Saori Ito: A Journey Home

Saori Ito talks about her company during an interview in her Sapporo office (Photo by Zenta Kashimoto).
Saori Ito in her Sapporo office (Photo by Zenta Kashimoto).


An Engaru Story

A look at Engaru's location in Hokkaido via the Wikimedia Commons.
A look at Engaru’s location in Hokkaido via the Wikimedia Commons.

The small town of Engaru sits roughly in the center of the Okhotsk region of Hokkaido, where the Yubetsu River, among many others, provide a fertile environment for crops. Edamame and asparagus have been cultivated since the settlement of the area. The town, known for having the highest percentage of forestland among all the municipalities of Hokkaido, is blessed with abundant and beautiful scenery. One local woman has been making the rounds across Japan to spread the word about this small, nature-rich town through the not-so-obvious means of cosmetics. Her name is Saori Ito.

Ito is the director of Mystar Corporation, but in reality she does everything from product planning to advertising and sales. In spite of leading a busy life, Ito always welcomes me with a bright smile. A simple woman with a clear vision, Ito works energetically each day.

Mystar’s main cosmetic line, the Pure Honey Series, is a popular item at Tokyu Hands and the Marui Imai department store in Sapporo. The line has also been featured in several Japanese magazines as an example of Hokkaido cosmetics, creating a strong brand name. However, it all began at a pharmacy in Engaru (more on that later).

This photo,courtesy of Saori Ito, shows the apiary in Engaru where Mystar sources its honey.
This photo,courtesy of Saori Ito, shows the apiary in Engaru where Mystar sources its honey.

The Pure Honey Series uses honey made from fully ripened single nectar from an Engaru forest. Single nectar means that nectar from only one type of flower is used. If you ask someone who knows even a little about beekeeping, they would know that the honey used in Mystar’s products is rich and luxurious.

Ito said in a recent interview that when she wanted to start the company, she approached a beekeeper in Engaru several times over five years, trying to get him to agree to let his honey be used for her cosmetics. She wanted to make a product using ingredients she grew up eating. Her deep passion for her hometown, on display over those five years, finally won over the beekeeper.

Early years in Tokyo

When she was younger, Ito thought it was crazy to spend a lot of money on cosmetics. But things changed as her life progressed. After high school, she moved to Tokyo with a plan to become a designer. She was leading a busy life, working in a cosmetics company as a beauty expert while also doing freelance design work.

Still focused on her dream of becoming a designer, Ito moved from job to job at several cosmetics companies, gaining experience and knowledge in sales, planning, and development in the industry. She eventually came to see the value in taking care of her own skin with high quality products, and she began to develop a deeper interest in the cosmetics world.

Ten years passed quickly. Around the time she turned 30, it was time to choose her life path. Should she stay in Tokyo and keep working? Should she go back to Engaru? She chose to go home. Ito’s vision was to return to her native Hokkaido to start a business using agricultural products from her birthplace. Her goal was to use cosmetics to expand the appreciation of her town’s local products.

More than giving back

Ito’s passion hasn’t wavered since she started her business. I asked if she wanted to give something back to her hometown. “Giving something back is a one-time thing, but that’s no fun,” Ito said. “I want to do something more interesting. I want the town to profit.”

Some of Mystar's products are on display at the company's Sapporo office (Photo by Zenta Kashimoto).
Some of Mystar’s products are on display at the company’s Sapporo office (Photo by Zenta Kashimoto).

Thanks to Ito’s passion and persistence over five years, she was able to launch the Pure Honey Series. It started with a body soap. But at that time, she didn’t have the connections needed to get her products into big department stores. To find a way to get her business going, all she could do was ask a pharmacy owner she knew from her childhood if she could sell her products in his store — and that’s where it all began.

But to expand her market to the rest of Japan, she had to work hard on a grassroots level for many years. “We can’t get orders if we just sit and wait in front of the phone,” Ito said. We have to be active.” She joined various events like Hokkaido product fairs or exhibitions. “I tried to attend every event to make people remember my face,” Ito said. The reality was that it was hard to get a chance to talk about her business. But gradually her work travelling all over Japan paid off. Her online sales picked up and the honey cosmetics brand took shape.

A call from the disaster area

Now, the brand has loyal fans not only in Hokkaido but also all over Japan. But with the economic stagnation in recent years, Ito has seen some hard times. The source of the strength she needed to overcome those hard times were a passion for her hometown and the voices of customers all over Japan. Most repeating customers are actually from outside of Hokkaido, Ito said, adding that most of those are from the Tohoku region.

On March 11, 2011, the Tohoku earthquake and tsunami struck Japan. Ito lost contact with her clients in the region, and she didn’t know if they were safe. For several days, Ito didn’t know how to get in touch with anyone in the disaster area. But then her phone rang. It was a customer placing an order from an evacuation center.

“To survive, I thought food and warmth were the top priority,” Ito said. “But I was touched by the voice of the customer.” The customer said cosmetics from Mystar were just as important to her as food. That customer has a serious skin condition requiring a dermatologist’s treatment. But she didn’t need a clinic after she started using the honey cosmetics. For several weeks following the disaster, food, clothing and even cosmetics were delivered to the evacuation center. But the available cosmetics didn’t work on her sensitive skin. Everyone at the evacuation center endured the severe conditions, and she felt guilty for not using the provided cosmetics, so she called in her order secretly with her cell phone.“That story encouraged me enough to hold on even if I were in a tough situation,” Ito said.

Looking ahead

This photo, courtesy of Saori Ito, shows the new edamame body gel.
This photo, courtesy of Saori Ito, shows the new edamame body gel.

At the beginning of her journey, Ito thought it was crazy to spend a lot on cosmetics. But now she is supported by the friendship of the customer who says her products are “as precious as food.” She cherishes the local producers of the ingredients she uses as much as the relationships between each customer.

“It’s a bit hard to remove the edamame seeds from the pod before it’s boiled,” Ito said with a smile, explaining how a new edamame-based product is made. Ito and all of her staff went to the factory in Engaru to shell just-harvested edamame. They did it as quickly as possible to ensure freshness. The new products this time are body soap and body gel made from edamame grown in Engaru.

Another new product is an asparagus balm. The asparagus is of course made in Engaru. This balm is sold in Tokyu Hands and Marui Imai in Sapporo, and is also part of a special accommodation plan at Sapporo’s Cross Hotel.

Through a special plan at a hotel in Tokyo where I once stayed, I got some free samples of famous brand cosmetics. Perhaps Mystar’s cosmetics will be available at hotels all over Japan in the near future. Ito’s products are filled with her passion for her hometown, and even today her journey to build relationships is continuing on.

For more information, see the Mystar homepage:

Editor’s note: This article was adapted from Japanese by Hokkaido Explorer. The original Japanese can be read below. Scroll down to comment or share this article. 


Saori Ito: A Journey Home

遠軽町物語 〜序章〜









遠軽町物語 〜絆を紡ぐ旅〜







By 後藤摩奈美 (Manami Goto)



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Manami Goto

I am a freelance graphic designer, art director, and writer.