Roadside Stations

  • Peter Barakan

    Host

    Born in London in 1951, Peter earned a degree in Japanese from the University of London's School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS). An expert on diverse forms of popular music, Peter is also a well-known TV and radio presenter. He has lived in Japan for 40 years and has a deep understanding of the language and culture.

  • Matt Alt

    Reporter

    Born in Washington D.C. in 1973, Matt's interest in Japan was kindled by robot toys in his childhood. He worked as a translator for the U.S. Patent and Trademark Office before co-founding a company that produces English versions of Japanese comics and video games. He also writes extensively about cultural trends including yokai, ninja, emoji, and more.

  • Yasushi Shinohara

    Main guest

    Yasushi Shinohara is an associate professor of tourism and community studies at Atomi University, where he teaches about regional development and tourism. He also gives advice on how to capitalize on the untapped potential of regional sightseeing opportunities in cities, towns, and villages across Japan. Additionally, Shinohara conducts research on the effect tourism has on regional development. He is a roadside station research specialist and has published books related to tourism and the travel industry.

close

July 31, 2018

Roadside Stations

*You will leave the NHK website.

When people from many countries imagine a regional roadside pit stop, what comes to mind might be the bare essentials: gasoline, a few toilets, and maybe a convenience store. But Japan's regional pit stops, which are known as "roadside stations," are multi-faceted centers of community life with farmers' markets, unique family-friendly activities and more. Why are Japan's roadside stations a cut above, and what do some of the country's most outstanding stations have to offer? That's the theme of this edition of Japanology Plus.

roadside_stations_farmers_markets.jpg

Farmers' markets are a staple of Japan's roadside stations.

As expert guest Yasushi Shinohara explains to host Peter Barakan, roadside stations, or "michi no eki" in Japanese, appeared in 1993 by government initiative. Rural areas were hit hard by the collapse of Japan's so-called bubble economy, and the government wanted to encourage people to get off expressways and into local towns and regions.

As of July 2018, there are 1,145 roadside stations. The roadside station project officially kicked off on April 22, 1993 with 103 locations, but before this official launch, 12 stations were established in 1991 to test the waters. Some of these test stations later became official roadside stations, including one in Abucho, Yamaguchi Prefecture. This long-standing roadside station faces the Sea of Japan and is known for its hot spring, not to mention events like a festival celebrating Japanese pears, a Yamaguchi specialty. This is an example of how roadside stations reflect their local areas.

roadside_stations_climbing_wall.jpg

This climbing wall is at a roadside station in Minakami, Gunma Prefecture, which is known for rock-climbing spot Mt. Tanigawa.

roadside_stations_aso.jpg

Expert guest Yasushi Shinohara and host Peter Barakan visit a roadside station in Aso, Kumamoto Prefecture.

Another example of a unique roadside station is the one in Inakadate, Aomori Prefecture, which was rated the country's best in 2015. It achieved this distinction thanks to its rice fields, in which rice of various colors is planted in specific patterns to create giant works of art. Some rice field art portrays traditional Japanese themes like samurai and Mt. Fuji. But in 2015, Inakadate gave its fields a modern twist with characters from a certain sci-fi series set in a galaxy far, far away.

Speaking of traditional Japan: the regional roadside station project may have gotten its start in 1993, but the country has a long history of roadside pit stops. Perhaps the most famous of those stops are the post stations along the Tokaido, a highway that linked Kyoto to Tokyo (then known as Edo) in the Edo period. There were 53 stations along this road for travelers (traveling on foot or horse, not by car, of course) to rest, lodge and dine. These stations are still well remembered in part thanks to a series of ukiyo-e woodblock prints by Utagawa Hiroshige. The series depicts each location with its own unique atmosphere and style. This author, at least, can't help but see a connection between these ancient stations and those of the present day.

roadside_stations_aquarium.jpg

There were no aquariums on the old Tokaido, but this one can be found at a contemporary roadside station, the Minakami facility mentioned above.

The world has taken note of the success of Japan's roadside stations. The idea, with the aid of the Japanese government, has spread to several other countries, including Thailand, Indonesia and Vietnam. In addition, personnel from NPOs and other organizations in Central and South America have studied Japanese roadside station know-how from the Japanese government, and there have even been proposals to try the idea in places like the UK. Some of these international projects use the original Japanese phrase michi no eki (sometimes spelled michinoeki), spreading a new bit of Japanese vocabulary throughout the world.

But whatever you call them, the concept—providing travelers with not just an anonymous pit stop, but a place where they can get in touch with the unique aspects of an area—seems to resonate both in Japan and abroad. And roadside stations aren't just for travelers: in many cases, they're a place for local residents to gather too.

roadside_stations_regional_residents.jpg

Roadside stations offer a setting for regional residents to shop, socialize and play.

*You will leave the NHK website.