How to Enjoy a Fun-Filled Trip to the Chiba Countryside at Chonan Nishisho
Many tourists in Japan visit large cities like Kyoto and Tokyo, but few visit the small, rural communities. That’s a shame, because these rural areas actually have a lot to offer, such as delicious regional cuisine and gorgeous natural scenery. This article highlights one such area – Chonan, Chiba – while introducing Chonan Nishisho, an old elementary school that has been transformed into a hostel. Keep reading for ideas on how to explore Japan’s countryside!
Dec 21 2018 (Sep 09 2020)
*This article was written in collaboration with Mynavi Corporation.
About Chiba Prefecture
The prefecture of Chiba is located east of Tokyo and contains a large part of the Tokyo urban sprawl. Past the urban areas is a vast expanse of beautiful nature and quiet, rural communities. In addition to the inland towns that thrive on agriculture, there are also many seaside villages that offer some of the best surfing spots in all of Japan.
The climate in Chiba is similar to Tokyo, with the warmest month of the year being August (average high temp. is 29°C) and the coldest month of the year being January (average low temp. is 1°C). Chiba is a great place to visit all throughout the year, but expect heavy rainfall in June, September, and October.
What is Chonan Nishisho?
Chonan Nishisho (Chonan West Elementary) was an elementary school in the town of Chonan in Chiba Prefecture that had to close down due to the shrinking population of the local area. Instead of letting the building waste away, Mynavi Corporation decided to refurbish it and turn it into a hostel!
While it is used primarily by large groups of people, small groups of friends and even solo travelers are welcome as well.
In addition to being a hostel, Chonan Nishisho also serves a dual purpose as a cultural and recreation center for the residents of Chonan. The kid's play room, library, and cafe are all open for use by non-guests!
While Chonan Nishisho may be a fun and comfortable place to stay, it is not a hotel. Guests are expected to set up their own bedding and clean up before checking out. Doesn't the thought of cleaning up together with good friends bring back nostalgic memories of taking school trips as a child?
Checking In and Getting Situated
Entering Chonan Nisho will surely be a brand-new experience for foreigners, as you are greeted by a typical Japanese school entryway lined with dozens of cubby-holes for shoes. If you go right from the entryway, you can leave your shoes on, but the rest of the facility requires guests to wear inside slippers, which are provided.
Upon arrival, you will receive a wristband that will identify you as a guest and allow you to get a discount at the cafe. Remember to return these wristbands to the main office when checking out!
Futon (mattresses), duvets, and pillows are stored in each of the guest rooms, with accompanying linens available in a nearby storage room. Guests have to make their own futons, but that is part of the fun! Try to race with your companions to see who can set up their futon the fastest!
This is a repurposed classroom, so you may as well use some of the remaining equipment, such as this blackboard, to plan the rest of your trip!
Chonan Nishisho has several classrooms that have been either maintained and updated (library, instrument room, etc.) or totally repurposed (kid's room, entertainment room, etc.).
While the majority of the rooms are just stocked with futons meant to be laid on the floor, three of the rooms come with beds, so those who do not want to sleep on the floor or who can't for health reasons can still rest easy.
At Chonan Nishisho, guests can have a relaxing, warm bath inside tubs made of fragrant cypress wood! Communal bathing is a normal thing in Japanese culture, and guests are encouraged to try it out. However, for those uncomfortable with the idea, there are private showers as well.
One of the bathrooms contains the two large, communal tubs shown in the pictures above, while the other contains four smaller, single-person tubs. These two bathrooms alternate between being men-only and women-only on a regular basis.
Things to Do at Chonan Nishisho
Zazen (Zen Meditation)
Zen meditation might not be the first thing that comes to mind when you think of staying at a renovated elementary school, but Chonan Nishisho actually offers guests the opportunity to practice zazen (a type of meditation) with a real Buddhist priest every morning.
After briefly explaining the ideology and methods of zazen, the priest will demonstrate the correct sitting posture and then the meditation, timed for 20 minutes, will start. Even if you don't practice Buddhism, zazen is a great way to start your morning with a clear, worry-free head.
The priest will sit in the back while you meditate, keeping watch on you. During the real thing, zazen practitioners will get hit with a rod if they let their posture falter or show signs of losing concentration, but since this is just a learning experience, the priest will go easy on you!
Gymnasium & Athletic Field
You will also find a gymnasium packed to the brim with sports equipment. If you have some time to spare, why not join your friends for a quick game of basketball, volleyball, or even ping pong?
*It is customary in Japan to bring and wear specific shoes meant only for use in the gymnasium. Please respect this custom by bringing a pair of clean gym shoes with you and changing into those when entering the gymnasium.
Venture outside to the neighboring athletic field to try your hand at some outdoor activities, such as unicyling. The field is equipped with a jungle gym, monkey bars, and a variety of other playground equipment that will bring you back to your childhood days.
There are also hammocks and other places to relax if that's more your style!
Breakfast at Chonan Nishisho is served "kyushoku" style, which means that it mimics the style of a meal served to children at a school (with the flavors boosted to better suit adults' tastes).
Make your breakfast time more fun and authentic by getting one person in the group to don one of the white aprons provided and take on the role of "kyushoku toban" (food service duty) for the morning!
You might be surprised to see fish, rice, and salad in the picture above, but this is actually a classic Japanese breakfast. It may take some getting used to, but healthy, savory foods like this are perfect for starting your day out with energy!
Before you start eating, it is customary in Japan to say "itadakimasu" (thank you for this meal) while gathering your hands in front of you. While it may look like prayer, this is not a religious practice, so anyone should feel comfortable taking part in this Japanese custom!
Don't forget to clear your plate and sort your dishes after you are done eating!
Chonan Nishisho Cafe
This cafe is directly connected to Chonan Nishisho, and offers a delightful menu mainly comprised of crepes, galettes, and pancakes, in addition to a host of hot and cold beverage options. There's even gelato!
If you're in the mood for something savory, try a galette, which is a kind of crepe that is filled with cheese, meats, vegetables, and other ingredients. Other savory options beyond galettes include soup curry and cheesy risotto.
On the other hand, if you're craving something sweet, there is a wide variety of fluffy pancakes or thin crepes to choose from, including the juicy and sour mixed berry pancakes shown above.
Don't forget to finish off the meal with a scoop (or two, or three) of delicious, creamy gelato, which comes in a variety of rotating flavors, including milk, strawberry, and praline.
The main choice for dinner is a fun grill-your-own Japanese BBQ. As long as you let the staff know of your order a week in advance, they will prepare all the necessary ingredients and equipment for you to have your very own BBQ party in the school courtyard!
The ingredients will depend on the season, but standards include beef, pork, sausages, cabbage, green peppers, onions, and eggplant, along with a choice of dipping sauces and yakisoba (pan-fried noodles) to finish off the meal.
Another option is to have the staff prepare you some nabe. It consists of a variety of ingredients simmered together in flavorful broth in a pot set at the center of the table, with diners all eating from the same pot by scooping ingredients a bit at a time into individual bowls.
Nabe is mostly known as a winter dish in Japan. However, that doesn't mean you can't enjoy it during any other time of year! After all, there's nothing quite like gathering with some great friends around one big pot of food for you all to share.
Things to Do in the Surrounding Area
While there is plenty of fun to be had at Chonan Nishisho itself, it would be such a waste to come all the way to the area and not explore a bit! Here are some recommended activities to do in the area around Chonan Nishisho.
Hiking at Yoro Valley
The entrance to Yoro Valley (Yoro-keikoku) is a relatively short drive from Chonan Nishisho. From there, you can go for a pleasant half-day hike around the area.
Awamata Falls (Awamata-no-Taki) is a serene waterfall with an interesting slanted shape. The surrounding area is beautiful all throughout the year, but especially during the peak of fall foliage season, which is from the end of November to mid-December in this area of Chiba.
There are many different varieties of trees at Yoro Valley, and they all show off different colors during the fall. The most emblematic tree of the fall foliage season in Japan is the momiji (Japanese maple), which you will find plenty of there. During peak season, the momiji leaves turn such a bright red that you will want to touch them to make sure they're real!
Part-way through the hiking trail, you will come across this unique sight: a 2-story tunnel! Originally, only the upper half of the tunnel existed, but they later created the lower path, removing the upper section. This is a great (if somewhat spooky) place to take photos, especially for social media!
Enjoy a Traditional Japanese Lunch
While you're out and about, you simply must try some of the local, traditional Japanese cuisine on offer! The above dish is a mugi-toro set meal from the restaurant, Kiyoe, located near the entrance to Yoro Valley.
Mugi-toro is a unique dish that pairs freshly-cooked mugi-meshi (barley mixed with rice) with a bowl of seasoned tororo (grated Japanese yam). Tororo might be a bit (pleasantly) slimy, but this restaurant flavors their tororo with miso soup made with two kinds of miso, resulting in out-of-this-world deliciousness that has to be eaten to be believed!
The set meal also comes with kaki-age (fried cluster of vegetables), soup, and various pickles.
Another menu item is udon, which can be ordered either hot or cold. It is the perfect food to either cool you down on a hot day or warm you up on a cold day, so choose whichever option best fits the weather when you visit! You can also get a side of fried yuba (tofu skin), which is another specialty of this restaurant.
Whatever you order, you will surely enjoy the warm, welcoming atmosphere of this two-story restaurant, which also offers stunning views of the surrounding foliage from the 2nd-floor windows. If you aren't comfortable with floor seating, there are tables with chairs available in the 1st floor dining area.
Explore the Historic Townscape
The small town of Otaki, which neighbors Chonan, is full of old Japanese buildings, and is a joy to walk around aimlessly. It can also be quite interesting to see the contrast between super-old buildings and modern ones that coexist side-by-side.
There are many small shops selling souvenirs, antiques, and other trinkets, so by all means - drop by and see what rare finds you can pick up during your visit!
Try Some Local Sake
As long as you are of legal drinking age and don't have to drive, local sake (Japanese rice wine) is a great way to get to know a new area, as the flavor of sake can vary widely between each region of Japan.
There is no better way to truly experience sake than by sake tasting with the very people who make it! With prior reservation, you can visit local, family-run sake breweries like Toyo no Tsuru to taste a variety of sake and see which one you like best.
This particular brand of sake is sold only in liquor stores, restaurants, and select supermarkets in the local area, so it is truly a rare treat to be able to enjoy, especially if you're from abroad!
Soak Your Tired Feet in a Foot Bath
If your feet are feeling a bit tired after a long hike through Yoro Valley, soothe your soles by dipping your feet in a hot, naturally-heated foot bath! For just a few hundred yen, you can soak your feet and ankles in the hot (but not too hot) water for an unlimited amount of time.
You will be surprised at how much your whole body warms up just by immersing your feet in the hot spring water! Also, there is no need to worry if you didn't bring a towel with you, as small towels can be purchased for just 200 yen.
Visit Kasamori-ji Temple
Kasamori-ji Temple, located a short drive from Chonan Nishisho, is a unique mountain-top temple that rests on 61 stilts. Even if you aren't usually interested in history or religion, this temple is a must-visit for its striking appearance as well as for the stunning views of the surrounding landscape from the top.
Don't forget to stop by the temizuya (also called a "chozuya"), a fountain placed near the entrance of shrines and temples where visitors ceremonially wash their hands and mouth to purify their body and spirit.
Kasamori-ji Temple has a unique tradition in which temple visitors write their wishes on cloths and then tie them around a long rope that is connected to the Kannon (Bodhisattva statue) in the main building of the temple. The cloths you see when you visit are just from that calendar year, as the cloths are blessed and then ceremoniously burned each New Year.
The whole mountain on which Kasamori-ji Temple sits is actually a protected nature reserve where logging is prohibited, so the area is filled with giant cedar trees that are hundreds of years old. The view from the main floor of the temple gives you a panoramic view of this ancient forest that will take your breath away!
On Your Way Home, Stop by Miharashi Terrace
On the way home from Chonan Nishisho, you ought to stop by Miharashi Terrace for a drink or bite to eat and one last look at the surrounding countryside. The cafe is only open from Friday - Sunday, but it offers a great place to reflect on your trip while enjoying some yummy treats on the outdoor terrace.
On a clear day, it is even said that you can see the Tokyo Skytree off in the distance!
Visit Chiba and Explore Japan's Countryside!
That wraps up our guide to exploring the Chiba countryside while staying at Chonan Nishisho! We hope you will add this slightly-off-the-beaten-path spot to your itinerary when visiting Japan; you will surely have a wonderful experience that you won't soon forget!
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The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.