Uji-En: a taste of Japan

Harbour City is home to the first international flagship of a Kyoto-founded tea brand that has set its eyes on international expansion.

Uji-En is a Japanese green-tea brand with a history dating back nearly 150 years. It decided in the late 1990s to expand its packaged-tea business by opening cafes in its home market.

More than 20 stores have been opened, including two in Mainland China. As they are trading well, the company decided last year to expand into Hong Kong as the next stepping stone in a grander global plan.

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Head Architecture and Design Limited was appointed by the Shigemura family, founders of Uji-En and their Hong Kong partner to create a younger feel for the brand’s first cafe in Hong Kong, which would also provide a template for further stores to be rolled out across greater China. That design has just won a Silver Award in the new retail concepts category of the ICSC China Shopping Centre and Retail Awards announced in Shanghai last week.

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The Kowloon retail space would merge a cafe, a takeaway area and a retail space stocked with teapots, cups, bowls and accessories along with brightly coloured packages of teas and snack foods for home use or gifting.

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“The brief was to evolve a typically traditional, conservative Japanese brand into something more youthful that would appeal to millennials and engage with people who enjoy green-tea and matcha products, but might not know of the Uji-En brand and its history,” says Head Architecture and Design co-founder Mike Atkin, who was lead designer on the project.

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Austerity and trust

“So the finished design had to convey a sense of austerity and trust, yet appeal to a younger demographic seeking a modern, trendy destination for relaxing and dining.”

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Uji-En was founded in Kyoto in 1869, so it has a rich heritage and high brand recall in Japan. But abroad it is something of a hidden gem. Atkin’s challenge was to create a modern, appealing destination while still acknowledging the brand’s rich heritage.

Members of the Head Architecture and Design team visited traditional Japanese tea houses in Osaka and Kyoto, and spent time observing tea-focused cafes closer to home.

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“We looked at cafes in Hong Kong shopping centres, looking to see which venues were typically busier than others, and which were the most successful in drawing shopper dwell-time. We knew the product was a strong offer, especially given the brand’s long success; our role was to create an environment that made that product hero and placed it firmly on the radar of contemporary consumers,” says Atkin.

“Our design was inspired by a traditional wood-framed Japanese tea house, using a mixture of light and dark timbers and liberal doses of matcha green. The resulting design is a bright, open, engaging retail space unlike anything in its category.”

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Footprint challenge

Another challenge for Atkin was the store’s footprint – an L-shaped 1200sqft space bordering three sides of an atrium in the Harbour City shopping centre, bisected by an escalator well and with a partially open plan. The answer was to provide a Grab & Go counter and product display in the smaller space, with a 24-seat cafe and retail space occupying the rest of the area. This has the spinoff advantage of splitting the takeaway customers buying ice cream or drinks from those dining in, creating a more relaxed dining setting.  

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Mike Atkin of Head Architecture and Design.

Built around an open void under a transparent glass ceiling, the space is filled with natural light during the daytime. A mixture of coloured and opaque glass separates the cafe interior from the mall corridor to provide a sense of privacy for diners, yet ensure natural light continues to flow through both spaces.

Given the green-tea focus of the cafe concept, it is not surprising the design incorporates a lot of green.

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Emotional connection

“The shades of green are designed to create an emotional connection between customer and the core green-tea product,” says Atkin. “And the contrast of the green with natural timber reflects the natural, clean properties of the brand and the teas.”

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To evoke the varied shades of drying tea and fields with gardens of trees and bamboo, Atkin’s team introduced vertical panels of mixed green glass, mimicking the zen Japanese model. Tea chests and matcha-green textured paint hark back to the history and core product of the company.

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“One strong element of the existing Japanese branding is the graphics, developed by Hirosuke Watanuki in the early 1990s. These are beautifully crafted, playful elements we wanted to integrate and build on in the new design. Tea, the core product of Uji-En, is represented by the female figure of Okame for matcha tea and Hyotokko (the fire man) for Hoji Cha tea.”

While Uji-En does not reveal its trading figures, queues are often been seen outside the store at weekends. But the biggest testimony to the success of the store’s design is that many elements will feature in upcoming stores as they open in Hong Kong and on the mainland.

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