KAWABA, GUNMA PREF. – This isn’t your modest highway truck stop with parking, public toilets, a few vending machines and a kiosk.
Occupying 5 hectares of land by Route 64, a road that makes its way through the scenic hills and pastures gracing the mountains of northern Gunma Prefecture, Kawaba Denen Plaza boasts a lively farmers market selling fresh local produce and high-end yogurt and cheese.
That’s not all: There’s a soba restaurant on the compound, as well as a bakery, pizza house, ramen shop, craft beer factory and a meat processing plant selling sausages, bacon and ham. For those interested in ceramics, there’s a studio offering pottery classes, while visitors can pick blueberries for free during summer.
And with a hotel offering rooms and a hot spring for tired travelers looking to spend the night or freshen up, the facility is more akin to a resort or shopping mall than a roadside pit stop.
“You won’t find characters or rides, but I consider our place to be a rural Disneyland where visitors can have fun all day long,” says Shoichi Nagai, chief executive of the company that operates one of the nation’s most popular michi no eki (roadside stations).
Located in the village of Kawaba, Kawaba Denen Plaza is among the 1,160 michi no eki that have sprung up across Japan since the first ones opened their doors in 1993. While the quiet village known for producing Koshihikari-brand rice and apples and grapes is home to a little under 3,300 residents, the venue welcomes approximately 1.9 million visitors annually, logging sales of around ¥2 billion and supplying locals with much-needed jobs.
Initially conceived as government-certified facilities providing travelers 24-hour parking and restrooms with retail space to sell goods and services, michi no eki have evolved into tourist draws that offer important economic opportunities for rural communities suffering from graying and shrinking populations.
“Most of our farmers are quite old. Before we opened, they would grow fruit and vegetables for themselves or to give to their children and relatives,” says Akihito Kobayashi, an employee at Kawaba Denen Plaza since the facility opened in 1998. “Now they can sell their produce at our farmers market to earn some extra cash.”
Distinct business model
The concept behind michi no eki originated back in 1990 during a symposium on community planning held in Hiroshima Prefecture, according to Hideki Takebayashi, an official at the transport ministry.
“One of the attendees suggested there should be roadside rest stops equipped with toilets, as they do in railway stations, which led to further discussions between both private and public representatives,” Takebayashi says.
In 1991, 12 michi no eki were opened as experiments in Gifu, Tochigi and Yamaguchi prefectures and, in 1993, 103 nationwide were officially registered with the government. Since then, their numbers have grown each year, exceeding the 1,000 mark in 2013.
The criteria for registration are quite simple, Takebayashi says.
“Applications are submitted by heads of municipalities, while the facilities need to be barrier-free and provide 24-hour parking and toilets, as well as resting areas with information on road conditions,” he says. “We also ask them to promote regional products and tourist spots.”
The distinct business model caught the attention of the World Bank, which released a report in 2004 praising the national phenomenon for its potential in tackling poverty in developing nations.
In the report, the international lender said michi no eki were a uniquely Japanese concept different from other road-side services around the world.
“They are designed with the help of the communities and provide much stronger links between local communities and the users of the roads,” the report said, explaining that the facilities provide business opportunities for locals, while serving the public by offering health care services and cultural activities.
“Given their unique structure, they have great potential as a tool for reducing poverty in many of the countries where the World Bank is working,” the report said. “All too often inner-city roads effectively bypass the communities through which they pass without directly benefiting them.”
With 1 in 5 Japanese aged 70 years or older, providing adequate care, employment and motivation for the growing ranks of elderly are matters of national concern. Some of these demographic challenges are addressed by michi no eki.
At Ryokami Onsen Yakushi no Yu in the mountainous town of Ogano, Saitama Prefecture, for example, locals and visitors alike unwind and socialize in a natural hot spring, while the rest area houses an adult day care center for the town’s elderly.
At Grand Mother Market in Yamaoka in Ena, Gifu Prefecture, elderly women are hired to cook meals and serve customers at its restaurant, while vegetables and other food products sold in its market are grown by farmers whose average age is 75.
The regional goods offered at michi no eki are another draw and a source of pride for producers, says Yukikatsu Moriya, editor-in-chief of an annual guide to the nation’s michi no eki published by Zenrin Co., the leading provider of map data.
Take the Grand Mother Market in Yamaoka, which sells kanten jelly derived from tengusa, a type of red seaweed that is a local specialty. “However, drive over to the next michi no eki in the prefecture and you won’t find them selling kanten — the products sold in michi no eki are very area-specific to help preserve local traditions.”
Oysters are the primary attraction at Akkeshi Gourmet Park in Akkeshi, a seaside town in eastern Hokkaido. The facility houses an oyster bar and oyster cafe, as well as a barbecue corner where visitors can charbroil fresh oysters and other seafood they buy at the market.
At Marine Dream Nou in the city of Itoigawa, Niigata Prefecture, piles of bright red snow crabs caught fresh in the waters off the city can be bought from nine different local vendors and cooked on site.
Moriya has visited 1,098 michi no eki so far, both for work and during private family outings. Last spring, he took his wife and teenage son on a week-long tour of Hokkaido in a campervan, stopping at around 40 michi no eki and spending nights in the parking lots.
“Back in the earlier years, many michi no eki were quite minimal, featuring small buildings with adjacent parking spaces and toilets. In recent years, however, they have expanded significantly to encompass various new features,” he says, a trend that can also be observed in expressway service areas operated by highway companies.
During his tour of Hokkaido, Moriya planned his journey so his family could take a dip in a michi no eki hot spring before calling it a night. After dinner, he would retreat to his campervan to sample local brews sold in the markets, one of the many appeals of michi no eki-hopping.
Stamp of approval
In fact, michi no eki have become destinations in themselves, with avid fans touring across Japan to collect commemorative stamps at the rest stops, taking part in stamp rallies hosted by the All Nippon Michi no Eki Network, an organization divided into nine regional blocks.
Yuichi Asai, a travel writer who has published books on michi no eki, says those who have gathered stamps from all the michi no eki in a region can receive a printed proof of completion and a sticker. Collect all nine of them, and a special certificate is issued, he says, a rare distinction awarded to only 32 people in 2018.
Asai, who used to work for Auto Camper, a magazine dedicated to mobile homes, decided to accomplish the feat in 2014 after the number of michi no eki surpassed 1,000.
“Judging from letters we received from readers, I could tell that michi no eki were trending among travelers,” Asai says.
He subsequently quit the magazine and borrowed a campervan, spending weeks and even months at a time on the road as he toured across the nation. It took him 27 months to visit all 1,059 michi no eki that existed at the time, he says.
“There are many smaller islands in Japan with michi no eki, and you need to catch a ferry to reach them,” he says, recalling his trip to Amami Oshima Island in Kagoshima Prefecture and Sado Island in Niigata. “But that extra effort really enhances the feeling that you’ve traveled far.”
And with some housing libraries and museums or offering sports activities including golf, tennis and even horseback riding, the michi no eki business model is becoming increasingly diversified, Asai says.
The economic impact of these venues has also been expanding, with the transport ministry estimating the total number of paying customers at 240 million in 2015, translating to annual sales of around ¥250 billion that year.
The phenomenon didn’t go unnoticed by the hospitality industry.
Seizing on the roadside rest stations’ potential as a tourist draw, American hotel giant Marriott International announced in November 2018 that it plans to open 15 Fairfield by Marriott low-cost chain of hotels with Japanese real estate developer Sekisui House by 2021.
The properties are all expected to be constructed near michi no eki, which “provide convenient services for travelers, including locally inspired dining venues, farm-fresh produce and traditional handicrafts,” the hotel chain operator said in a statement.
That convenience, however, has been an occasional source of friction.
There are those who take advantage of the free 24-hour-parking and restrooms michi no eki provide, says Tsuyoshi Kondo, one of the managers at Hachioji Takiyama, the sole michi no eki in Tokyo.
“Some folks urinate or start campfires in the parking lot,” he says. “Some basically live here, parking and spending the night in their cars for days. Since our michi no eki is close to the city, some people drop their cars off in the morning before taking a bus to Hachioji Station to commute to work.”
Hachioji Takiyama, located in the northeastern corner of Hachioji, a city in western Tokyo, opened in 2007 as Tokyo’s first, and so far only, michi no eki. While there are 145 michi no eki registered in the Kanto region, Kondo says Tokyo’s wealth of retail outlets and vast train and subway networks may be hindering their expansion in the capital.
Despite some hiccups involving parking manners, Hachioji Takiyama was bustling with visitors during a recent visit, with customers queuing up to buy fresh vegetable and dairy products made in the region. A gelato shop, cafe, restaurant serving local specialties and a deli operated by farmers’ wives occupied the food court, while flowers, plants and other gardening goods were displayed near the entrance.
“We strive to provide a range of everyday goods so shoppers won’t have to make another stop at a supermarket,” Kondo says. “I would say 80 percent of our customers are locals, with 60 to 70 percent of them being repeat customers.”
Change of mindset
Not all michi no eki are successful, and strong business acumen is necessary for some to remain competitive.
When Nagai, who heads Denen Plaza Kawaba — the name of the company that operates Kawaba Denen Plaza — assumed leadership of the michi no eki in 2007, it was deep in the red.
The son of a local sake maker, Nagai joined his father’s century-old business after graduating university in Tokyo and studying and working for a year in Canada and the United States. He eventually took over Nagai Sake Inc., introducing the Mizubasho brand of premium sake that became a nationwide hit.
Meanwhile, Kawabe Denen Plaza was struggling to rake in profits despite the growing number of visitors. A major restructuring was necessary for it to stay afloat, prompting the village, which owns the property, to seek Nagai’s guidance.
“I began by changing the mindset of our employees,” says the stout 56-year-old. “The public and private nature of the institution led to a lack of a sense of crisis among workers, and I had to remind them that this is a business and that they could lose their jobs unless we do something.”
Nagai started by renovating the interiors of the venues and sifting through the products they offered, deciding on what to keep and what to let go.
He sent his staff on a tour of Tokyo’s best soba restaurants for them to learn and enhance the quality of the buckwheat noodles the michi no eki offers. He ordered the bakery to produce its own dough rather than relying on frozen imports, and halted production of traditional oyaki dumplings despite their popularity after hearing a customer say it filled her up, indicating that she wouldn’t be able to sample the other products sold at the facility.
“In terms of dairy products, we used to offer yogurt, drinkable yogurt, milk and ice cream, but some of our equipment was getting old. I decided to ditch the production of milk and ice cream and focus on making premium yogurt,” he says, a product line that now logs annual sales of around ¥180 million.
Last year, Kawaba Denen Plaza opened a cheese factory, crafting four types of fresh Italian cow milk cheese, including ricotta and mozzarella. Nagai says he knows there is demand for quality, high-end products based on the luxury automobiles parked in the michi no eki during weekends, adding that he’s looking at expanding total sales of the institution to ¥2.5 billion to ¥3 billion over the next four to five years.
Kawaba Denen Plaza is now consistently ranked high on lists of the nation’s most popular michi no eki, and Nagai is frequently asked to offer advice to other municipalities interested in replicating his success.
“It’s not easy,” he says. “It requires a combination of good location, a unified concept and investing in employee training. But if Kawaba can do it, I’m sure others can.”