When on a road trip or visiting your friends and family anywhere in Japan, across the length and breadth of Japan, you would find familiar stopovers. These rest houses called ‘Michi-No-Eki’ (roadside stations) are the ideal way to rest and recharge your travel batteries. Besides food, one will find a lot of souvenirs, local supplies as well as art and craft. With around 1,193 such stops across the country, each has something unique to offer. The rest stops owe their success to the ingenuity and business acumen of operators who have transformed the facilities into lively hubs that benefit visitors and local residents alike.
We stopped by one such station — Michi-No-Eki Dateno Sato Ryozen — in Fukushima Prefecture and very soon understood why these pop up stores are a huge hit among visitors. In total, Fukushima Prefecture has 34 Michi-No-Ekis until date across the terraneous region.
To begin with, these government-designated stations are full of ‘local flavour’. Right from food to souvenirs and produce, like all other rest stops, the Date No Sate Ryozen complements the true culture of Japanese way of life.
Explaining the concept, Miura Kodomo, station master, said that Michi-No-Ekis have been conceived with the idea of promoting local goods to visitors from other regions. Japan has a lot to offer regionally and this is what we are trying to tap into.
The floating bistro Michi-No-Eki Dateno Sato Ryozen is located adjacent to the Ryozen Interchange of the Soma-Fukushima Road (Reconstruction Support Road) on the Tohoku Chuo Expressway and Route 115, offers a variety of Date produce seasonally. The bistro is renowned for local chicken, peaches, strawberries, apples, cherries, pears, grapes. He explains: “The kitchen uses only farm produce for its hot food, bakeries, sweet shops and jams and jellies. There are also a few souvenirs that are unique to the station.”
Talking about the benefits of such a programme, Kodomo adds that the business cycle is sustainable. “We buy from local farmers for local production that saves a huge amount of cost of transportation. We also only sell goods available locally in Date. Our sole aim is to promote Date at Dateno Sato Ryozen.”
But can any rest house become a Michi-No-Eki? The answer is no.
Kodomo elaborates that to be designated as a Michi No Eki, the facility should first and foremost be under Ministry of Transportation; secondly, it needs to have proper toilet facilities; thirdly there should be direct marketing of local products; fourthly it should function as a rest stop; fifthly, it must serve as a tourist guide for visitors looking for information; and lastly but not the least, it must be functional as an emergency response station.
But apart from being just a community selling shop, the Michi No Eki also plays a huge role in bringing the local farms together with various planned activities and CSR support. “For example, in the month of June we have activities planned in the paddy fields where the children can get hands-on experience on cultivating the crop, in the month of July, we organise peach picking event that is attended by local farms. Besides these, we also have a regular get together with other Michi-No-Ekis across Japan to promote their goods whenever necessary.”
But how did the Michi-No-Eki weather the Covid-19 situation. Kodomo reveals that since the opening in 2018, the bistro has seen four million visitors in total, in 2020 the number being 1.2 million. “This is not a huge contrast when compared to 2019 when we saw 1.3 million visitors.”
But he also added that the pandemic has changed the way of operations of Michi-No-Ekis. At Dateno Sato Ryozen, digital selling was tapped and the stores benefitted largely with the selling of peaches, strawberries and honey online. He also said that the Fukushima Prefecture Michi-No-Ekis have been working hard on digital campaigns to overcome the impact of the damage caused by 311 (nuclear disaster).