Heartland JAPAN Team Members

Keijiro Sawano
CEO and Founder

Founder of Heartland JAPAN, grew up in a small fishing village in Yamaguchi Prefecture, in western Japan. Started Heartland JAPAN with the ambition of revitalising Japan’s rural communities and rebranding them into sustainable tourist destinations such has been done with Cinque Terre in Italy. It’s fair to say his hometown is not a common destination. But bringing tourist to places like it means a boost both to the local economy and to small-town pride. And for the visitors, it means immersion in the local community and culture.


Nicola Akiko Micklem
Travel Consultant

Niki is half Japanese and half British. Born and raised in the UK, she came to Japan six years ago to get more in touch with her Japanese side, and to work in an environment where she can help connect Japan, especially Fukushima Prefecture where her family are from, and its many hidden gems to the rest of the world. She enjoys creating unique and unforgettable experiences for others, something that she hopes to do for Heartland JAPAN's customers too! Niki loves discovering small, tucked away restaurants and bars wherever she goes.

Anni Pyykko
Travel Consultant

Anni is originally from Finland, and after coming and going between Finland and Japan for many years, she is now permanently living in her country of dreams. What constantly inspires her about Japan is how traditional and modern culture are entwined together. As a cat enthusiast she adores the way the Japanese have cat characters everywhere (as well as real ones!). Although Finland and Japan are far away from each other in both a geographical and cultural sense, she identifies some surprising similarities between them. In Finland, people enjoy the sauna on a regular basis: the sauna culture and onsen culture here in Japan seem to have common points. For both the Finnish and Japanese, it is natural to be naked among strangers! Also, taking shoes off when entering a house is self-evident for both. Anni is looking forward to creating the best possible experiences for all those who have decided to come and see what Japan has to offer!

Mikiko Hayashi
Domestic Travel Manager

Miki focuses on tour creation, local government communication, domestic product promotion, and travel law related procedures.

She has in-depth knowledge of the travel industry, with a full range of expertise from group tour customer support and tour conducting to tour creation. She also has many years of experience as an administrative consultant, working with a number of local governments. In this capacity, she has travelled across Japan from Hokkaido in the north to Kyushu in the south, visiting rural communities. Miki loves traditional Japanese culture and crafts, and even holds a national qualification in kimono-making. She is a highly creative, unique individual.

Sandra Isaka
Intercultural Consultant & Japan Travel Specialist

Sandra Isaka has lived in Japan for over 20 years and is an Intercultural Consultant and Japan Travel Specialist.  She plans to retire in Kyoto, her husband’s hometown, where they are currently renovating a 200-year-old machiya.  Sandra explores constantly – with an ultimate goal of becoming the world’s foremost expert on travel within Japan.  She is also focused on assisting lesser-known towns and sightseeing spots around Japan to attract, and take better care of, non-Japanese tourists.  She loves to share her favorite places through lectures, classes, articles and excursions.  excursionsjapan.com

Mandy Bartok
Travel Consultant/Travel Specialist

Mandy Bartok arrived in Japan with the intent of staying only one year. Ten years later, she’s lived in Tokyo, Okinawa and Kumamoto and – after a brief stint back in the US – has returned to Tokyo once more. Her goal is to explore all of Japan’s 47 prefectures (only two to go!) and share her finds with others. Mandy’s a huge fan of onsen (hot springs), seasonal flowers and quiet mountain trails, and has a weak spot for anything flavored with the citrus fruit yuzu. She’s written articles on Japan for the travel section of the Japan Times, as well as online sites and publications, and posts favorite discoveries on social media under the name Uncover Japan

Joris Vertecchi
Travel Consultant

Joris decided to move to Tokyo for the summer to work at Heartland JAPAN as an intern. His choice in coming to Japan was no accident: he was inspired by the country's work culture, the mix of different cuisines and traditions which make the nation unique. He hopes to appreciate Japanese culture while he is here and be able to pass it on. Joris wants to travel and learn as much as possible before finishing his Business Studies degree, to figure out what to do next and, maybe, even work in Japan in the future.