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Wednesday
Sep092015

True Karuizawa

As you know by now, much of the action of A TRUE NOVEL takes place in and around Karuizawa, a popular weekend destination for those wishing to escape the excessive summer heat and humidity in Tokyo, much like Litchfield county is for those in New York City. Karuizawa lies in the Nagano prefecture, a little over 100 miles west-northwest from Tokyo. Karuizawa also lies near the very center of the main island of Japan. The town is dominated by its views of Mount Asama, a fairly active volcano that has erupted often in modern history, as recently as 2009. Asama is still categorized by the Japanese Meteorological Agency as a Rank A volcano--that is, more eruptions are imminent.

Mount AsamaThe central shopping district of Karuizawa--its "ginza"--is lined with old-school shops, many of them fostering nostalgia for a "lost" Japan. Fine ceramic tea cups, bits of antique lace, and even rice paddy shoes can be found among the stalls. In fact, many Japanese still consider Karuizawa to be an oasis from modernism, as opposed to other locales nearby in Nagano which include many industrial towns and some collapsed agrarian enclaves, no longer viable.

Karuizawa's ginza.

That said, Karuizawa has been repeatedly rebuilt until much of it looks about like a tourist town in the United States--say, Estes Park, Colorado, or Woodstock, Vermont. As you can see by this photo, there's been a concerted effort over the years to "Westernize" the town, adding architectural features that look distinctly disjunctive in a place that celebrates its connection of an older, lost Japan.

Karuizawa was "discovered" in the nineteenth-century by Christian missionaries, as they moved out from Tokyo into the countryside. They themselves set up small chapels and homes here to seek a cooling climate from the beastly summer weather of Tokyo. Soon, Western bankers and merchants followed, building more lavish homes, many of them in the style of Swiss chalets or American Western "cabins." The grandeur of these residences contrasted sharply with the poorer, more downscale surrounding towns.

 After World War II, any Western ownership (but perhaps not its influence) waned considerably. Today, the area has been revitalized as wealthy Japanese families purchase land to build newer, even grander homes or as development groups buy up sets of home to tear them down for upscale condominium developments.

Here's a vacation home for sale today in Karuizawa.

Even the Prince Hotel has undergone a renaissance. It has now sprawled out into several, large, luxury hotels. They cater to the the winter sports crowd who come for the new ski runs in the area. In fact, Karuizawa has morphed into an all-year resort.

One of the Prince Hotels

And yet it remains what it has been for over a century: an odd amalgam of West and East, a representative of the way Japanese culture can assimilate foreign ideas and concepts. Take, for example, this shot from the edge of town.

 

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