, “Ma, tetsuki warui koto,” which means, “My, you are so clumsy.” And she says, “You’ve got to go take ocha,” which is tea ceremony. So, I scurried off to learn tea ceremony. And, you know, it was painful sitting Japanese style, and it was so formal, but I was sort of really wowed by the whole aspect that every element was so important, and the movements were so important, the grace and poise that [were] part of the tea ceremony. So I think, you know, that sort of got me, sort of, appreciating my Japanese heritage. So I went to college, and I did a little of everything: I was a waitress at a Japanese restaurant, making money during college. I was a tour guide because I do speak Japanese fluently. And then I went into the hotel business for a good fifteen years. And then one day I had an opportunity—I was approached by a company to do kind of a lifestyle store that had a tea room, and so I was involved in doing a kind of a three-dimensional tea room, and I did sort of a Japanese inspiration, and so from that I think having experience in hospitality, retail, as well as in tea. And then I had the great—I was very fortunate because Ito En decided they wanted to open something in the United States, and I immediately knew the brand. I was a huge fan because I was never somebody who drank sugary sodas. So I was all in. And it’s been, you know, a great sort of a journey.
SM: I love that Rona is so thoughtful about Japanese culture as it relates to Ito En, and you can tell that she really loves the culture of tea specifically.
TN: It was kind of funny. Every question I asked Rona, even if it was a personal one, she would pivot the answer to be about tea. I think as a corporate relations person, she’s used to giving interviews about tea, but maybe gets asked less about her personal life.
SM: It must have been fun to let loose a little bit at a sake tasting.
TN: Yeah, come to think of it, we drank a lot.
RT: You know, it’s funny because I lived in wine country. And when people would say “sake,” I’d always go, “Well, I’m kind of I’m a wine person.” but this is like…
RT: It’s really good.
TN: Yeah, have you been to Brooklyn Kura?
RT: You know, I know Brooklyn Kura. They are, kind of, neighbors in Industry City. And it’s great to see, you know, sake being made here in Brooklyn, which is kind of our home base, too. So, it’s been great. We kind of give them a thumbs up, and I think there’s a sort of a great opportunity, I think, to kind of introduce more sake, you know, to the market here. So, it’s nice to see it made here in Brooklyn.
TN: Yeah. Did you have sake, like, just when you were first introduced to alcohol and stuff? Is that…
RT: No, absolutely. Sake always has been important. It’s always the kanpai. You know, particularly, any kind of, whether it’s New Year’s. Oshougatsu is huge in Japan. So, yes. I remember my grandmother’s place and all my Japanese relatives. And the first thing, Oshougatsu, New Year’s, was kanpai with sake, and obviously in Japan. So, I personally, I know, I always enjoy. I have the wooden masu, the boxes, the cedar boxes. And I religiously had my sake and my little cedar box to enjoy. You can have it either hot or cold. But, yes, sake is very important. When I was a student at Berkeley, early on. I think there was, at that time, I think there was one sake company in the United States, and sake was just one type of sake. And today I think there’s a greater appreciation and knowledge as Japanese cuisine has really expanded here in this country. So much like the wine industry when, once upon a time, it was “red wine or white wine.” I think people are much more selective. And there’s a lot more education and awareness. I think that’s definitely the case when it comes to sake. And I give a thumbs up to Brooklyn Kura. I have to say, they’ve done a great job.
TN: Yeah, no, it’s delicious. Even their branding, I think it fits well—you know, it has this like Japanese aesthetic to it—but it fits well in this Industry City, Brooklyn vibe.
RT: Yes, very much so, very much so. And it’s nice because we’re sort of sympatico in spirit. We actually blend teas here in Brooklyn. And a lot of it is inspired here. We kind of give it a little edgy Brooklyn take on it, where maybe traditionally in Japan we would not be conceptualizing something like this. But yes, I think we are inspired by being in this really dynamic community. I mean, Industry City here, where we’re at, is a kind of an exciting dynamic community that seems to be bringing a lot of new energy, and so, it’s kind of nice to be neighboring also with Kura here.
SM: Didn’t you go to UC Berkeley?
TN: Yeah, I did. The more I got to know her, the more I realized I had in common with her. She speaks Japanese, but also said that she’s less confident about reading kanji characters, which I feel the same way. And we started exchanging stories about how we had to ask people on the streets of Japan to help us navigate to street names that we couldn’t quite read.
SM: That’s funny.
TN: And you also have in common being half Japanese and having a connection to Okinawa.
SM: Yes, we call each other our “Okinawan sisters.” Rona is a product of an American military father and a Japanese mother, like me. Although Rona’s mother isn’t from Okinawa, she mentioned earlier her family lived there for a while. We bonded immediately over Okinawa the first time we met.
TN: That’s cool. Yeah, so this interview wasn’t the first time I interacted with Rona. I met her at the USJC Annual Conference in Tokyo last November. Ito En is a corporate sponsor of USJC and has been instrumental in developing the leadership programs for some of the younger members, including a program that I was a part of. The conference in Japan is pretty formal, but I got a chance to interact with her at some of the social events in the evenings, and she’s just really a cool person who I think embodies the principles of USJC. At the end of the sake tasting, I asked what her perspective was being a part of such an organization, and what being Japanese meant to her. I think she feels the sentiment that a lot of Japanese Americans feel about acting as a bridge between two countries.
RT: It’s very close to my heart, obviously, because I am half Japanese American, and you know, I have seen from the time of just even being here, even in New York, and just seeing the interest and demand and the influence of Japan. I mean, my goodness, from everything from anime—you ask every young millennial how did you get into wanting to learn how to speak Japanese, it’s anime, for example. The food scene: unbelievable. You know, just culturally the appreciation. So, you know, to be able to bridge that has been really inspiring for me personally, and I think that, you know, there’s sort of a mutual respect. I think that Japan, being a small country, the impact it has had, you know, for its arts and culture. And I think that is what kind of keeps me very passionate, being involved in the U.S.-Japan Council. You know, bridging the two cultures together, I mean, there’s so much to share. And of course, on the other hand, Japan, my goodness, is so passionate about American culture. I mean, my goodness, I went to the first Shake Shack opening in Tokyo. So, it’s fun to see that, having been brought up bicultural. I see more and more people, and once upon a time—dates me—you know, people were not traveling to Japan as much. I think they were a little bit intimidated by the language, it was a little bit too foreign, but so many people I know, I mean my friends’ kids, it’s like they want to go to Japan because they want to go experience the whole food scene, the culture. And when you ask people, “What did you think of your trip to Japan?” The first thing they say, “People were so gracious, and so nice, and so polite, and it’s so clean!” As well as the food. You know there’s always this nonstop thing about the food scene. So, you know, it’s been exciting to be a part of that. You know, I personally am passionate about it. You know, I like to bridge. I mean, just the fact here, for example, I mean, Brooklyn Kura, you know, kind of bridging the two cultures is pretty cool. For us as well, bringing green tea into this New York scene, and actually nationwide, and again to see sort of the growing demand. You know, our matcha is in Costco! Whoever would’ve thought? That’s huge. So, it’s something that I personally have been passionate about. But to see the enthusiasm and the appreciation. You know, I remember seeing an interview, and it was, you know, gosh, Anthony Bourdain—bless his soul—had asked all his chef friends and said if there was one last cuisine—all his top top, worldwide—if there was one cuisine that could be your last, what would it be, and they all said Japanese cuisine. So that kind of represents the impact that a culture like Japan, as you know, as small as it is, has had. You know, from its respect, the culture for respect. You know, I always kind of share this, but there are principles, the four principles, in the world of tea ceremony, and it’s purity, tranquility, harmony, and respect. Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku. And I really think there’s such a profound statement in that because it is important, I think. You know, in the big picture of Japanese culture, and again, I think, you know, if we could have more Wa, Kei, Sei, Jaku, I think it would be a better world. So it’s something that I like to. sort of, apply in my life, personally, and what makes me feel good about being part of, you know, a company like Ito En. You know, as I mentioned the sustainability aspect—the fact that we have kind of really introduced a new culture here. And it’s interesting because our chairman now, Hachiro Honjo, had actually one time said, you know, he’d love to one day see our iconic green bottle to be that beverage that we all know that red iconic bottle. And he said, you know, it doesn’t happen overnight because, you know, the tea culture took—has years, thousands of years of history. But, you know, I like to kind of have that vision that, you know, that we will really be able to bring a really quality, you know, tea leaf that has kind of got a long history.
TN: Thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed by me. This was so much fun.
TN: Rona Tison is an incredible person, and although I didn’t get a chance to talk about it here, she’s really important in the tea industry broadly, not just for Japanese tea. In 2017, Rona was awarded the John Harney Lifetime Achievement Award at the World Tea Expo for her contributions to tea education. And in 2019, she was inducted into the USJC Board of Directors. I’m really happy I got a chance to interview her, and I’m excited to drink with her more at future USJC events.
SM: I think Rona was an excellent guest to kick off our podcast.
TN: Yeah, and we have other exciting guests in future episodes!
SM: New York is an interesting place to talk about Japanese and Japanese American culture because there’s not really a central Japanese neighborhood like there are in cities on the West Coast.
TN: Yeah, I think we’ll address that idea about New York in future episodes. Industry City is kind of a special place because it brings together establishments like Brooklyn Kura and Japan Village and almost feels like it’s becoming a small version of a Japantown.
SM: You can feel that Japaneseness is blossoming in more and more neighborhoods around New York.
SM: So let’s talk about where the audience can find us.
TN: The most direct way to connect with us is to visit thebigrootpodcast.com. All of our episodes will be posted there, and there’s also a mailing list you can sign up for. Our podcast will be available on Apple Podcasts, Google Play, Stitcher, and other major podcasting feeders, and you can subscribe on any of those apps to get the episodes directly to your device. For the first season of The Big Root, we’ll be releasing new episodes every 3 weeks…or so.
SM: We really want to be inclusive, so if you’re a listener and have a suggestion for whom you would like us to interview or have a question for us about Japaneseness, you can reach out to us via our website and any of the social media platforms.
TN: I think we just finished recording our first episode.
SM: Should we have more sake to celebrate?
TN: The Big Root is an independently produced podcast.
SM: The theme song was performed by Kento Iwasaki, and this episode was edited by Toshiki Nakashige.
TN: For more information about the podcast, please visit thebigrootpodcast.com.
SM: I’m Susan McCormac.
TN: My name is Toshiki Nakashige. Thanks for listening.