June 22, 2023
Based in Japan: Wayne Shennen on bringing New Zealand to Japan
Backed by an awards list as long as an All-Blacks winning record, it’s hard to find someone more passionate about New Zealand than Wayne Shennen. One of his country’s top sommeliers, Shennen has made it his mission to introduce Kiwi cuisine and culture to Japan. Having successfully established Rangitoto Tokyo New Zealand Wine and Craft Sake Bar, one of Tokyo’s go-to spots for authentic Aotearoa cuisine, Shennen sat down with Metropolis to chat about his journey to Japan and in the process revealed a constant desire for quality and more of it.
Did you have any interest in Japan prior to arriving?
I think anyone who has seen a Japanese movie develops some curiosity about the country. It just comes across as somehow different. In my case, it was The Karate Kid that got me hooked. I figured at some stage in my life I would need to visit.
You’ve now been involved with Japan for over 20 years, living here for solid stretches of time. What initially brought you to the country?
It was actually martial arts, not hospitality, that brought me here. I’ve been studying Bujinkan since 2002, and first came to Tokyo that year for a short training trip. The level of skill was undeniable, and I knew that if I wanted to get any good, I needed to come to the source.
Martial arts training is a little different from running a successful restaurant and bar though. How did the decision to set up shop here come about?
I wanted to live here to train, but getting a visa without a university degree was difficult so I looked at becoming a business owner. Enter New Zealand wine. We make some of the best in the world, but few people in Japan are aware we even produce the stuff. And with a Rugby World Cup followed by the Olympics, it seemed like such a good opportunity, what could possibly go wrong… Oh, hello pandemic!
Hello indeed. And good riddance too, but you also offer Japanese sake, which, if I may say so, isn’t New Zealand wine.
True, but I once worked in a Japanese restaurant in Sydney that had a large sake range. My first taste of the real stuff made me realize that if I wanted to do justice to the producer when introducing their sake, I needed to know more. So on my next trip to Japan, I visited several breweries. One thing led to another and here we are. I guess you could call it a love affair with quality.
Okay, sales pitch time. What sets your Rangitoto Tokyo New Zealand Wine and Craft Sake Bar apart from other places in Tokyo?
You can count the places in Tokyo that specialize in New Zealand products on one hand, so there’s that. Also, I’m not exaggerating when I say that our wine is truly world-class. Bottles are consistently winning blind tasting competitions and introducing these wines is part of the allure. Our service style is a little different, too. We do a thing called ‘Premium Casual’, where the service is relaxed but the quality is high. Chef Trevor Blyth has one of the best CVs around, and with decades of Michelin experience and high-end Japanese study, we offer dishes that you simply cannot find anywhere else.
Premium Casual? How does that work with Japan’s service culture?
Oh, it works. The social pressures in Tokyo can be stifling but we offer a release. Our goal is casual service, a taste of New Zealand in Tokyo. Early on, some of our patrons weren’t sure how to run with that. They were expecting to be served in a formal way but we treated them more like friends when they walked in the door. Eventually, they opened up. It’s cool when you see people high up in their industries holding casual conversations with strangers fresh from university. People can be themselves at our place.
The grapevine tells me you’re about to expand. That must be both daunting and exciting.
We made it through Covid, found an amazing chef, and finalized a lot of our processes, so we feel now is the time to better showcase what we do. New Zealand has soft power, and we want to play a part in helping bring something of that power through the wine and food we serve. It’s exciting, we believe in what we do and are confident that we can make a good run for it. Fingers crossed.
You mentioned Tokyo’s social pressure. How do you manage your work-life balance?
That’s always going to be tough in hospitality so I set myself priorities. As the owner, I have a bit more freedom to decide when we are open, but obviously, there are the responsibilities of keeping the business running. I came to Japan for martial arts but I now have a newborn son. What’s the priority there? My son of course. I accept that my training will take a back seat for now. Priorities, right?
What does Japan offer you that perhaps other countries might not?
Opportunity! There is such an untapped market here where NZ is concerned. Demand for wine is high, but knowledge of NZ is low. The disconnect is massive, and hopefully, we can play our part in remedying that. I come from a country with a population of less than two days of Shinjuku Station’s throughput… The potential is mind-boggling.
What would you say to someone thinking of making the move here?
Spend time here first. Japan is not as homogenous as many think. What may be true for Ginza in Tokyo might not be true for Ikebukuro in Tokyo, let alone anywhere outside Tokyo. Actual experience is invaluable. That, and start working on your language skills because the better you can communicate the better things will be.