Saitama Gallery features traditional crafts, friendly community
Nestled in the mountains near scenic Nagatoro, a nearly two-century-old, traditional-style Japanese house 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. Driven out of his 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 its overseas visitors.
The gallery opened on March 12 and offers a rotating selection of works by guest artists and workshops for budding creators with a strong emphasis on the use of ancient techniques. Most of the artwork is woodcarving, a traditional form that Adachi says he doesn’t want to see lost in the age of modern paintings, NFTs and digital art.
“I have a desire to preserve old Japanese things,” Adachi, 35, who works weekdays as a home help for the elderly, told me when her gallery opened. “It is a strong desire to reminisce and remember traditional crafts and culture.”
In a twist between the modern and the traditional, it was social media that inspired Adachi. She first conceived her idea of opening an art gallery six years ago when she connected with other artisans on Instagram. She has spent the last three years renovating the house, making sure to preserve its traditional integrity with the help of a few carpenters who also feature in her gallery.
Zen is an apt name for the place, as its rich wood and stone interior is inviting, soothing, and otherworldly. The gallery is earthy and intimate, and one of the artists even let me grab a chisel and try my hand at woodcarving (I had fun, but I don’t have the knack).
Ido Ferber, a ceramic artist and guest at the Tokyo gallery, said the intimate Zen vibe appealed to him and his wife. Originally from Israel, Ferber said he was drawn to events centered around cultural preservation.
“There is an opportunity here to center art around history and bring back to life something that could potentially be lost,” he said.
Zen’s environment is radically different from snobby, elitist modern art galleries, where everything seems ultra-sanitized and like you can’t touch anything. Adachi and his artisan friends make everyone feel able to connect with art, even if they are not themselves creators. He felt special not for his exclusivity, but because of his inclusiveness and warmth.
In fact, Adachi’s incredible friendliness is how I found out about the place. Last month, I got lost on the way to a friend’s birthday party at a strawberry farm in Urawa. I had taken the wrong bus. It was raining, my phone was dead, and I had poor command of Japanese, so it was an academic disaster for me. I stopped at a museum hoping to get directions when I met Adachi, who gave me a phone charger and a ride.
I don’t usually advocate riding in cars with strangers, and maybe I went against my best judgment to do what my friends now jokingly call hitchhiking in the Japanese countryside. . But, there was something so authentically pure about Adachi, and I’m so grateful that she went out of her way to help me and that I discovered her gallery. This first meeting with her talks about the nature and the atmosphere that customers can discover at Le Zen.
Adachi opens a cafe inside Zen in April with ingredients sourced from local farms, including a small plot of farmland on his aunt’s property. The region is known for its blueberries, so she plans to incorporate them into her dishes when in season. A multi-talented woman, Adachi will be the chef of the café and will serve recipes such as the galette.
While in the area, I suggest trying local cuisine like nabeyaki udon or nabeyaki soba, an egg noodle soup. The ones I had on my two visits to the Nagatoro area tasted tangy lemony. The region is also known for potato miso, a simple yet satisfying appetizer or savory and sweet side dish.
If you’re visiting Zen, it’s worth taking a day trip exploring downtown Nagatoro and Hodosan Shrine, a mountaintop shrine with a cable car to the top for views that will be soon sprinkled with Sakura.
Zen is only open on Saturday and Sunday. The easiest way to get there is by car, as it is quite isolated.
“I want you to be healed in a space surrounded by natural materials such as bamboo, wood, and earth,” Adachi said.
Chikuzen Art Gallery and Cafe
Address: 807 Amagasu, Misato, Kodama District, Saitama 367-0113, Japan
Hours: 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and Sunday
Nearby attractions: Hodosan Temple and downtown Nagatoro, about 30 minutes by car