Hi Holly! First of all, thank you for joining our Osusume Japan series! Could you please introduce yourself and tells us more about your relationship with Japan?
Thank you for your invitation! I love what you are doing!
I’m Holly Helt and thanks to my dad working at Mitsubishi, I grew up in Nagoya, Japan until the age of 8. My love for the country has brought me back several times and in total I’ve lived in Japan for just over 18 years. I have lived all over, but mostly in Kyushu from where all of our tea comes.
Growing up in Japan, my mom learned how to make tea from her Japanese friend, Kashua-san. She would come to our home and they allowed me to watch “the grown-ups” make tea. They made such a fuss and celebration serving the tea, especially serving it to me, that I felt it was like Disneyland in a cup! I was hooked! I was treated to my first of about a million cups when I was just 3 years old! The rest is history.
What is your company’s concept? (your role in the company, what kind of business, location etc) Also the meaning of your company name?
I am the founder of Chiki Tea and we are in our 9th year. Our 10th Anniversary will be very special indeed, so watch this space! Our business is now exclusively charming our customers in 31 countries with matcha and loose-leaf artisan tea from Kyushu, plus the tools to appreciate it fully.
The name Chiki is derived from “Chi”, meaning energy in Chinese (tai-chi, etc.), acknowledging the origin of tea, China, and “ki” from the Japanese pronunciation of energy (genki). I’ve been told that in ancient Japanese, the kanji character means “way of the child”, “mischievous child”, or “child-like”. That pretty much sums up Chiki Tea! We are in the business of helping people reconnect to their inner child through glorious Japanese tea, which ultimately returns them to a state of harmony and joy. Love and passion for Japanese green tea is what fuels Chiki Tea today and always.
You have an online store where you sell delicious green tea but you also had a Matcha bar in Kobe and a Café in Nakatsu, Oita prefecture. Can you please tell us more about both? And why did you chose these cities?
Yes, we did have a Green Tea Cafe & Bakery in Nakatsu City, Oita Prefecture, and a matcha bar in the Sannomiya district of Kobe.
When you start a company, you can never predict where it will go. Sure, you have a 5-year plan, but that usually gets blown out of the water pretty quickly!
When my British co-founder and I started the company in London in 2012, our long-term plan was to open green tea cafes around the UK… but after a 21-day trip from Kanazawa in the north to Kagoshima in the south, with a videographer in tow, I realized we needed to move the company to Japan and plant our roots firmly in Kyushu, from where I feel the very best artisanal teas hail.
In the very early days, even before the trip, we held tea salons in our office in Wimbledon Village for market research to see if the Brits would swap their builder’s tea for a glorious pot of sencha. We also ran a pop-up shop for market research as well as supplied our teas to an organic retailer we were friendly with so we could engage with customers
But in 2013 we moved to Buzen in Fukuoka Prefecture. I came on a cultural visa to study Yabunouchi School of Tea Ceremony for the year while we figured out what we were actually trying to build with Chiki Tea! I already had several years of study with the Urasenke School of Sado under my belt. In fact, the immigration office in Oita suggested this path because they simply couldn’t figure out what type of visa to give me, but they had a hunch I was good for the tea industry’s survival!
During that year of study, I completed the book Green is the New Black – The Glorious Rise of Japanese Tea, and we established Chiki Tea Japan K.K., our Japanese subsidiary.
As for why we chose to open in the countryside… Nakatsu chose us! Sometimes you just have to be open to opportunities and the endless possibilities, often trudging through the unknown. This is what happened to us…I was speaking with my Yabunouchi sensei in her tea house when a lovely 92-year-old customer grabbed me by the hand and said “please reopen my cafe! It’s been closed for 20 years while I look for the right cosmopolitan person to open it!” It was a total dump inside with completely overgrown gardens as high as the second-story roof, and absolutely PERFECT! The following year, after renovating the 150-year-old building in Nakatsu, Oita Prefecture, we opened the Chiki Tea Cafe & Bakery as a test pilot to see if we could make a go of it in Japan… but there was an even bigger reason!
We dearly wanted to export the very best matcha from Yame, but in order to qualify, the producers wanted us to operate in Japan for at least a year using their matcha. We didn’t have a company in Japan at the time we approached them, let alone a place to run a cafe. From their perspective, they needed commitment from us, but more importantly expertise with their matcha. They wanted to make sure we knew how to handle their precious emerald elixir so that we could offer the best matcha to an overseas market. Our producer’s matcha is award-winning and among the very best in Japan, after all. They won’t even allow some Japanese companies to represent them! We said OK… and our lives have never been the same.
We opened Chiki Tea Cafe & Bakery on January 2, 2014, and ran it for two years as a pilot concept, originally planning to operate it for just a year.
After two almost impossible summers, we decided to move to a lively location on Honshu, and again the city chose us. We landed in Kobe. Thankfully the city didn’t have rice planting and rice harvesting where months were completely silent! The city of Kobe invited us to take a retail unit in a building in Sannomiya that was scheduled to be torn down in 18 months. They wanted something fun for the existing tenants that had been trading there for 40 years. They felt Chiki Tea was a perfect way to celebrate and give back to the local tenants who were about to be displaced. We jumped at the chance and started the renovation immediately. This time it only took 2 months.
It became obvious that demand for tea overseas far outweighed our cafe experience in Japan as most customers in Japan just wanted our baked American and British treats and the tea, usually matcha, was an afterthought. The foreign customers in Kobe however, couldn’t get enough of our teas with a brownie or cheesecake slice tossed in for good measure. We realized that we could spread way more love and joy with Japanese tea by focusing on getting it to foreigners via our online shop: chikitea.com. We do have customers in Japan but they are all foreigners!
For people not in Japan right now, is there a way to get your products in their own countries?
Our website chikitea.com ships tea and accoutrements all over the world! We currently spread this love and joy to customers in 31 countries. While the Japan Post suspended shipping for over 86 countries at one point, we had to bend like bamboo reeds to accommodate our customers! I moved to London where Japan Post still shipped, and set up a relay system whereby our parcels would ship from Japan to London and then be forwarded to customers in the US, Middle East, Scandinavia and other places where they had suspended shipping. I am now in Arizona waiting to get back to Japan… as of June 1, EMS has resumed shipping and we can satisfy everyone from Japan now.
We saw you wrote a book about Green Tea it has a really cute title can you tell us a little bit more about that project?
I started writing the book Green is the New Black when I lived in Wimbledon, but finished it in Japan after moving there and starting to study Yabunouchi tea ceremony. I felt that green tea was muscling into the coffee market and that is how the title emerged… and then Orange is the New Black stole it! LOL
My reason for writing this book is simple… most foreigners living overseas have a block when it comes to Japanese green tea and by brewing it incorrectly, the taste is disastrous. Long ago, when I had a career in London in the commercial property industry, I would make tea on a daily basis for everyone in my office. When they attempted it, things went totally pear-shaped, resulting in really bitter tea. I knew I needed to educate the Western market, familiar with mainly black teas from India and China, so that is when the seed of this book was planted. It took me over 10 years to get to the computer and start pumping out my knowledge! The full-color book Green is the New Black – the Glorious Rise of Japanese Tea is available on Kindle and through our website.
What is the most surprising Matcha based food/drink/item you’ve tried? Please tell us more about this experience.
I have always been interested in caring for my skin since it is so fair. My mom instilled the importance of using the highest quality products to retain a radiant and youthful complexion as far back as when I was just a teenager. With my love for green tea, I started experimenting with putting matcha into my face creams, but it never worked! A total disaster, in fact! It wasn’t until a powerful creative moment with my expert skincare formulator friend in England that we created the perfect Matcha Rejuvenation Cream. It contains our matcha from Yame as well as sacred Palo Santo oil from Ecuador. We birthed Chiki Tea’s sister company 11:11 Angel Organics about 4 years ago and are committed to making the purest living skincare on the planet! Not one preservative or chemical is added. You can find us through the chikitea.com website or go directly to 1111angel-organics.com.
Last but not least, what is in your opinion the best Japanese food to have with green tea?
I’m often asked about what is the best food pairing with Japanese tea, but my response is always the same… ANYTHING! The way a green tea from Kyushu serenades literally any flavor is a miracle in itself. I use matcha as a staple ingredient in my kitchen to boost almost any food by sifting it on rice, ice cream, fruit salad, yogurt, or mixing it into recipes like salad dressing, pasta sauces, cakes, muffins, cookies, smoothies – literally everything! One of my favorite and easiest ways to add it to my daily intake is with matcha dusted chocolate chips! Yep, that brings out the kid in me as I add them to granola, a yogurt snack, or an ice cream treat!
Any message to share with our readers? If they come to your place, what is your recommendation to try?
If I had one message to give to readers it would be this: take a chance on steeping your own Japanese tea, replacing any nutrient-damaged bottled tea or cheap teabag green tea purchased at a grocery store. The second point is to purchase matcha and teas in smaller quantities to keep them sealed and fresh.
If you want to benefit not only from the glorious and sublime taste profiles of Japanese tea, get loose-leaf teas from Japan and spend a little more than you would expect. The same goes for matcha… get the good stuff in a tin, not a pouch, to keep it fresh as you consume it over a two-week period. You do get what you pay for in both nutrient content and taste. If you aren’t familiar with how to steep Japanese teas (a much different process to Chinese and Indian teas), I’ve simplified the process in Green is the New Black – the Glorious Rise of Japanese Tea. You can also visit chikitea.com to see how to steep and whisk!
Follow Chiki Tea:
- Website: www.chikitea.com
- Youtube: ChikiTeaTV
- Instagram: @chikitea
- Pinterest: @Chikitea
- Twitter: @ChikiTea
- Facebook: @ChikiTeaTime