While living in London for more than five years, I had always thought of fleeing that urban metropolis. Living in a small city has its charms: a close and relaxed community, slower pace of life, lots of nature and noticeably more passion-driven businesses dotted across the town. Coffee owners are still the ones behind the counter, farmers directly sell their fresh produce on a day-to-day basis and the local artist community gathers to share thoughts and inspiration instead of considering each other as rivals.
So, when I moved to Japan, I knew that I’ll be downsizing, and while Tokyo is an exciting and tempting metropolis, I wanted my base to be a small city with easy access to airports and main hubs. While doing extensive research, I came across a number of Japan’s small towns and retreats that are as good for one-day trips from Tokyo as they are for settling in.
Young people, mostly Tokyo expats who come in search of work and life balance, are the driving force for this movement. The design-conscious crowd are keen on building their own city – and the success has become evident with the local government’s support and the increased number of newcomers.
One of my favourite finds is a small town in Tochigi prefecture – Kuroiso. It is connected to Tokyo via local Tokaido/Utsunomiya line (takes about 3 hours) or it can be easily reached via Tohoku Hokkaido Shinkansen in 1,5 hours (change at Nasushiobara). Even some Tokyo neighbourhoods would be the envy of this compact town which is brimming with young energy, coffee shops, top-notch bakeries, concept stores offering a wide selection of local and international fashion items, antique stores and design-minded community.
You might have come across Butter no Itoko succulent waffles in Tokyo or elsewhere that are usually sold out in their pop-ups as soon as they’re open; this Kuroiso-based business is one of the best examples of this area’s potential. I travelled to this town a couple of times, befriended some residents and shop owners and even seriously thought of moving there (affordable house prices are also a big plus). If you happen to hop on the train towards north, this secluded town should definitely be on your radar (before the tourist crowd flocks here).
The whole action happens on the east side of the station, so don’t waste your time wandering on the other side. A recent east-side station’s makeover saw newly built bus stops decorated with wooden curves and improved infrastructure with wider roads and parking lots. A very much anticipated opening of Nasuhiobara library in front of the station (opened in September, 2020) is set to become the hub for the local community. It houses a “magazine street”, a library, a café and green patches for locals to mingle – all dreamed up by local architect studio UAo.
Chus Guesthouse – Just 10 minutes on foot from Kuroiso station, Chus makes sure that this small town is always brimming with energy. It invites tourists and locals to mingle by hosting various events and live concerts. Famous chefs from Tokyo come to Chus to host special dinners (and breakfasts) giving visitors an excuse to stay here overnight in one of their rooms (or beds if you go for more affordable dormitory option) upstairs. Focal Chus’s point, Marche, shows the team’s commitment to the community. Small vegetable and dairy farmers, wine and sake producers take centre stage here along famous Japanese design products, such as Hasami porcelain cups or Leaf&Botanics ginger soaps.
Note: Chus is pronounced as “Chaus” – I’ve been corrected so many times and I think I’m not the only one that got its name wrong.
CHUS 6-3 Takasagocho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0045 Open (Marche): 8:00〜21:00 (Closed every second Thursday) https://chus-nasu.com/
Itamuro Onsen Daikokuya – This hotel comprises three buildings and each of them offers different views (enjoy the view of the garden designed by renowned artist Kishio Suga from Take rooms). Three types of onsen baths are open throughout the day and night so you can expect to have them all to yourself after midnight. Aside from onsen, Daikokuya attracts art lovers for its rolling programme of exhibitions. If you book a morning art tour, the hotel’s owner himself will guide you to the Kishio Suga’s gallery and explain what makes the contemporary art piece good and valuable.
ITAMURO ONSEN DAIKOKUYA 856 Itamuro, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0111 Check-in: 14:00-17:00; check out: 10:30 www.itamuro-daikokuya.com/en/
Kanel Bread – Consider yourself lucky if there’s no queue when you arrive. The bakery is popular with locals, especially on weekends, for its croissants, anko butter sandwiches and sourdough loaves. They frequently collaborate with local producers, kneading dough that go perfectly with Kotje‘s chocolate or Ima Farm cheeses. The shop also offers a great selection of wine.
Kanel Bread 5-2 Honcho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0056 Open: 8:00-18:00 (Closed on Tuesdays) https://kanelbread.jp/
Butter no Itoko – Launched in 2018, the humble waffle filled with milk jam has already become the most sought after souvenir from Nasu. The idea was born out of the need to make a good use of skim milk, a very low value by-product of making butter. The original shop has now expanded with a café, serving Onibus coffee, doughnuts and, of course, succulent waffles.
BUTTER NO ITOKO / バターのいとこ 2905 Takakuotsu, Nasu, Tochigi 325-0303 Open: 10:00-16:00 (Closed on 2nd Thursday of the month) www.butternoitoko.com
Kotje Le Chocolat – After learning about chocolate making in Belgium, the couple behind the Kotje decided to open a bean-to-bar shop in a hut surrounded by meadows. Despite its off-the-beaten-track location, the shop is never short of customers. Owners roast carefully selected cocoa beans from Dak Lak, Vietnam, and match it with seasonal and unexpected flavours, such as tomato basil or jasmine tea and bee pollen.
KOTJE LE CHOCOLAT 139-18 Aoki, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0103 Open: 11:00-17:00 (Closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays) www.kotje-nasu.jp/
Rakuda – Another serious bread affair in Kuroiso. They serve one of the best cinnamon rolls from its tiny take-out window.
Rakuda 2-11 Honcho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0056 Open: 13:00-17:00 (Days change monthly, check their SNS) https://www.facebook.com/rakuda.pan/
Chus / Table – The hottest spot in town is now open for breakfast to locals and non staying guests. Early risers flock here for falafel sandwiches, hearty tonjiru soup and grilled mackerel french toasts. Lunch and dinner menus are also available. Come evening, I would recommend ordering their juicy karaage and potato salad with crispy potato skin. Wine and cocktails are also the highlight.
CHUS TABLE 6-3 Takasagocho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0045 Open: 8:00〜10:30; 11:30〜14:30; 18:00〜21:00 (Closed on 2nd Thursday of the month) www.chus-nasu.com/table/
Akubi – This new venture by Chus is a welcome addition to Kuroiso’s food scene which lacks upscale izakaya dining restaurants. The intimate interior design with wooden counter and tatami spaces complements the impressive selection of natural sake and Tetsuya Tateishi’s inventive cooking.
AKUBI【酒と肴 あくび】 1-1 Zaimokucho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0048 Open: 18:00-23:00 (Closed on Wednesdays) https://www.instagram.com/akubi_chus/
Mad Perros Pizza – New York-style pizza with thin crust comes in sizes of 30cm, 50cm or by a slice and is perfect for a quick lunch bite or as dinner before you head upstairs to Bar Calavera. The pizzeria proudly uses 100% of locally grown wheat for its dough, tops pizzas with tomatoes from Apulia and finishes off with Italian Asiago cheese.
MAD PERROS PIZZA 1F, 1−1 Daikokucho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0046 Open: 11:30–20:00 (Closed on Wednesdays) www.instagram.com/madperrospizza/
Kuroiso Broiler – Current owner Katsuichi Tsukui who previously worked as a designer in Tokyo has revived Kuroiso’s much-loved chicken shop. The menu of this take-away shop is strictly limited to fried chicken, menchi (deep-fried ground meat patty) and roasted chicken wings that come with a secret glaze.
Kuroiso Broiler 1-11 Hongocho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0053 Open: 11:00-18:30 (Closed on Sundays and Mondays) www.instagram.com/kuroiso_broiler
Iris Bread&Coffee – Serving specialty coffee from Single O, this is a go-to café for your morning caffeine fix. Whitewashed walls and exposed wooden beams create warm and inviting atmosphere where customers can slowly linger and take in views of the square. This coffee shop is run by the same owners as Kanel Bread, so you can savour your pastries in a café – just let the bakery’s staff know and they will put your order in a basket.
iris bread&coffee 5 Honcho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0056 Open: 09:00-17:00 www.instagram.com/irisbreadcoffee/
1988 Cafe Shozo – It’s the heart of Kuroiso. Every town’s resident knows Mr Shozo as he’s the reason why so many young businesses decided to open here. It’s more than a cup of coffee and a scone – this place has really become an institution and a reminder that a single person’s passion can revitalise the whole town.
1988 CAFE SHOZO (Scone Pastry) 6-6 Takasagocho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0045 Open: 11:00-18:30 www.shozo.co.jp/
Bar Calavera – Master’s carefully curated list of spirits will satisfy even the pickiest. Opt for gin and tonic topped with blackberries or, if you feel adventurous, bar’s special absinthe mojito. Don’t worry about losing your way back – Chus guesthouse is just across the street.
BAR CALAVERA Open: 19:00-00:00 (Closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) 2F, 1−1 Daikokucho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi, 325-0046 https://www.facebook.com/Calavera.nasu/
Soma Japon – You can imagine how surprised I was to find linen textiles and ceramic kitchen wares from my home country, Lithuania, in this well-hidden part of Japan. Apparently this general store’s owner frequently visits Lithuania and works directly with its artists. Clay bird whistle anyone?
SOMA JAPON 6-5 Takasagocho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0045 Open: 11:00-18:00 https://somajapon.stores.jp/
Dear, Folks&Flowers / Pangea – These two flower shops, run by wife and husband, come in two completely different concepts. What are you in a mood for: sleek concrete vases with dry garden-inspired look or French antiques with dry lavenders and a bouquet of fresh Hydrangeas? I went to Pangea for its great selection of cactuses but stayed for its intriguing Hermès’ room fragrance.
pangea パンジア 2-37 Miyacho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0055 Open: Sunday and Monday 13:00-17:00 or by appointment https://www.instagram.com/escapefrompangea/ DEAR, FOLKS & FLOWERS ６-5, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0045 Open: 11:00-18:00 https://www.instagram.com/dearfolksandflowers/
Shozo 04 Store – The shop on the second floor stocks a sharp selection of womenswear and menswear from international and Japanese brands, including cotton dresses from Homespun and universal design polo shirts from Tokyo’s Eel.
SHOZO 04 STORE 6−7 2F, Takasagocho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi,325-0045 Open: 11: 00-17: 00 (closed on Wednesdays) https://shozo04.stores.jp/
Tamiser – Run by a famous food stylist and an antique dealer, this treasure trove is well-known for its immaculate presentation and unbeatable selection (the sister shop is located in Tokyo). The warehouse is the extension of owners’ home and a quick peek through the window will leave you inspired to fill your bags with antiques, design books and kitchen wares.
tamiser kuroiso タミゼ クロイソ 3-13 Honcho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0056 Open:Sundays and Mondays 13:00-18:00 http://tamiser.com/index.php
Nordfeld – When you walk into this leather shop, the first thing you notice is the open plan workshop space where owner and artisan Kei Kitano makes every single bag by hand. Nordfeld uses vegetable tanned leather from Santa Croce, Italy, that develops a beautiful patina over time. From shoulder bags to backpacks and wallets, the classic design pieces here are updated with beautiful details such as angular brass handles that give it a contemporary touch.
NORDFELD 8-40 Yutakacho, Nasushiobara-shi, Tochigi 325-0051 Open: 12:00-17:00 (Closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays) www.nordfeld.jp/
Rokuyu – The retro vibes of a former music room perfectly suit the new tenant – a record shop Rokuyu that also offers used books, radio cassette recorders and original clothing. Pop-up DJ events put a different spin on this rural town.
六喩 ROKUYU 2F, 6-7 Takasagocho, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0045 Open: 12:00-19:00 www.instagram.com/rokuyu20/
N’s Yard – Captivated by Nasu’s rich scenery, artist Yoshitomo Nara picked the location himself to showcase his selection of works along with other contemporary artists. All five exhibition rooms feature displays personally curated by Nara, such as sculptures, paintings and drawings, including the artist’s tree house filled with inspirations.
N"s YARD 28-3 Aoki, Nasushiobara, Tochigi 325-0103 Open: 10:00-17:00 (Closed on Tuesdays and Wednesdays) www.nsyard.com/en/
Art Biotop – Junya Ishigami’s water garden is an ambitious landscape project that took more than 4 years to finish by replanting the whole forest tree by tree. Observe the changing seasons in the reflections on the tiny ponds as you stroll along the stepping stones. For the full immersive experience, book lunch in the newly opened Restaurant μ overlooking the garden or stay in one of Kengo Kuma’s designed luxury villas.
ART BIOTOP Advance reservation required 2294-3 Takakuotsu Michiue, Nasu, Tochigi 325-0303 www.artbiotop.jp
Onsen – Hot springs in Itamuro Onsen surrounded by western Nasu mountains are known from 1059. The medicating effects of this alkaline hot spring have been recognised on the national scale – the Ministry of the Environment dubbed this area as a “National Health Spa” in 1971. To improve your blood circulation, try “Rope Bath” where you hang onto the rope in this standing-only bath. 30 minutes by bus from Kuroiso will also get you to Shikanoyu, the oldest hot spring in Tochigi prefecture. Take time to soak up its history dating back to around 6th century while hopping between six temperature level baths ranging from 41C up to 48C.
Hiking/Camping – Aiming to climb the Mount Chausu or considering pitching your tent in the scenic Odagiri Garden? Get all your gear from Yama no Douguya, including local-made sturdy and functional shelt backpacks. The shop staff also kindly provide information on outdoor activities in case you need insider tips on best trails.
Yama no Douguya / 山の道具屋 (enter through Lunettes) Open: 12:00 - 19:00 8-37 Yutakacho, Nasushiobara City, Tochigi Prefecture 325-0051 www.lunettes-yamanodouguya.com/blank
Dairy farms – Nasushiobara is the largest producer of milk in the Honshu island, so make sure you raise a glass of milk before you hop onto shinkansen. Most farms are open to visitors but to get there you’ll definitely need a car.
Sunday markets – Every second Sunday local farmers, restaurant and shop owners gather in the library’s park. Stock up on jams, wicker baskets and herb tea blends or have a small picnic on the lawn with slices of pizza and falafel wraps.
Events for February are currently cancelled. Check for more info: https://www.instagram.com/nichiyo_ichi/
And this is just a snippet of Kuroiso. There are more exciting places to visit and enjoy. If in doubt, ask store owners for local recommendations and they’ll point you to the right direction. It’s a very close-knit community after all.
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