Aldo and Joëlle arrived in Japan more than ten years ago. Attached to good terroir, they wanted to import Italian products. However, unpredictable events made them move to Fukuoka, on the island of Kyushu. There, they fell in love with the local green tea and, with some friends, they ended up founding Ikkyu, an online tea shop that supports Kyushu tea producers.
Read on to learn what makes Kyushu tea different, the keys to building a lasting trust relationship with the local producers, and the challenges of entrepreneurship in Japan.
Falling in Love with Japan
Originally, why did you come to Japan?
Aldo: I have always had a fascination with Japan because my father was a big fan of Kurosawa, and we would watch his movies together. Later, I witnessed the manga boom in Europe and the Japanese animation on TV at the time. Then, in 2002, we decided to go to Japan for our honeymoon. It was an adventure: there was less information about Japan at the time, iPhones did not exist yet, and we had to make hotel reservations by fax [laughs].
Still, it was love at first sight with the country. We traveled for five weeks during the summer. Although we were unprepared for the Japanese summer heat, something in the atmosphere touched us. The matsuri [Japanese summer festivals], the people–it all felt kind of magical. After that, we went to Japan almost every year.
Joëlle: At the time, we were living in Geneva, Switzerland. Aldo was working in the banking industry, and I was working in Law, so we had the means and the European-style holidays that allowed us to travel easily. We decided we wanted to do something in Japan, and after two or three years of preparation, in 2009, we moved to Tokyo with our three-month-old son.
We were far from thinking we would stay more than a year or two and create Ikkyu one day. I was a researcher at Tokyo University, and I also taught some classes at Temple University.
Aldo: I arrived in Japan as part of my family’s company, and we wanted to import Italian products to Japan. We already had that love for terroir, producers, and good products. However, it was very hard because there were so many competitors already. Still, we learned a lot during the process, especially regarding online sales.
When did you move to Kyushu?
Joëlle: Well, the great Tohoku earthquake happened. Just after the earthquake occurred, like many foreigners in Japan, we were worried about radiation, especially because our son was only two at the time. We could either go back to Geneva and never come back to Japan again, or we could decide to move further west. Two days after the earthquake, we arrived in Fukuoka Prefecture, and we never left.
It was a harsh experience in the sense we had to start back from zero again. Thankfully, my doctorate allowed me to teach in the universities of the area. We were also able to keep our company, through which we did a lot of consulting regarding exportation.
“The local producers of Kyushu try to distinguish themselves from the more traditional regions of Uji and Shizuoka and are very inventive.”
Discovering Authentic Kyushu Green Tea
Tell us about the evolution of your relationship with green tea.
Aldo: When I was in Switzerland, my job in the banking industry was very stressful, and I had a lunchtime habit of drinking matcha while listening to my favorite records to relax. It was hard to find good Japanese tea at the time, as most shops sold mostly Chinese tea. Now, I realize their way of keeping tea was also completely wrong [laughs].
After we arrived in Japan, we tasted great teas, prepared the right way, and it was completely different.
Joëlle: Before I came to Japan for the first time, I had a typical Westerner relationship with tea based on pouring boiled water on a Lipton tea bag. I had to learn how to make tea properly, and it was not difficult at all.
After arriving in the Fukuoka area, we made nice friends who made us taste what they liked to drink. It was a completely different experience.
Aldo: We have a friend whose family is from a famous tea production area: Chiran, in Kagoshima Prefecture. We had the opportunity to visit the place, and it was incredibly beautiful, with terraced tea fields that spread to the seaside.
Joëlle: Something about that scenery felt strangely familiar, and it reminded us of Toscana and olive fields. It moved us a lot, and our passion for tea was born.
What makes Kyushu tea different from other Japanese teas?
Aldo: The weather is warmer, so producers can grow cultivars that are more sensitive to the cold. Thanks to that, there is a richness of tea varieties. Topography also plays a role. For example, in Yame, there are valleys with a microclimate and an extraordinary water quality that allows for making a fantastic gyokuro tea. On top of that, the Sakurajima volcano is nearby, and projects volcanic ashes that create a very specific soil.
Also, the local producers try to distinguish themselves from the more traditional regions of Uji and Shizuoka, and are very inventive. They experiment to create more fruity tastes. There are even organic teas that taste like honey!
Joëlle: Culturally speaking, in Kyushu, there is more distance from Tokyo and a proximity to China and Korea. For example, in Miyazaki and Kumamoto, there is a type of tea called kamairicha that still exists in China but has disappeared from Japan. That is one of the positive aspects of living in a more conservative area where things move more slowly[laughs]!
Are there other aspects of green tea that are lesser known outside of Japan?
Aldo: Most people have heard about matcha and know about tea leaves, but they usually do not know the many varieties of tea that exist, and that by changing the process just a little, the result is a completely different tea.
In Europe, many tea shops keep tea leaves in huge jars, although it is better to keep tea in small, 100g or 50g vacuum packs. Once you open your tea pack, the oxidation process starts, and the tea leaves gradually lose their taste, but also the polyphenols that make it good for your health. Tea leaves must be stored in carefully sealed packets, far from the light, and it does not keep forever.
Finally, as we mentioned earlier, the correct way to prepare tea is also misunderstood. One should never put boiling water on tea leaves! For sencha, the water should be at 70 or 80 degrees celsius, and for gyokuro, it can go down to 40 degrees–almost at body temperature. For gyokuro tea, you can prepare it first at lower temperature, then use the same leaves at higher and higher temperatures, and it reveals new tastes with each infusion and different cups of tea.
Joëlle: When creating Ikkyu, we really wanted to explain all of this, not only on the tea packs but also with articles and even videos. People can feel intimidated and think it is going to be complicated, but all you need is a small teapot with a filter. The infusion only takes one minute.
Aldo: Also, it is important to make tea with good water. Using hard water can change the taste of the tea a lot, so it is better to use filtered water.
Of all the teas you sell, what is your favorite at the moment?
Aldo: I really like our new tamaryokucha, the Kohei.
Joëlle: It’s an organic tea that is grown and prepared in order to increase the rate of GABA in the leaves. Its taste is very soft, and thanks to its GABA, it is very relaxing. You can drink it at night and sleep well.
What I like at the moment is seasonal–it is Hakusei, a white tea. White tea is green tea that, three weeks before harvest, is 100% covered, even more than gyokuro tea. The leaves become very pale, hence its name. Its umami is extraordinary. It’s very rare, the producer only makes 30 kilos a year, and we will have only 150 bags of it. I really love tea that you can find nowhere else but in Kyushu.
Aldo: We also have a great kamairicha that tastes like jasmine tea!
Joëlle: We have so many teas that we love.
Building Trust With Local Tea Producers
“Our main audience was the elders from the associations. So, we had to explain marketing concepts in very down-to-earth terms and comparisons.”
How did you start being involved with local tea producers?
Aldo: We had approached a tea producer, saying that we were interested in his tea, but it was difficult to start a relationship. One evening, during a stay in Chiran, I mentioned this to my friend’s mother, and we talked about the challenges of the tea business industry in Kyushu. The very next day, we were invited to visit the association of the local tea producers [laughs]. We did not realize what was happening.
Joëlle: After that, for two or three years, through such associations, we supported the local producers in exporting their products. We made them a website, did some consulting, and conducted numerous seminars.
Aldo: The challenge was that our main audience was the elders from the associations. So
, we had to explain marketing concepts in very down-to-earth terms and comparisons, far from online marketing strategies.
The mechanisms of such associations in Japan are extremely complex and rooted in traditional business approaches. All decisions are taken based on consensus and in a way that no producer will feel left behind. On top of that, there is the influence of JA [Japan Agricultural Cooperatives.] Everything takes a lot of time.
Joëlle: It can be frustrating for younger farmers. They asked us very precise questions and probably wanted to move faster but depended on the association’s decisions
Aldo: We were a bit frustrated too, and that is where our desire to do something more came from.
Joëlle: We did a lot of research for them, especially regarding the international market for Japanese green tea. It was clear that the longer they waited, the harder it would get to export later. The famous tea production regions of Shizuoka and Uji had already built their brand image and were exporting. We wanted them to understand their own potential.
Then, one day, Aldo looked at me and said, “Joëlle, we must sell tea.”
How did that lead you to start your company, Ikkyu?
Joëlle: At first, we thought of using our company to sell tea, but we soon realized that only the two of us would not be enough for such a huge project. Fortunately, through my practice of aikido, we became friends with a franco-Japanese couple who were entrepreneurs in e-commerce and loved tea too.
Aldo: We did a brainstorming session together, visited local producers, and built the Ikkyu brand and vision that focused on the Kyushu area. We wanted to help people discover the richness of that tea region.
Joëlle: With our Swiss, Italian and French backgrounds, we soon realized we could make parallels between tea and wine or olive oil in the sense that we could talk in terms of terroir, Grand Cru, and cultivars. Some teas are so rare that only 5 kg is available each year–it is like the caviar of the tea world! We wanted to show that world of tea and tell the stories of the people who make it.
“We are hoping that the enthusiasm outside of Japan for green tea will make it more fashionable in Japan–like what happened for Japanese whiskeys. “
You are very attached to supporting the local producers. What difficulties do they face now?
Joëlle: They face the same troubles as in the rest of the agricultural world in Japan. For example, they have a hard time finding younger people to take their following, even in their own families.
Aldo: Also, the consumption of tea in Japan is decreasing. There is this image that making tea from tea leaves is something for the elderly. The younger generations mostly drink tea they buy in plastic bottles in vending machines and convenience stores. Both teas cannot even be compared!
Even here in Kyushu, the locals often ignore the treasures of tea near where they live, whereas in Europe, we are often proud to recommend our local wine or olive oil small producers.
Things are changing for a part of the population, though. During the last few years, very chic tea salons have opened, where tea masters organize tastings of marvelous teas with wagashi. It is very sophisticated and a little expensive. In comparison, the usual Japanese tea shops usually have old-fashioned windows, and the packaging is not always very attractive.
We are hoping that the enthusiasm outside of Japan for green tea will make it more fashionable in Japan–like what happened for Japanese whiskeys. Japanese people are often surprised to hear we have customers on the other side of the world – quite literally, as we have a very good customer in Tahiti!
Joëlle: With time, our knowledge of tea has become deeper, and we keep unlocking new layers of understanding and enjoyment, thanks also to the insight of tea masters among our network. Our customers realize it too, and we often get emotional messages from them.
“Japanese people do not like to take risks, so we minimized their risks to zero.”
After creating the company, how did you keep building trust with the local producers?
Aldo: It took a lot of time, but we had the advantage of presenting ourselves with a concept that implied no risk for them. We would buy their tea and introduce them on our website, and all the risks and work charges regarding packaging, selling, promoting, and exporting were on us. Japanese people do not like to take risks, so we minimized their risks to zero.
Joëlle: During our consulting career, we made a lot of contacts that proved useful later. For example, we were able to get some help from JETRO, which introduced us to new tea producers.
Aldo: Sometimes friends would vouch for us, too.
Joëlle: The type of relationship we have with the tea producer really depends on the people. With some of them, it is like we were almost friends from the beginning, some of them contacted us after seeing an article about us in a local newspaper, and others preferred to keep a Japanese intermediate between us.
Our company is registered in Japan, our bank accounts are in Japan, and we pay them in yen, so it is pretty straightforward and reassuring for them.
Aldo: Now, we feel very responsible because many producers count on us, especially since the pandemic.
The Challenges of Entrepreneurship in Japan
How did the pandemic affect tea sales?
Aldo: In Japan, a lot of tea sales are made at fairs or in train stations, for example. Because of the pandemic, suddenly, all these events disappeared. On the contrary, our online sales increased a little, which gave the producers we work with a stable revenue source.
Joëlle: We had to cope with the uncertainty too. On the first of April 2020, Japan Post announced they stopped sending parcels to other countries. First, we panicked a little, and then we contacted Fedex, who made us a great offer, probably thanks to the circumstances. Nowadays, as an entrepreneur, you really need to be flexible and to be able to react fast.
Your team is multicultural: Swiss, Italian, French, and Japanese. How do you manage entrepreneurship to run smoothly in a multicultural context?
Aldo: I think that the fact we are all passionate about the same thing helps a lot.
Joëlle: We all speak a common language, which is French. We are from the same generation, and we used to be friends prior to working together. However, we all thought very carefully before starting this business. We put everything on paper, and planned things in case it would not work out well.
Aldo: The fact we are all from a different culture also helps us see things differently. Members can bring ideas or critiques the others have not thought about.
Joëlle: It is not easy being an entrepreneur in Japan, and it is even harder when you are a foreigner. Everything, like borrowing money to banks, gets harder. Thankfully, getting along well helps us face such difficulties.