Michi-no-eki (lit. “roadside station”) are government-designated facilities found throughout Japan with a rest stop, community space, and information center. Unlike typical rest stops, michi-no-eki serve as landmarks for the community attracting both locals and visitors. Over the years, michi-no-eki have transformed, with many now offering services such as farmers markets with local produce and regional foods, food courts, libraries, event spaces, amusement parks, and souvenir shops, all showcasing regional specialties.
History of Michi-no-Eki: An Idea Sparked by Rural Community Development
Urban migration has become a significant concern for many rural communities in Japan over the last few decades. To help combat this, station-like “community” hubs were created in rural areas and were modeled after stage stations called “shuku-eki” which provided a place for travelers to rest and replace horses while transporting goods in the olden days. Michi-no-eki were re-introduced with a new emphasis on community development and have thrived ever since. Yamaguchi, Gifu, and Tochigi prefectures were the first to participate in the original michi-no-eki prototype, gathering feedback from locals to solidify its function and purpose. In 1995, 103 michi-no-eki were registered following official guidelines to include a facility with 24-hour parking, 24-hour accessible restrooms, an information center, and community recreational spaces. Today, more than 1,193 michi-no-eki that are publicly-run by the community can be found in all 47 prefectures across Japan.
Michi-no-Eki: Farm to table
Michi-no-eki are also a great place to find and learn about local food and produce. They support a concept in Japan known as chisan-chisho (producing and consuming local food) by hosting farmers' markets and collaborating with local farmers and producers. Michi-no-eki Hagishimato of Yamaguchi prefecture, for example, collaborated with a local company to launch a new food product made of locally caught seafood, while Michi-no-Eki Uchiko Fresh Park Karari of Ehime prefecture discloses information to consumers about pesticides and fertilizers used to grow their fresh produce. An e-commerce site was recently launched showcasing more than twenty michi-no-eki farmers' markets, making regional food even more accessible.
Top Three Michi-no-Eki with Unique Food Experiences
Uzushio offers scenic views of the Onaruto suspension bridge, connecting Awaji Island and Shikoku, as well as the Naruto Straight whirlpools known as “uzushio” in Japanese. With over 800 local foods to choose from, the top specialty is the Awaji onion. These onions have a naturally high sugar content, making them delicious when eaten both raw or cooked. Some featured items include onion dressings, Awaji onion milk curry, onion butter spreads, a sweet deep-fried “karintou” snack made with onion chips, and a regional onion jam that has a distinct flavor stemming from its black pepper, ginger, and honey. This michi-no-eki is also famous for its 8mm-thick fried onion burger which was crowned one of Japan’s best burgers. They even offer onion-soup flavored ice cream that’s worth trying when visiting Uzushio!
Michi-no-Eki Hota Shougakkou
This former elementary school in Chiba prefecture is now a popular michi-no-eki. It maintains most of the original architectural structures and school amenities, with the former gymnasium having been converted into a farmers market; former classrooms into guest houses; and former hallways into a community “living room” for people to gather and host events. There are several dining options to choose from including a classroom-themed cafeteria called Satoyama Shokudou, which offers nostalgic Japanese school lunches, such as karaage (fried chicken), aji-fry (fried horse mackerel), and age-pan (fried bread), served on a typical Japanese school lunch tray with classroom utensils.
Michi-no-Eki Obaachan-ichi Yamaoka
This “grandmother (obaachan) market of Yamaoka” is located in Gifu prefecture, and is famous for its 24-meter diameter water wheel and friendly local grandmothers who greet visitors. The lunch menu rotates with the seasons and includes regional dishes such as miso dengaku (sweet miso spread on grilled tofu), sushi rice wrapped in hoba (magnolia leaves), and ramen noodles made from kanten (jelly-like product made from seaweed also known as agar).
A unique place to experience local foods and rural communities, michi-no-eki are always worth the stop when traveling through Japan!
About the author:
Born and raised in Japan, Mary Hirata McJilton is a graduate of the University of Minnesota. While earning her degree in Global Studies and a minor in Political Science, she worked at a Japanese restaurant, was actively involved in a Japanese student group that hosted Japanese food events, and interned at Slow Food Minnesota. These experiences nurtured her curiosity around food culture and sustainability. With characteristic serendipity, she spontaneously meets new people wherever life takes her, expanding her repertoire of original Mary-stories that she loves to share over meals. In her downtime, she enjoys cooking with herbs and vegetables that she grows herself on her cozy balcony, and refreshing the Italian she learned from a stint studying abroad.