How the luxury florist behind Gentle Beast found family while showcasing the elegance and artistry of Japanese farmers.
Words by Mitchell Kuga Photos provided by Kaiwen Nainoa Wang Nobriga of Gentle Beast
When Kaiwen Wang Nobriga first had the idea of starting Gentle Beast, his Oahu-based luxury floral company that now counts Cartier and the Obamas as clients, he ran into a tiny problem: he had no formal training as a florist.
For Kaiwen, flowers represent his childhood, his culture and his travel experiences. “No matter where I lived, I couldn’t resist buying flowers and nurturing plants,” he says. “Living in different regions with distinct four seasons brought me immense joy as I witnessed the various blooms throughout the year.”
However, upon moving to Hawaii, Kaiwen found himself missing this seasonal beauty and wanted to find a way to share that splendor with others. That’s when the idea for Gentle Beast bloomed.
Naturally, he turned to YouTube, where the algorithm kept feeding him videos from a woman in Osaka named Sachi Matsuura. He recalls quickly skipping past her flower arranging tutorials, which she posted under the handle HappyComeFlower, and thinking she’s kind of lousy. “Lousy in terms of so loud,” he says, laughing, “and super, super, super bubbly.”
But the algorithm persisted, badgering Kaiwen into finally finishing one of her videos. To his surprise, he discovered that he not only loved Sachi’s style with flowers but also appreciated her philosophy as a business person and a human being.
After taking a few of her online classes he went out on a whim and invited her to Hawai’i to collaborate on an event he was producing for the Hawaii Food and Wine Festival, in January 2023.
“I don’t know what she was thinking— she never met me in person before—but she flew over to Hawai’i and we met for the first time,” Kaiwen says.
The two hit it off immediately, and less than year later, she’s become more than just his mentor. “Now she’s like my mom,” he says.
From its focus on Asian hospitality to its European-style arrangements, Sachi’s imprint can be found all over Gentle Beast, which Kaiwen launched from his home in 2020 and now boasts a 1,600 square foot storefront at Ward Centre.
The shop specializes in made-to-order bouquets that highlight seasonal flowers sourced primarily from Japan and Europe, which are arranged around the “feelings you would like to express to the recipient,” Kaiwen says. When ordering there are no samples; everything is done omakase. He cites omotenashi, or the philosophy at the center of Japanese hospitality, as a prevailing influence, particularly when it comes to the lifespan of his arrangements.
We are florists who are selling experiences.”
The Gentle Beast aesthetic is a lush, ever evolving garden, with Kaiwen hiding younger blooms within his arrangements to give them space to blossom over time.
“When I started the business I told everybody, we are not a flower shop, selling flowers per stem,” he says. “We are florists who are selling experiences.”
Travel sits at the heart of Gentle Beast. When I visited in July, the shop featured peonies from France, flamingo-pink roses from Japan, and powder blue hydrangeas from the Netherlands. Shipments arrive from all over the world three times per week, with packages from Japan being particularly exciting.
“It’s like opening a Christmas box, you have no idea what you are getting,” Kaiwen says.
He makes monthly trips to Japan to take private lessons from Sachi, and had recently returned from a tour of his vendors there, which he organized for Gentle Beast staff and a few customers. Sachi joined, and the small group visited five flower farms, mostly small, family-run businesses located in the remote Japanese countryside, including Aichi, Shizuoka, and Kyushu.
“Despite being some of the most beautiful flowers in the world, the farmers have limited access to introduce them to a broader audience,” Kaiwen says.
Because the farms are typically not on Google Maps, detours ensued: the group got lost in the middle of a rice field at one point, and Sachi later drove them into a river.
But despite the missteps, Kaiwen maintains that those experiences as a traveler are what animates his approach to Gentle Beast.
“There are so many more opportunities and possibilities if you can expand your vision towards the world,” he says, adding that it was important for him and his staff to meet the farmers and see the effort they invest into their flowers. “I want to make sure they know what kind of product they are dealing with everyday, because the Japanese product is at least four to five times more expensive than the ones we get from Europe,” he says. “I want them to know the value behind it.”
“My hope is that by bringing these breathtaking blooms to Hawaii, I can play a part in introducing them to more florists across the United States. It would be a privilege to share the artistry and dedication of these Japanese farmers with a wider audience and give their creations the recognition they truly deserve.”
Kaiwen, 30, grew up in Shanghai and lived in Tokyo for five years, where he earned a master’s degree in philosophy from Waseda University. He moved to Hawai’i in 2019 to be with his boyfriend and soon-to-be husband Lance, who grew up on Kauai and delivers flowers for Gentle Beast on his days off from handling explosion detection canines at the airport. (The two met on Grindr in 2018, while Kaiwen was visiting Hawai’i).
Gentle Beast “serves as a constant reminder of the delicate balance between strength and gentleness.”
The name Gentle Beast is derived from a beloved poem by Seigfred Sasson, “In Me the Tiger Sniffs the Rose.” “This poem has always held a special place in my heart, as it embodies the idea that even the wildest of souls can appreciate tenderness and beauty,” Kaiwen says. “It serves as a constant reminder of the delicate balance between strength and gentleness.”
The name also pays tribute to Kaiwen’s retired working dog, King, who served diligently as an explosive detection K9 for Homeland Security. “When I embarked on the journey of starting this business, King retired, and his presence continues to inspire our mission,” Kaiwen says.
Gentle Beast’s logo, featuring a blooming camellia seen through a traditional round Chinese wall window, is inspired by the family farm on which Kaiwen grew up.
Though Kaiwen found the transition to Hawai’i difficult at first, particularly during Covid, “it was one of the best decisions I made in my life,” he says, noting that he was abandoned by his parents when he was 16, after they discovered he was gay. “I have a family now.”
Sachi in particular has come to feel like a home away from home, which is why the two go out of their way to see each other each month. He’s even come to see reflections of himself in the parts of her that used to annoy him.
“She is still a little annoying— just loud,” he says. “But I can see myself. That’s why my husband says, ‘But baby, you are loud too.’” Their similarities have earned Kaiwen a new nickname around the shop: Sachi Jr. “But I’m just more sassy,” he adds.
More than as a florist, “I really, really love her and appreciate her as a person [first],” he says. “She treats me like her son.”
He’s also found family through the connections he’s created with customers at Gentle Beast. “I think running a business in Hawai’i is very different from any other part of the world, because people here come with a generous heart and great intentions and they care about you,” he says. “It’s a very small community, so you cannot just be a businessman here—you have to be a businessman with a very big heart.