Japan’s Mirai Convenience Store shows what acting locally can do for a community’s future

The Yomiuri Shimbun
A wide range of products, from daily necessities to products using the local specialty of Kito yuzu citrus, are lined up in the spacious glass-walled Mirai Convenience Store in Naka, Tokushima Prefecture, as seen in December.

NAKA, Tokushima — A convenience store in a depopulated community deep in the mountains in Tokushima Prefecture is attracting attention from around the world.

Mirai Convenience Store last year won the top prize in one of the world’s major design awards for its architecture, which aims to make the most of the rich natural surroundings and holds to a philosophy aimed at solving depopulation issues.

Tourists have been visiting the aging community to see what is known as one of the world’s most beautiful convenience stores, making the depopulated area bustling again.

Using yuzu for inspiration

The store opened in April 2020 and is located in the Kito district of the mountainous town of Naka, situated over 1,000 meters above sea level. It is about a 2½-hour drive from Tokushima City.

The Yomiuri Shimbun
Mirai Convenience Store is located along a main road in the mountains in the town of Naka, Tokushima Prefecture.

The bright yellow Y-shaped pillars that line the interior and exterior of the store are inspired by the trunks and branches of the Kito yuzu citrus, a specialty of the region. The ceiling is 3.8 meters high and the 20-meter-wide facade is installed with walls of glass, allowing visitors within to feel the sunshine or hear the sound of rain.

In addition to commercially available groceries and daily necessities, the store also sells specialty products, such as ponzu sauce made from the Kito yuzu. The shelves are designed lower than usual to make it easier for children and the elderly to reach the products. The cafe within the store has become a place for people to gather and relax.

On weekends, cars and motorcycles with license plates of other prefectures can be seen in the parking lot.

“Kito is hopping again,” said Reiko Oshiro, a 69-year-old resident of the district.

More than a place to shop

The depopulation of the district has been rapidly progressing. In 1965, before Kito was merged to form the town of Naka, it was a village with a population of over 4,000. Today, it is about 1,000, and 58% of residents are 65 or older. It takes an hour by car to the nearest supermarket, and many elderly residents used to rely solely on a mobile supermarket that comes to the district once or twice a week.

To help alleviate the situation, Yasushi Fujita, who came from Kito and is now the 48-year-old president of Tokyo-based Media Do Co., came up with the idea of establishing a store in the district.

The Naka municipal government allowed Fujita to use a plot of land of a closed-down school for 10 years, free of charge.

Fujita has been involved in the revitalization of his hometown since 2013, including the establishment of a company in the district to process and sell yuzu-based products.

The purpose of the convenience store is not only to offer the residents a place to shop. He also hoped it would become a place where residents and visitors could interact, spurring children to feel hopeful about the future — “mirai” in Japanese.

The store’s architectural design and philosophy have been highly evaluated. In August last year, it won the top prize in the retail design category of Germany’s Red Dot Design Award. In November, it also received the grand prize in all categories of the Kukan Design Award, one of the most field’s prestigious awards in Japan. The store so far has garnered 10 such awards around the world.

“The sustainable concept that ‘no one should be left behind’ in a depopulated community was probably well-received,” said Wataru Sato, a 42-year-old designer of the store from Osaka-based Kokuyo Co.

The news that the store won several awards brought in tourists from Tokushima Prefecture and beyond. As of the end of November, about 52,000 people had visited the store since its opening.

At Mirai Convenience Store, many of the locals and staff know each other, unlike most convenience stores in urban areas. Some residents drop by to give staff gifts such as freshly picked mushrooms. The space is also comfortable for families, with illustrated books for children available in the cafe.

“When children come here to hang around, the elderly also join in, filling the place with smiles,” said cafe manager Yoshifumi Obata, 37.

The store has also become a place to go for school field trips.

“If there was a cool store like this in the town where I grew up, I would be proud of it,” said Konoha Morinaga, a first-year student at prefectural Myozai High School who visited the store in November with her school from outside the town.

“I believe this is the only convenience store in the world that connects people,” said Yayoi Ueki, the store’s 39-year-old manager and a Hiroshima native who moved to the district to take part in the municipal government’s community revitalization team. “I hope the children who grow up here will create the future of the Kito district.”