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How a retro look made heat patches cool

Foreign tourists buy up Japan's Roihi-Tsuboko pain relief remedy

TOKYO -- In an age of high demand for cutting-edge medical technology, a range of Japanese heat patches has proved there is still a market for the traditional, and been so successful that even the manufacturer has been taken by surprise.

Sales of Nichiban's Roihi-Tsuboko pain relief patches have taken off in recent years, buoyed largely by demand from Chinese and South Koreans visiting Japan. They rose 85% on the year in just 12 months through March 2016. 

"I have no idea," said Miho Tsunashima, one of the product's marketers in Nichiban's medical division, when asked why the product had become so popular.

The brand, released in 1990, is a revival of a range of patches that first appeared in 1932 but were discontinued during the war. The box has a somewhat retro look, featuring a rather solemn looking portrait of the fictional Dr. Roihi, whose name is a play on the initials of the original ingredients.

Traditional-style packaging, it would appear, instills a sense of confidence among consumers.

The little round patches have a pungent smell and cause a tingling sensation on the skin. The active ingredient, nonylic acid amide, is similar to chili pepper and stimulates a heat effect that is said to improve circulation. The shape also means they are less likely to fall off than square patches.

Sales started gaining momentum in late 2014 as Chinese and South Korean tourists began buying up the product. In October that year, the Japanese government expanded the scope of products for which tax exemptions were applicable. 

Overall sales of Roihi-Tsuboko jumped 30% from the previous year in the April-September period of 2017. Total sales of the company's health care business, which includes adhesive tapes, were up 23% to 10.9 billion yen ($102 million) in fiscal 2015.

The patches are 2.8cm in diameter and their shape makes them less likely to peel off than square patches.

The challenge for the company now is to make the product just as popular with Japanese customers. "We do not want people to think that we are popular only among foreign visitors," said Tsunashima.

There are about 1,000 types of pain relief patches on sale in Japan, and Roihi-Tsuboko ranked among the top five products in the April-December period in terms of sales, according to Nichiban.

Word-of-mouth has been instrumental in winning over repeat customers. The product has been featured in blogs and other media showcasing Japanese souvenirs. Many users have created their own YouTube clips showing how to apply the patches and, until recently, the product has not needed a targeted advertising campaign.

This year, the company created a video ad for the first time and has been streaming it since mid-January. The six-second-long, four-frame animation "depicts retro view of the world," said Tsunashima.

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