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Home > Passions of Artisans #043 KOBE MATCH CO.,LTD.

#043 KOBE MATCH CO.,LTD.2016/2/23

Incense sticks that can be lit like a match offer an innovative addition to everyday life

An ambitious matchmaker from Himeji

Light a stick of incense like a match and the scent of incense begins to drift up towards the sky. For ten minutes, you are enveloped in delightful natural aromas—a tiny time-out in the midst of everyday life. The hibi 10 MINUTES AROMA incense stick offers a fresh twist on your normal routine.

The company has been flooded with inquiries since it first released the new product in April. It is certainly making headlines because of the innovative match-incense concept, but also because of its elegant packaging and unique approach. The Ministry of Economy, Trade and Industry has even selected hibi 10 MINUTES AROMA as one of The Wonder 500™, a list that presents Japan’s most outstanding local products to other countries.

The manufacturer, Kobe Match, was founded in the Himeji area in 1929. Situated near the Port of Kobe, Himeji has been an ideal location including its climate, for matchmaking since the production technology was first brought to Japan from Europe—and the craft has flourished there in the decades since. Matchmaking is still the hallmark industry in Himeji, which turns out some 70% of Japan’s national production.

Masafumi Sagayama is the third-generation representative director of Kobe Match. “Unfortunately, people hardly ever have the opportunity to use matches in their daily lives anymore,” he lamented. “Our company couldn’t survive on matches alone, so we’ve continued to diversify—making facial tissues with promotional inserts, getting involved in the printing business, and even setting up nursing care facilities.”

Though he grew up in a match factory, Sagayama never intended to carry out the family business given the current state of the market, and for a while took a job at an unrelated manufacturer. But when he thought about what he wanted to do as his life’s work, he ended up deciding to run the company after all. He joined in 1999, and struggled with new projects like bus wrap advertising in an effort to both save the company and employment.

“Despite all that, I really wanted to keep matches around and stick with a B-to-C business model,” he told us. “And it wasn’t just me—I think everyone at the company felt the same way. We always had matches around the house growing up. They were a part of life. I kept thinking that I wanted to make a product that seamlessly fit into the way people live every day.”

“Incense is difficult to light if it’s too hard, but if it’s not hard enough, you can’t light it like a match,” Sagayama explained. “It took us nearly three and a half years to develop a stick that had the flexibility of wood and would resolve these two conflicting issues.”

Creating a new market with added design value

The turning point came in 2009, when the company put its nostalgic rinpyo matchbox labels in an exhibition in an effort to get people to revisit the beauty of the matches that were once loved the world over. Art director Yasuhiro Horiuchi took one look at them and was hooked. He went to Sagayama and asked him if he could use the label designs to test-market T-shirts and other products.

The two men hit it off, and ended up launching a new brand called Match Design Factory, offering retro-styled match reproductions, T-shirts, and more.

“What struck me was the power of the designs,” Sagayama said. “We’d always approached our business from a manufacturer’s perspective, focusing on things like functionality, cost, and productivity. Once we added design to the mix, I knew that our product value had skyrocketed.”

A typical set of matches contains twelve boxes and sells for 250 yen, but people were willing to pay 650 yen for retro-styled reproductions containing just five boxes of essentially the same matches. The company’s products gained popularity in previously untapped market segments—including women and young people—and even gave rise to new demand as gift items. The results were a testament to the added value Kobe Match had created.

“Still, there is so little need to use matches these days that we couldn’t expect explosive sales. Our efforts also showed us that a match was still a match, and that the market wasn’t going to get any bigger than it was.”


Kobe Match began printing extra-soft T-shirts featuring reproductions of the rinpyo match label designs popular during the Meiji, Taisho, and Showa eras


Billed as a way to make aromatic experiences more pleasant, PURE+NA matches eliminate the distinctive pungent match odor that can hinder people’s enjoyment of lighting scented candles and incense.

Sagayama responded with a new idea. “I decided to let go of my attachment to matches and apply our match technology to something that was familiar to people all over the world,” he told us. His plan was to create a new market by crafting a different product that stayed true to the matchmaking tradition.

The idea for a stick of incense that could be lit like a match was the impetus for a collaborative development project with Daihatsu, an incense manufacturer located on Awaji Island. At the end of about three years of trial-and-error testing, the representatives of two traditional industries in Hyogo Prefecture came up with hibi 10 MINUTES AROMA, an incense stick with the head of a match. The world had never seen anything like it.

Creative experts worked with the project team to design a new way to enjoy incense

The idea of putting a match head on a stick of incense was nothing new. The Japanese people have a tradition of lighting bundles of incense when they visit family graves, and doing so outdoors can present a challenge. People have talked about wanting such a product forever.

“It’s likely that every match manufacturer in Japan has at least thought of the idea,” Sagayama said. “But there’s a big difference between thinking about it and actually moving ahead with product development. I also felt that there wouldn’t be any point in investing in development unless we went beyond a product that was simply convenient to one that offered a new experience in people’s lives—one that had never before been available on the market.”


It was also a challenge to get the fire to transition smoothly to the incense stick once it had been lit. “We added wax to the wood used in the match head,” Sagayama explained. “We wanted to add wax to the incense based on this same principle, but we really struggled to find the perfect balance.”


The hibi 10 MINUTES AROMA incense stick, which can be lit without a fire source (five scents). This is a world-first product in the process of getting patented (application no. 2013-175012). Available in five natural herbal scents: lemongrass, lavender, geranium, ylang-ylang, and tea tree). The scent diffuses along with the smoke for about ten minutes once the stick has been lit.

The hibi 10 MINUTES AROMA incense sticks are delightfully aromatic, and at the same time strong enough that they won’t break even when struck like a match. Scents were chosen to reflect the brand philosophy, while the name and packaging were developed to communicate a modern Japanese sensibility. The end result combines the technological advances of its joint manufacturers with a new way to enjoy incense designed by the project’s creative experts.

“I’ve spoken with a lot of other manufacturers, and from experience I can tell you that there is no way we could have done this from a manufacturing perspective alone,” Sagayama admitted. “Manufacturers are great at making things, but they don’t know how to present them. In developing hibi, we put people like designers, copywriters, gallery operators, and marketing specialists on our project team, and we worked together from the initial concept stage through developing the product story and figuring out how to sell it.”

Looking back now, Sagayama knows that it was the workshop-style approach of his diverse team that made hibi such a success. But he said he wasn’t necessarily open to the idea at first.

The product came out of a series of discussions with designers and other creative experts. “The situation was ideal,” Sagayama told us, “since everyone participating in the project had a love for matches and wanted to personally be involved in the creative process. I think they brought in ideas that were more valuable than what we paid in design costs.”

“Because they’re not tangible objects, manufacturers have a serious resistance to paying for things like designs and concepts,” he went on. “It’s hard to put a price on abstract things, or get your mind around their development costs.” Sagayama chuckled as he reminisced. “I couldn’t help thinking, is it really worth all that?”

Now, however, he talks about how critical it is for manufacturers to tap into the brainpower of talented designers and creative experts.

“Manufacturers tend to put clunky things on the market because they’re so wrapped up in functionality,” he explained. “[Creatives] have the discriminating eye takes to approach to the market from a different perspective. This is especially true now, since we’re living in a world where things won’t sell unless they grab people on an emotional level. You can make a great product, but people will never know how good it is if it doesn’t look attractive. That's why I believe it’s so important to make that upfront investment in design and concept work.”

Creative experts worked with the project team to design a new way to enjoy incense

The website communicates hibi’s attractive features with videos and images that evoke usage scenarios, while clearly communicating the product’s concept and story.

The developers of hibi 10 MINUTES AROMA also have a clear sales channel concept.

“We’d like to see these sold in boutiques that offer customers different ways of enjoying life,” Sagayama said. “In other words, it’s not a product that’s going to sell just because you put it on the shelf. We need retailers to tell the hibi story. People will start buying it once they can picture themselves integrating it into their everyday lives.”

The makers of hibi saw the point of sale as another critical choice for customers, so once the product was released in April, they went out to retailers they thought aligned with their brand image to negotiate with them individually. Once they had settled on a few sellers, they invited in the press and launched full-scale promotional initiatives. Even after that, they have never relied on wholesalers, instead preferring to maintain control of their own sales routes.

“As a manufacturer, we’d pretty much be happy selling anywhere,” Sagayama laughed, “but this is another area where having the product team manage brand presentation is really important. Once a brand takes a hit to its image, it’s very difficult to recover. We’re looking to build a solid fan base and increase our popularity—even if it takes awhile.”


Kobe Match purchased an incense stick-making machine after successfully applying for the monozukuri subsidy from the Small and Medium Enterprise Agency. The company is currently able to turn out about 20,000 sticks a month.


The hibi product is essentially made in the same way as a traditional match, but the company still built a new, dedicated workspace to achieve the humidity control so important in making incense.

Kobe Match’s new product is gaining plenty of attention overseas as well, and shipments have already gone out to Canada and Switzerland.

“We hope Rin crossing will serve as a promotional space for us,” Sagayama concluded. “We’re prioritizing advertising activities that support our branding efforts, but as a manufacturer, marketing is not something that we’re very good at—nor do we really have the budget for it. We’d be delighted, for example, if some sleek magazines would introduce our product as one of the items recognized by Rin crossing.”


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