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KARUIZAWA

Where the crowds head to cool off

by Chris Bamforth

With the rainy season coming to a close, Japan starts to slide into its dog days. As thermometer and hygrometer levels nudge to swelteringly high levels, many Tokyoites feel the burning need to escape the busy, cramped shopping streets of the city and find relief and peace of mind . . . in the busy, cramped shopping streets of the country.

They make for Karuizawa.

Admittedly, Karuizawa during peak season often has as much get-away-from-it-all character as Tokyo’s JR Yamanote Line. But at least it is cool. At 1,000 meters above sea level, this resort town on the eastern edge of mountainous Nagano Prefecture offers a respite for those ditching the hot, dusty city. And, despite the sometime crowds, Karuizawa has its charm.

Today the town attracts about 8 million Japanese tourists a year, but using the place as a summer retreat was originally the bright idea of a foreigner. Back in Edo times (1603-1867), Karuizawa was a thriving post station on the Nakasendo, one of two main highways linking Edo (Tokyo) with Kyoto. After the Meiji Restoration of 1868, however, much of the traffic was diverted elsewhere, and Karuizawa fell into decline. But then, in 1886, along came Archdeacon Alexander Croft Shaw.

In 1886, this missionary decided that Karuizawa would be a grand spot to build a summer residence. The story has it that the clergyman saw in Karuizawa a resemblance to his native Scotland — despite the fact that the town happens to be located on the southern slope of Honshu’s most active volcano, Mount Asama. Other foreign missionaries and businessmen keen to quit the summer capital did likewise, and, in an age when Japanese avidly adopted curious Western proclivities, they also followed suit. With the opening of the rail link with Tokyo in 1899, Karuizawa started developing into a resort.

Even today, once you get away from the main street in summer, it’s not hard to see what it was about the place that those first modern visitors found agreeable. Karuizawa wears its resort character with style. The town has the uncluttered feeling of wide, open spaces, while the wooded hinterland, where many individuals and companies have built summer cottages, is a green delight.

After driving up from Tokyo, it is positively therapeutic to open the car door, step out and be greeted by the palpable stillness, broken only by the sound of a cuckoo calling through the early morning air, sweet and fresh with the tang of pine. And then to walk through those woods, with the growing hum of insects and soft spring of moss under foot.

To see how Karuizawa evolved over the years from Rajlike hill station to resort for Japan’s urban masses, the Tsuchiya photography store in the Kyu-Karuizawa district is a useful place to stop. The earliest print on display dates from 1891 and shows half a dozen Victorian young ladies posing — to the then notions of composition — with feigned casualness, while three Japanese workmen are local color in one corner. Half a century later, a print from 1938 shows that it was still foreigners setting the tone, with the main street packed and hardly a Japanese face in the crowd.

Just along the main street from Tsuchiya, I retraced my steps to a bakery that once displayed in its window a photograph of John Lennon buying his morning baguette there. Lennon and Yoko Ono were rather fond of the town and often stayed here during the summer. I didn’t see the picture in the window this time, but I hear it’s been moved inside.

Though the eateries in Karuizawa have long catered to Western tastes, the best food to be had is Japanese. Buckwheat thrives at this altitude, and it is used to make soba. Soba is far and away the best-known local specialty, and far and away the best restaurant to sample it at is Kagimotoya in Naka-Karuizawa, where the cold zarusoba is the dish of choice.

Dating back to 1870, Kagimotoya is one of those odd, friendly places that make traveling a pleasure. The restaurant does a brisk trade and, as with other parts of town, the nostalgia factor is high: The walls are adorned with photographs of largely forgotten stars from the ’50s and ’60s, slurping their noodles at a once-chic restaurant. The wait will be long, you feel, before a current pop queen like Ayumi Hamasaki drops by for a plate of zarusoba.

Despite the early foreign connections with the town, Karuizawa is a rather Japanese kind of place. It gets scant mention in English guidebooks on Japan, and foreign faces are decidedly few. This is not a little surprising since, in addition to the refreshing mountain environment, there are a number of attractive tourist destinations nearby, such as the weird, contorted lava boulders of Onioshidashi, under Mount Asama, and the delicate, white spindles of the Shiraito waterfall.

Recently, the biggest tourist growth has been recorded among four-legged visitors. Karuizawa has, quite literally, gone to the dogs. The number of canine tourists must exceed foreign ones by several orders of magnitude. Shops catering to man’s best friend (and usually selling the sillier sort of paraphernalia) are everywhere. Here, the favored hounds tend to be daintier breeds — fluffy pomeranians and yipping chihuahuas — rather than the rottweilers or pit bull terriers that would probably have your arm off if you tried giving them doggy bootees or Hello Kitty hair decorations.

Unlike Archdeacon Shaw, I don’t find that Karuizawa reminds me at all of any part of Scotland I’ve ever seen. But when Tokyo’s urban tendrils start to wrap around me a little too closely, there are few more inviting spots relatively close to hand.