People | WHY DID YOU LEAVE JAPAN?

Yu Nakamura: A sweet affinity between Japan and Thailand

by Kathryn Wortley

Contributing Writer

Professional foodie Yu Nakamura, 32, has always felt like a free spirit, more comfortable off-piste than on, even if that means traversing challenging terrain. She likes variety, diversity and, perhaps most importantly, the unexpected.

As she marks three years living in Thailand this month, Gifu Prefecture-born Nakamura notes that moving from Tokyo to Bangkok has given her more freedom in her career than she had ever dreamed possible.

Arriving in the Southeast Asian country with no work plans and a desire to keep busy in the meantime, she decided to take a trip to different regions to experience the local food culture. Along the way, she met a coconut sugar farmer who, despite a painstakingly slow harvesting process, was having to sell coconut sugar to the domestic market at a cheap rate due to a very low market value. She learned that with its minimal profits, the whole industry was rapidly aging.

“I was impressed by the process of collecting the syrup from the bud little by little, but the price was not sustainable, and everyone involved was over 70 years old,” she recalls. “If there is no money in selling coconut sugar, the next generation will not come onboard.”

Despite coconut sugar being a low glycemic index product with great appeal globally, she knew that in Thailand the industry was facing a decline.

Seeing an affinity with her earlier work as an author and video journalist covering activities at risk of being lost for future generations in Japan, the seeds were sown for her first Thai business: Coconuts Nakamura, which exports coconut sugar to Japan and Europe where people are willing to pay higher prices.

Within a year, Nakamura found a second opportunity, this time importing sake from Japan and natural wine from Europe. Together with her chef husband and three Thai business partners, she set up Taste Hunters. This year, she also plans to launch a bar serving the drinks with small plates under the Taste Hunters brand.

“We can do more things (in Thailand) than in Japan because we can create something from scratch and there are no strict rules,” she says. “But that means it can be pretty challenging.”

While she applauds the “flexible” systems in Thailand that enable her to set up and run her businesses with ease, she says that they can lead to uncertainty.

For example, she explains, unlike Tokyo, she can sell food items on Bangkok’s streets without a permit. Her alcohol imports to the country, however, were halted suddenly after a last-minute change to the law. The 2018 scheduled opening of her Taste Hunters’ bar also had to be postponed due to other unforeseen circumstances.

“You don’t know what is happening or what is going to happen; it’s really hard to control (things),” she says of life in Thailand. But it’s the country’s “diverse and creative” approach to work that she says she enjoys, pointing out that a career change is easy and that many people have business interests as well as their day jobs.

This proved handy for Nakamura, who left Japan with the intention to explore ways to “create work or a base in another country.” For her, life is about learning, growing as an individual and contributing to future generations — and that, she says, can be done anywhere in the world.

Within the next two years, she and her husband are considering relocating to Berlin, to establish a second base outside Japan and do more creative work.

“I have a feeling that I can meet a lot of nice people anywhere in the world and collaborate with them,” she says. “It’s easier nowadays and (together) we can have an impact on the shared issues we face.”

It was this passion for personal and community development that, in 2010, led her to her quit a sought-after graduate role in Tokyo after just two months and instead work part time for two people who inspired her. She became a sous-chef at Kitchen Watarigarasu, owned by Hideki Murakami, and a culinary editor at Taraxacum Company, run by Yuuki Kakihara.

“I liked their personalities and what they were doing, so I wanted to learn from them. I told them I would do any (job),” she remembers.

Nakamura admits that she was also driven by curiosity — could she survive as a freelancer, particularly within the food industry, when her degree was in law and her only experience of cooking was as a hobby?

She held both jobs for a few years, seizing opportunities to meet people and travel in Japan. When she found something of interest, she used her freedom to develop it. Soon, she had a number of ongoing projects while still working as a caterer and food writer.

One example is her book “Grandma’s Happy Recipes” and its original series of YouTube videos featuring elderly women in rural Japan making traditional meals.

“I started it as my passion because I wanted to do it. It wasn’t work and I didn’t expect it to be on YouTube,” she says of the videos that have garnered some 2.5 million views. “I focused on grandmas over 80 years old. They survived World War II and lots of disasters by creating meals out of virtually nothing, so I believe their cooking skills are important for any kind of country or era.”

Her success led to her being selected as a Global Shaper for the World Economic Forum’s community of young innovators in 2015 and as a Young Cultural Innovator at the Salzburg Global Seminar in 2016.

Nakamura hopes that Taste Hunters, her newest business, will build on this work. She has visited all the makers of sake and plans to introduce Thailand to not only the beverages, but also the brewers, to help raise awareness of their skills and the need to preserve them.

She believes, though, that this work will be difficult due to a lack of information or education about food and drink in Thailand, apart from among the elite.

“If we want to change (what people consume), we need to talk to everyone, not only those who have money, but that’s harder than in Japan,” she says.

Her determination and perseverance to find success in Bangkok, however, rests on the positivity and kindness of the people that have allowed her to settle in her second home.

“Nothing goes smoothly here, but it’s more fun to me. I like to look back and think of the surprising things that have happened. I don’t want to plan everything for my life,” she reflects. “People here can be freer. In Japan, the way of thinking restricts your actions.”

Profile

Name: Yu Nakamura

Profession: Food-related entrepreneur

Hometown: In Gifu Prefecture

Age: 32

Key moments in career:

2010 — Begins working as a part timer and freelancer

2015 — Starts publishing “Grandma’s Recipes” on YouTube

2015 — Is selected as a Global Shaper at World Economic Forum

2016 — Is selected as a young cultural innovator at Salzburg Global Seminar; leaves Japan for Bangkok and founds Coconuts Nakamura and Taste Hunters

2017 — Publishes “Grandma’s Recipes” as a book

Things I miss about Japan: “The number of foodies and variety of international cuisine.”

Greatest lesson learned: “Don’t think too much or take things too seriously; be free.”