Respect or Taboo? Designing products with Sacred Traditions and Culture

Oftentimes, analog products are made by analog designers, and digital products are made by digital designers – design is usually treated as two halves. In recent years though, the way we perceive design has changed, and with “experience design” becoming more mainstream, the distinction between the two has gotten more ambiguous.

In 2021, a product called “COBITSU” appeared on a crowdfunding site. It’s a container made out of hinoki (cypress wood) that you can use to freeze rice. Another product that just came out this year is “Ouchi Noh”, which lets you enjoy traditional noh theater performance in the comfort of home. The person responsible for the design of these analog products is Hideya Minamiji, a UI/UX designer active in the digital industry. We sat down with Hideya to learn about the differences between digital and analog approaches to product design and what his reaction has been to working in both areas.

COBITSU and Ouchi Noh, two crowdfunded products developed as a side business by a digital designer

──Please tell us a bit about yourself.

Hideya: My name is Hideya Minamiji. I work at GROOVE X, a startup developing the LOVOT robot for household use. My main work involves UI/UX design for smartphone apps that pair with LOVOT.

After graduating from the Department of Precision Engineering at the University of Tokyo, I studied object design in the Department of Industrial, Interior, and Craft Design at Musashino Art University Graduate School, and got a job at the Toshiba Design Center. As a new graduate, I was assigned to the newly-created UX department, and focused on product design for remote control apps used with TVs and wearable devices. I did everything from basic UI design to handling relationships with the wider social infrastructure. I then drew on that experience when joining GROOVE X.

Meanwhile, I decided to crowdfund COBITSU and Ouchi Noh on the side.

──Tell us more about these two projects. What is COBITSU, exactly?

Hideya: COBITSU is a traditional Japanese “masu” vessel made out of hinoki wood, but it’s more than a container: you can also use it to freeze cooked rice. When it’s time to eat the rice, you just heat the whole container in the microwave, and the hinoki regulates the moisture to make the rice taste like it was freshly cooked. Plus, it comes out with the faint aroma of hinoki wood. It is designed so that the container can be served directly on the dining table or used as a bento box. This product lets you enjoy freshly cooked rice and a certain sense of luxury even if you’re busy.

I was lucky enough to have COBITSU featured in various media, and we sold over 13,000 units.

*for detailed design process by Hideya, see here (in Japanese)

──How does Ouchi Noh work?

Hideya: Ouchi Noh is a service we created that offers a set package: a wooden “masu” vessel to enjoy Japanese sake in, and streaming video featuring noh plays. The goal is for users to enjoy noh in the relaxing comfort of home. The masu is a custom-made one with a pattern on the inside that is taken from the pine trees shown on stage in noh theater.

We don’t just stream noh videos, but designed various aspects of the service to make it casual and accessible to newcomers. Firstly, we stream video content of “Yanoh theater”, a style devised by the Hosho Style of noh play. It begins by a famous voice actor Shotaro Morikubo reading the story in a translation into modern-day language, and then the play begins. This lets the viewer understand who the characters are and what the plot is. Being able to slightly grasp what they are saying lets even newcomers to the art form better understand which character is speaking what lines.

One of the unique aspects of noh theater is experiencing the venues where it is performed. Seeking to bring the viewer a bit closer to that, we give them this hinoki box which features the noh stage motif, and should bring them more in touch with the aesthetic. It’s made out of the same cypress as real noh stages are, so you can slip out of the everyday and get in touch with noh using your five senses, as though you’re actually there. We hope people will relax and unwind through the unique elegance and refinement of noh and this hinoki container.

Ouchi Noh: crowdfunding page

Ouchi Noh: inspired by the experience of dozing off during performances

──You tend to work in the digital design space. What made you choose to develop an analog product?

Hideya: Even as a student, I had always wanted to try my hand at analog design, but I hadn’t really had a chance to do it. A friend from my college days let me know about the AICHI DESIGN VISION project, thinking it would give me that chance. It’s a project where companies manufacturing items in the Chubu region team up with designers to develop new products, and my friend worked as an advisor and put me in touch with them. So we partnered with Ohashi Ryoki, a company which makes and sells masu containers. It was my first time designing a tangible product, but since they are also involved in BtoC sales, it gave me the idea to partner up. Our first collaboration was COBITSU.

Ouchi Noh started when I introduced COBITSU to the head of the Hosho Style, and asked about how their industry was doing under COVID-19. In fact, he was one of the first to incorporate innovative techniques like streaming noh, but mentioned that they were still struggling to get more viewers. I thought to myself, “It would be amazing if we could watch noh at home while having a drink, then…” I had just been working with Ohashi Ryoki, so I thought they could make us a masu container for that purpose. So I said, “Wouldn’t it be chic to leisurely watch noh at home while drinking sake out of a masu?” That led to them joining us as the third member of the project.

──Did you always have an interest in traditional Japanese culture and noh theater?

Hideya: I did a job involving noh when I was in my 20s, and they invited me to see it myself for the first time. I thought it was the kind of place you had to prepare yourself to go to, but to my embarrassment, I fell asleep partway through. When I admitted this, they told me, “In fact, they say that noh produces alpha waves, which induces a state of relaxation. It’s natural that you’d get sleepy.” It really changed my outlook: it’s a form of accessible Japanese entertainment.

So my idea for the project focused on this aspect of “healing.” This project is sort of an experiment to see what noh has to offer as a relaxation tool. To put it frankly, the idea was to make a kind of noh “you’re encouraged to fall asleep to.” After all, you’re watching at home, so you can go about it how you please, right? The more you watch it, the more you start to understand, and how you interpret it changes. At different points in my life, such as getting married and becoming a father, what I’ve gotten out of noh has changed. I think that’s one of the interesting things about the art form – that your experience of it changes.

──Hearing that it’s okay to fall asleep to the performance suddenly makes it seem a lot more approachable. Did you have some differences of opinion with the head of the school and the performers as to how casual it could be?

Hideya: They were enthusiastic about finding ways to bring noh to a younger audience, so it made collaborating easy. What they had to say intrigued me: they explained some of the plays in a modern way. For example, they described the play Tsuchigumo as being like The Exorcist. They were really open to trying new things and welcomed the idea.

What a scrum based approach to craftsmanship led to

──As someone who chiefly works in digital design, what differences did you find in working with analog products? Any new discoveries? Anything you struggled with?

Hideya: One thing I struggled with was the concept of fragrance. With digital, we generally have an understanding of what we can and can’t do in that manmade, virtual environment. There are certain parameters. So no matter what you do, you still stay within those confines. But with analog, there were some points of concern: right up until the very end, we had no exact idea of how well we could control the scent of the hinoki wood. We had done a lot of testing and found what we could compromise on with COBITSU, but I guess it’s only natural that this analog component would trip us up.

Experimenting with a microwave

Another challenge was estimating costs. We had some general assumptions about what sort of people would buy the product at a certain price point, but we were shockingly wrong. Much of the product is handmade, so it was sort of out of our control, cost-wise, as to how much we could or could not permit the artisans to do more handmade work. 

──My impression of artisans is that they take on projects off the cuff and just delve into it. Their interpretation of man-hours is different from the way it works with digital products.

Hideya: With the scrum framework, the costs and quality are fixed, and you adjust the scope. With analog, it’s the reverse: the scope and quality are fixed, and that doesn’t change. That means the only variable is the cost. So in that sense, we used crowdfunding for test marketing, to get a sense of whether consumers would accept the product at that price. We just had no idea to what extent it would sell.

Creating masu vessels by hand entails numerous steps, making it truly an artisan process

──Was there any area in particular where you used your UX design skills and knowledge?

Hideya: All I know is digital, so from my point of view, I was just trying to apply the scrum framework. Generally speaking, it was the same as digital: look ahead to the final goal, identify the issues leading up to that point, do them in order of highest priority, and iterate on it while correcting your trajectory.

We didn’t know who our user base was, exactly, so for the time being, I asked a few people I knew to act as imaginary users and try it out, and tried to reflect their feedback as much as possible in the product.

From a user testing standpoint, one of the biggest things was having them actually eat the rice. I originally had two ideas: one was sort of creating a tub to freeze rice in, while the other was an inexpensive disposable wooden container with rice in it that you could heat up in the microwave. I figured a wooden container would be more eco-friendly than plastic. I was pretty serious about it, even doing testing of burning the wood into charcoal to see how it would decompose.

But stepping back and thinking about it, we learned from user testing that people who don’t cook their own rice don’t prepare side dishes in the first place. So we thought we would be better off targeting people who do prepare their own rice, and we focused on a reusable container.

Designing one’s own way, whether digital or analog

──I’m sure that developing a physical product involved a lot of new challenges for you. What did you learn most from this?

Hideya: One takeaway for me was that ultimately, people designing for digital are still designers. A designer can try their hand at anything. So I think we’d see some really interesting stuff if people moved beyond the confines of digital and thought of themselves as general designers, trying to make products, too. People will probably encounter some difficulties there, and ways that digital doesn’t apply. But my impression was that a fair bit of ideas from digital do carry over. Commit to going beyond the screen and creating real-world experiences for people. If you go beyond the confines of one domain, it’ll make things more interesting.

UX and UI design tends to get stuck within the computer screen, and we don’t look around us. Taking a wider look at people and what the people around them are doing will naturally expand your outlook.

──So you gave analog development a try, and it surprisingly worked. I have this impression that digital designers tend to sort of avoid the analog space.

Hideya: That’s right. I think it’s because a lot of people have this complex about being unable to draw. Product designers sketch up finished blueprints by hand and then make their products. But in my case, I just jump right to CAD tools (laughs). I went to art school, but it was at the graduate level, so I don’t have any fundamentals in drawing, even to this day.

You know how they say that “Discretion is the better part of valor?” I’m sort of proud to say that I’ve gotten this far despite avoiding drawing all this time. In this day and age, even if your drawing abilities are terrible, with the right tools, you can design how you like. After all, there’s no “right way” in design. It’s enough to do it in whatever way is easiest for you. You could even go about it in Sketch or Figma.

A model of COBITSU

I think the world will become an even more exciting place if people who are committed to making people happier through digital UX thinking commit to making new things, whether they are digital or analog.

──Did anything not go as planned?

Hideya: If anything, both projects had setbacks after they launched.

With COBITSU, things ramped up much faster than expected, and it had sold out by around the second day, so we were going to lose our momentum. Originally, we were going to scale up production gradually over several batches, but the crowdfunding site had restrictions that didn’t let us.

So we then decided to ramp up production to accommodate the sudden demand. The people at the manufacturing plant moved forward quickly, and we got our inventory back up, so things turned out well in the end – but we were on tenterhooks.

In my main line of work, I’ve never had to think about “inventory,” so I didn’t have a good handle on production volume. This was definitely one of the challenges of dealing with a real product. I guess it sort of resembles how, with web services, you add more servers to scale.

──Any incidents with Ouchi Noh?

Hideya: Ouchi Noh was difficult to pitch, from a branding and marketing perspective. Noh is already a complex subject, so I wanted to be straightforward about it. But I think we still overcomplicated it. I had gotten some feedback from people partway through, and had tried to understand and incorporate it. What I enjoyed was that process of trial and error, such as changing the main visuals and approaching the media to make the product more attractive after it launched.

We’ve just gotten the basic lineup in place now, so we plan to build it up going forward. We’ve only done crowdfunding so far, so I think refining it in another direction, such as pitching it overseas, would be totally viable.

Respecting tradition while turning it on its head

──Did you find any challenges in working with traditional culture?

Hideya: I was worried there might be negative feedback leading up to the release, but surprisingly, things went quite smoothly and I didn’t get flamed about it online. I was kind of concerned people would hate on me for using a stage motif on the box…”How dare you pour booze in something resembling a sacred stage!” But we avoided that by describing it as something “inspired by” stage motifs.

Hinoki “stage box”

I had a chance to stand on the actual stage of noh, while filming the promotional video. I was amazed to hear that just the floorboards on the stage cost several hundreds of millions of yen. You can’t walk on them wearing normal socks or bare feet, so you have to wear Japanese tabi socks. You can’t use tripods directly on the stage, either, so you have to roll out a felt cloth. Cypress is a soft wood, so it’s treated with extreme care. In that sense, I think it contributes to making the experience feel sacred and important.

──So you don’t really know what lines you can’t cross without knowing the context.

Hideya: Surprisingly, I found it very fun to explore just where that line was. I don’t really like reading or researching to get answers, so I managed to explore the topic through communication. I tend to prefer learning by making mistakes.

That’s how COBITSU came about, in fact. In general, people know they shouldn’t put wooden products in a microwave oven. I wanted to flip this around and try doing something you’re not supposed to do. To my surprise, it worked quite well, so it was a viable product.

When you have knowledge about something, it can turn into a bias that causes you to avoid certain approaches. That’s why, when trying something new, I think you should deliberately try to make mistakes, to the extent they aren’t lethal to your project.

――Thanks for your time today, Hideya!

Special Thanks

COBITSU : https://www.makuake.com/project/cobitsu/

Ouchi Noh : https://www.makuake.com/project/ouchi_nou/

Hideya’s blog (in Japanese) : https://note.com/minajimi

Ohashi Ryoki:http://www.ohashiryoki.com/

Noh LIFE Online:https://nohlife.myshopify.com/

Hosho Style:http://www.hosho.or.jp/

Written By

Ryo Sampei

Ryo is Editor-in-Chief of Spectrum Tokyo. He works as a Producer and Content Strategist at Flying Penguins Inc., a UX design firm in Tokyo, Japan. He is also in charge of Design Matters Tokyo, a pop-up design conference from Copenhagen, Denmark. He loves video games and punk rock, both from the 90s.

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