The town of Kuroiso in Tochigi Prefecture’s mountainous Nasu highlands, with its retro streets and relaxed vibe, might seem an unlikely candidate for one of the country’s top coffee culture destinations.

But the area has in fact been termed “sacred ground for cafe lovers,” thanks to Shozo Kikuchi — a man whom coffee aficionados have lauded as a quasi-god since his 1988 flagship cafe touched off a trend of stylish local development.

Kikuchi, who was born into a Kuroiso farming family in 1960, found his calling after navigating his way through a series of existential crises and synchronicities. His childhood fascination with the ocean had led him toward a stint in the Maritime Self-Defense Force, but he found afterward that he was still no closer to understanding his life’s purpose. Setting out in his early 20s to explore the country by motorcycle, he realized that one thing did ignite an unmistakable sense of joie de vivre inside of him: drinking coffee in atmospheric settings.