Shozo Street is “holy ground” for coffee lovers

The town of Kuroiso in the mountainous highlands of Nasu in Tochigi Prefecture, with its retro streets and relaxed vibe, may seem an unlikely candidate for one of the country’s top coffee culture destinations.

But the region has in fact been dubbed ‘sacred land for coffee lovers’, thanks to Shozo Kikuchi – a man coffee lovers have hailed as a quasi-god since his flagship cafe in 1988 sparked a trend of coffee. stylish local development.

Kikuchi, who was born into a Kuroiso farming family in 1960, found his calling after going through a series of existential crises and synchronicities. His childhood fascination with the ocean had led him to a stint in the Maritime Self-Defense Force, but he later found he was still no closer to realizing his life purpose. Departing in his early twenties to explore the country on a motorbike, he realized that something was igniting an unmistakable sense of joy of living inside it: drinking coffee in an atmospheric setting.

Deciding that his goal would be to open his own cafe, Kikuchi moved to Tokyo and started working at a French-style cafe in Shimokitazawa. He learned to create pastry dishes such as cheesecake and scones, further refining the recipes in his apartment. Finding his thoughts continually returning to Kuroiso, with all the majestic nature the area had to offer, he realized he wanted to bring his vision home.

Finding a central building with an empty second floor, Kikuchi began to put his passions to work. Calling on his frugal rural upbringing, he used all available materials to slowly bring the space to life. The result was 1988 Cafe Shozo, named for the year it opened.

Meanwhile, the fortuitous experiences that young Kikuchi had on the road continued to have a profound impact on the evolution of his business on many levels.

“I had a flat tire in Otaru, Hokkaido, and a group of young people had my motorcycle repaired while I was waiting in a cafe,” said Kikuchi, who radiates a warm, relaxed energy. “The coffee there was incredibly delicious and the merchant explained to me that what really makes the difference in flavor isn’t the brewing: it’s the roasting.”

Kikuchi decided to master his roasting technique at Saito Coffee in Sapporo, where he continues to source coffee beans to this day. At the same time, his encounters with the people along the road opened him to the power of the community.

The distressed wooden facade of the Shozo Coffee Store in Omotesando. | SOLVEIG BOERGEN

“When I opened my cafe, I had a vision of people coming not only for a cup of coffee, but actually getting out of their cars and walking around,” he says. “I wanted to bring the city to life. And for that, a coffee was not enough.

By adding an adjacent housewares store and antique store, Kikuchi saw his vision take shape. He then opened the Nasu Shozo Cafe in 1994, which he designed to create a light and airy atmosphere contrasting with the muffled and almost Parisian atmosphere of Cafe Shozo from 1988. Located at the foot of the Nasu mountain range, his second cafe also has artistic book shelves and a sprawling terrace overlooking the lush forest surroundings.

“In each of my stores I use all kinds of different materials to create a very unique feel,” says Kikuchi. “I try to evoke an experience that is both everyday and unusual, which requires careful balance. “

Shozo celebrated the site’s opening in 1994 with his first overseas coffee culture tour, drawing more inspiration from cafes in the San Francisco Bay Area, Portland and New York. He found he could dramatically increase efficiency using a KitchenAid appliance and expanded his menu to include scones with cream and jam – one of his most popular signature items today.

As more stores opened around 1988, Cafe Shozo, the road eventually came to be known as Shozo Street. Today, the neighborhood includes restaurants, cocktail bars, a vegan grocery store, and a vinyl record store specializing in soul and funk music. The city’s charming retro streetscape is breathed into new life by more and more traders and artisans – some of whom are Kikuchi’s protégés – who have interpreted the cozy style and soulful atmosphere of its cafes. for their own stores.

In the nearby antique store, Yoshida Shoten, former Shozo employee Takanori Yoshida, restores old furniture and collects bamboo basketry from all over the country.

“Shozo’s vision really took off here, at a nice, slow pace, perfect for this city,” he says.

Next to Kikuchi’s flagship space is Chus, an artfully designed guesthouse, cafe and market where owner Goichi Miyamoto explains his goal is to encourage interactions between local producers and tourists. He also runs a shop in the nearby highlands of Nasu, where he employs people with disabilities, and plans to create an outdoor park where tourists and locals can continue to mingle.

Directly across from 1988 Cafe Shozo is Cuore (Italian for “heart”), an intimate restaurant where solo (and hopeful Michelin) Tsuyoshi Naoi evokes the flavors of Tuscany through dishes such as velvety turnip soup, T slow roasted – pork steaks on the bone and yarrow– lasagna style. With a moody vibe created by light bulbs made from mason jars, it’s a great place to watch the sky transform from deep blue to charcoal as the lights of Kikuchi’s cafe twinkle below.

Interestingly, Kikuchi cafes might not have grown outside of Tochigi Prefecture without a twist of fate.

Cream and jam scones have become an iconic menu item in Shozo Kikuchi's coffee empire.  |  SOLVEIG BOERGEN
Cream and jam scones have become an iconic menu item in Shozo Kikuchi’s coffee empire. | SOLVEIG BOERGEN

“The Nasu region was strongly affected by the disaster of September 11,” he recalls. “I had to figure out how to employ my staff after the operations closed, so we started selling at Farmers Market @UNU. Two years later, I was invited to open my first store in Tokyo.

Kikuchi now has two shops in the Aoyama district. Both feature its distinctive aesthetic: an inviting weathered wood facade; canned herb gardens; green foliage framing shelves of baked goods, coffee and lifestyle products bearing its elephant Shozo logo.

Baskets of organic produce lined up along the shelves at its Aoyama store are regularly shipped from a local farm in Kuroiso, which also has a stall in its flagship store in Kuroiso.

“I like the idea that people in Tokyo can feel a bit of rural Tochigi every time they enjoy our products,” says Kikuchi.

Pushing her love for coffee and nature even further, Kikuchi opened her new store, Shozo Shirakawa, located in Fukushima Prefecture next to Nanko Park, in 2019.

“I designed it as an espresso stand, and it’s a beautiful place to have your coffee and sit quietly outside, especially when the sun is shining on the lake,” he says.

Meanwhile, even the pandemic has not dented Kikuchi’s future big plans. Once international travel is possible, he will travel to Melbourne to explore its famous coffee culture and superior roasting techniques. His current café complex also includes a furniture warehouse, which he plans to turn into his own coffee roast.

“We made this city a place where dreams come true,” says Kikuchi, “and there are places like Kuroiso all over Japan. I hope people come here for inspiration and then go back to their own community and create something similar.

For more information visit www.shozo.co.jp.

In accordance with COVID-19 guidelines, the government is urging residents and visitors to exercise caution if they choose to visit bars, restaurants, concert halls and other public spaces.

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