By HIROYUKI YOSHIDA/ Staff Writer
December 10, 2021 at 07:10 JST
NAKA, Tokushima Prefecture--A one-of-a-kind convenience store in an aging remote community has become a tourist hotspot after it was recognized with international design awards.
The Mirai Convenience Store commands a view of the surrounding 1,000-meter-high mountains through glass facades, which let in abundant sunlight. Y-shaped steel frames in bright yellow evoke the image of an orchard of “yuzu” citrus fruit, a local specialty.
The murmur of the nearby Nakagawa river can be heard from the open-air terrace seats. A plot of ground outside is covered with wood chips, giving a sense of unity with nature surrounding the store.
Tourists have dropped by to see firsthand what some call “the world’s most beautiful convenience store” since it opened in April last year.
“I knew for some time that a curious-looking building stands here,” said Hayahito Miyauchi, 52, a cook from Sanuki, Kagawa Prefecture, who stopped in during a trip on a motorcycle. “I came to take a look after I heard it is a convenience store and has won world-class design awards.”
The store won the top Best of the Best honor in the retail design category of the Red Dot Design Award, considered as one of the world’s three most prestigious design awards, in August. The building was recognized for its design themed on coexistence with nature and the consideration it has given to sustainability.
In the same month, the store was a runner-up in the architecture category of the Iconic Awards 2021: Innovative Architecture, an international prize previously won by the Hiroshima Peace Memorial Museum.
The structure also received two Japanese design awards in November.
HIDDEN GEM IN THE MOUNTAINS
The outlet is located in Naka’s Kito district, often called Shikoku’s answer to Tibet.
Kito, which once prospered from forestry, was an independent village until it merged with four neighboring municipalities in 2005 to create the town of Naka.
The Kito district is categorized as a “marginal community,” or a settlement facing the risk of disappearance where those aged 65 or older account for more than half the population.
It was home to only 1,063 people as of the end of March, less than half the 2,364 people who lived there in 1985. Fifty-nine percent of the residents were 65 or older.
A corporate group led by Kito Design Holdings, which has been working to revitalize the community, opened the store in April last year to assist people who have difficulty shopping for daily necessities, known as “shopping vulnerable.”
“I had to take a car for about an hour one way to go to a supermarket downtown when I went shopping,” said an elderly woman on a lunch break from her farm work. “Things have become so much more practical now, with this neat convenience store available nearby.”
She was chatting with her friend over sweet buns and coffee in the cafe space inside the store.
The store sits on the former site of a combined elementary and junior high school, which was closed due to the falling number of children.
It was named “Mirai,” Japanese for “future,” to have young people born in the community become inspired about its future.
Yayoi Ueki, a 39-year-old employee at the store who previously worked as a “local vitalization cooperator” in Kito under a central government program, wants to see the outlet become even more of a community hub.
“While we have had difficulties due to the novel coronavirus pandemic, we want to organize sessions for reading picture books to children, so the little ones from this community can get together,” said Ueki, who has made picture books available on the bookcase in the cafe space.
The store shelves are designed to be low so elderly people and children can easily reach the goods, which include delicatessen and frozen meats and fish, along with the ubiquitous convenience store fixtures, such as ready-made box lunches, rice balls, sandwiches and snacks.
As of end of August, the store has been visited by some 40,000 people since its opening.
“Some people come here all the way from outside Tokushima Prefecture to take a look at our place after they learned about the design awards it won,” said manager Yoshifumi Obata, 37 who runs the store with six staff members in their 20s through 50s. “Our parking lot is full on some weekends.”
One of the products particularly popular with tourists is soft-serve ice cream topped with yuzu sauce, Obata said.
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