Souvenirs, or 'omiyage', are a massive part of Japanese culture so it's no surprise that a trip to Japan is so full of them. But whilst we are sat gazing longingly at the bits and bobs we amassed on our last trip, or the little kokeshi doll we got given last Christmas, we are still unfortunately unable to make it to Japan just yet.
All hope is not lost, however - Axel Deroubaix, a Frenchman living in Japan is coming to the rescue with an ingenious new idea to help us connect with Japan, despite the distance!!
Hi Axel! Thanks for taking the time to talk to us. Could you give a brief self-introduction?
My name is Axel. I was born and raised in the north of France. I left my home country when I was 20 and moved to Spain then New York. I settled in Japan in 2008. Now, I am busy running several businesses in the travel industry in Japan while being the father of a 5-year-old boy.
How did you end up settling in Japan?
Originally, I had never planned to come to Japan. Destiny brought me to Japan. It was all decided for me while living in New York. I was then struggling to find a decent apartment to settle in and ended renting a room in a shared loft in Brooklyn. Little did I know that one of my flatmates was about to become my soulmate. The oversized common area was shared among four people: a Norwegian artist, two lovely Japanese girls and yours truly. I had never met Japanese ladies before, and I was intrigued by the elegance with which they seemed to be doing even the most mundane of things. Gradually my curiosity for one of my far-eastern roomies took the better of me. Fast forward two years later and here I am, living in Tokyo with a spouse visa! Surely my wife would disagree with me, however I would say that I did not find Japan but rather that Japan found me.
What is it that you do now? Can you introduce your business?
From the day I set foot in Japan, I spent most of my career in the travel industry. First I worked at one of the best travel agencies out there: Inside Japan Tours. Then, in 2015, with cofounder Lukasz Palka, I started EYExplore. In a nutshell, we provide fun photography coaching in the photogenic parts of Tokyo, Kyoto, or Osaka so that everyone can get the images they never thought they could take. A year later I started a travel agency with my wife: Cocolo Travel. We focus on slow travel and car tours in Japan. In recent months I put together the Peko Peko Box project.
What gave you the idea for Peko Peko Boxes? Where does the name come from?
Early 2020 the borders of Japan closed and our whole industry was struck by what was to become an unprecedented tragedy of unfathomable proportions. Our market vanished overnight and hope for our customers to enjoy the beauty of Japan faded as time went by. The impact on local economies including regional omiyage makers was heart-breaking.
We decided to do something about that. We thought: if people cannot come to Japan then Japan must come to them. That is precisely what our customers get with a Peko Peko Box. They receive our curation of omiyage from Japan that we feature on our travel video show. During the show we meet the small businesses we selected and explore their regions.
The word Peko Peko comes the Japanese phrase “Onaka wa peko peko” which is a childish way of saying “I am hungry”. Our customers are hungry for travel and we simply do our best to quench their thirst for discovery. Besides, the word “Peko Peko” is easy to read, say and remember in many languages.
(the Peko Peko team with Koichi Maehara)
How do you decide what goes into a Peko Peko Box? What is the process for selecting the content that goes into them? We know you've just been in Ehime talking to suppliers.
We like to shed light on a particular region of Japan or focus on a precise theme. For example, the pivot of our fist box was exploring Japan with your five senses while our second opus focused on a small town in Hiroshima prefecture called Joge. What matters the most is to bring the “travel in Japan” experience to our customers’ home. More than a box filled with mementos we strive to deliver a compelling story of local people and region.
Who are the Peko Peko Boxes aimed at?
We have 3 types of clients. Firstly of course, we have our valued customers. They come from a wide range of backgrounds. We have men and women, young and not so young from all parts of the globe. The one thing they all have in common is a passion for all things Japanese.
Then we have our business customers. Chiefly, we help travel agents and Japan travel related businesses promote the destination by providing boxes they can proudly offer to their prospective customers.
Finally, we also help local governments in Japan promote their regions by creating their very own Peko Peko box.
What has been your personal favourite item to go into a Peko Peko Box so far?
This is a tricky question that is always hard to answer. If I must choose only one, I will have to say the Yuzu scented soap from our first box. The soap itself is manufactured by the Kyoto based organic cosmetics shop called Shabonya while the yuzu extract was taken from a single yuzu tree located in the zen garden of one of my favourite temples in Kyoto: Taizo-in. We documented the soap making process then interviewed Matsuyama-san who oversees the temple to offer to our subscribers a better appreciation for the item they now hold in their hands.
What do you hope people can get or feel by receiving the Peko Peko Boxes?
I will quote our customers’ feedback: “it’s the next best thing to being there”.
How can someone order a Peko Peko Box?
Our offering is available on our website. We have different subscription plans depending on the
number of boxes. We craft 6 boxes a year on a bi-monthly basis. Soon, we will also open a shop where people will be able to order previous boxes and other items that cannot fit in a box.
This month we’re looking at the word ‘fuubutsushi’, meaning the small things that signal the changing of the seasons like cherry blossom or autumn leaves, for example. What's your favourite fuubutsushi and why?
I learnt to appreciate fuubutsushi with age. When I was young, I was not conscious of their presence and their effects on me. They provide rhythm to my life and help me reminisce about my past.
Autumn is my favourite season, and it offers the fuubutsushi that has the most impact on me: the sweet citrusy fragrance from the blooming flowers of kinmokusei trees that can be found everywhere is Japan.
What are your top tips and recommendations for people planning a trip to Japan in 2021?
I only have one recommendation for a trip to Japan in 2021: come here, take your time, and enjoy every minute of it. The covid-19 crisis made us realize how we took for granted our freedom to travel. Over the years working in the industry I came to realize that most people felt too stressed while traveling. They seemed to worry more about hitting spots than having a real valuable life experience. They would consume their time making sure they replenish their online profiles with the mandatory selfies. I would advise instead to stay longer in Japan, rent a car, set your phone on navigation, and hit the road! “Where to?” you may ask. Indeed, the options are limitless but a subscription to Peko Peko box should put you in the right direction...
Thank you to Axel for sitting down to chat with us!
If you're missing Japan as much as we are, or are looking for the perfect holiday gift for you or someone close to you, check out Peko Peko's site for more information on how to get in on this genious idea!