Tucked away in the mountains near scenic Nagatoro, a traditional Japanese house nearly two centuries old is home to artists, artisans, and an incredibly kind woman with a penchant for helping lost gaijin.
This is Chikuzen, a newly opened art gallery and cafe in Misato, Saitama owned and operated by Yukiko Adachi. Evicted from her aunt’s 177-year-old home, Chikuzen, also known as Zen, keeps ancient Japanese crafts and folk art alive and relevant to the community and her overseas visitors.
The gallery opened on March 12th and features a rotating selection of works by visiting artists and workshops for emerging creators with a strong emphasis on using ancient techniques. Most of the artwork is woodcarving, a traditional form that Adachi says doesn’t want to be lost in the age of modern painting, NFTs, and digital art.
“I have a desire to preserve old Japanese things,” Adachi, 35, who works weekdays as a home care assistant for the elderly, told me at her gallery opening. “It is a strong desire to remember and remember traditional crafts and culture.”
In a twist on modern meets tradition, it was social media that inspired Adachi. Her idea of opening an art gallery first came to her six years ago while connecting with fellow artisans on Instagram. She has spent the last three years renovating the house, taking care to maintain the traditional integrity with the help of a few carpenters who can also be seen in her gallery.
Zen is an apt name for this place as its rich wood and stone interior is welcoming, calming and otherworldly. The gallery is down to earth and intimate, and one of the artists even let me pick up a chisel and try my hand at wood carving (I had fun, but I don’t have the gift).
Ido Ferber, a Tokyo-based ceramic artist and guest at the gallery, said the homely atmosphere of Zen appealed to him and his wife. Ferber, who is originally from Israel, said he is drawn to events focused on preserving culture.
“It’s possible here to center the art around the story and revitalize something that could potentially be lost,” he said.
The environment at Zen is very different from snobbish and elite modern art galleries, where everything feels ultra-sanitized and untouchable. Adachi and her artisan friends make everyone feel like they can connect with art, even if they aren’t creators themselves. It didn’t feel special because of its exclusivity, but because of its inclusiveness and warmth.
In fact, I found out about this place from Adachi’s incredible kindness. Last month I got lost on my way to a friend’s birthday party at a strawberry farm in Urawa. I took the wrong bus. It was raining, my phone was broken and I speak poor Japanese so it was a textbook disaster for me. I was stopping at a museum hoping to get directions when I met Adachi, who offered me a cell phone charger and a ride.
I don’t usually advocate getting into cars with strangers, and I may have done what my friends now jokingly refer to as hitchhiking in the Japanese countryside, against the best of my knowledge. But there was something so pure about Adachi and I am so grateful that she went out of her way to help me and that I found out about her gallery. This first encounter with her speaks to the nature and atmosphere that guests can experience at Zen.
Adachi is opening a cafe at Zen in April using ingredients from local farms, including a small piece of farmland on her aunt’s property. The region is known for its blueberries, so she plans to incorporate them into her dishes during the season. Adachi, a woman of many talents, will be the chef at the cafe, serving up recipes like galette.
If you are in the area, I recommend trying the local cuisine such as nabeyaki udon or nabeyaki soba, a noodle soup with eggs. The ones I’ve had on my two visits to the Nagatoro area had a zesty lemon flavor. The region is also known for miso potatoes, a simple but filling appetizer or side dish that’s savory and sweet.
If you’re looking for zen, it’s worth making the trip a day trip by exploring downtown Nagatoro and Hodosan Shrine, a mountaintop shrine with a cable car to the top where you’ll have views, who will soon be littered with sakura.
Zen is only open on Saturdays and Sundays. The easiest way to get there is by car as it is quite remote.
“I want you to be healed in a space surrounded by natural materials like bamboo, wood, and earth,” Adachi said.
Chikuzen art gallery and cafe
Address: 807 Amagasu, Misato, Kodama District, Saitama 367-0113, Japan
Opening hours: Saturday and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m
Nearby attractions: Hodosan Temple and downtown Nagatoro, about 30 minutes drive away