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High in the Mampei

If it was good enough for Lennon, it's good enough for you

by Burritt Sabin

In mid-April, Karuizawa is quiet but for the buzz of saws and taps of hammers readying shops for the tourist season. Many shops, few of which rise higher than two stories, remain shuttered until then, and the streetscape surprises after the lofty skylines of Tokyo. But Karuizawa, in eastern Nagano Prefecture, has room to spread, and at an elevation of nearly 1,000 meters it already scrapes the sky.

Strolling along Karuizawa Hon Dori, I noticed a poster of a dapper couple gazing at a foliage-bowered pond beneath the words “Choice Karuizawa.” For those who buy the message, realtors dealing in summer homes in Karuizawa are as plentiful as agents brokering apartments in Tokyo.

I turned onto Kyukaruizawa Main Street, part of the former Nakasendo Highway joining Edo (Tokyo) and Kyoto. At the Tourist Bureau I asked about the late Nobel Prize-winning novelist Yasunari Kawabata’s cottage in Happy Valley and was told it is no more. “I’m sorry,” the staffer said, “but I can’t talk about Happy Valley; it’s off limits to tourists. See the tennis clubhouse and the churches.”

I walked down Karuizawa Tennis Road, named for the adjacent courts where in 1957 the young Akihito and Michiko, now Emperor and Empress, first met. The half-timber clubhouse was designed by American architect William Vories (1880-1964).

Opposite the courts stands another Vories, Karuizawa Union Church. It is an airy structure, with a broad nave, exposed ceiling, and cross of white birch. Sunlight through ample windows can’t compensate for the lack of insulation; sweaters and lap blankets are de rigueur. The church transports worshippers back to the Karuizawa frontier, to 1906, the year of its construction.

I recrossed Kyukaruizawa to visit St. Paul’s. Designed by the Czech architect Antonin Raymond (1888-1976), it features trusses of varnished logs supporting the roof. It is all wood except the cast-iron candelabras and tiles etched with the Stations of the Cross.

Deciding to lunch at the Mampei Hotel, I traipsed down larch-shaded Mampei Road, which stretches between summer homes to its namesake.

The Mampei Hotel heaves into view on a rise, its white facade and multiple gables being architect Gonkuro Kume’s idealization of a silk farmer’s home in Nagano’s Saku region. It embodies his belief in integrating structure and environment.

The present hotel building was constructed in 1936, but I passed under a sign dating from 1894. The sign is a relic from the year when Kunisaburo Sato renamed the “Kameya (Turtle Inn),” located elsewhere in Karuizawa, as “Mampei Hotel,” after his father-in-law, the former owner.

I munched on grilled sandwiches with pickles and chips, a boyhood repast only lacking a glass of milk, in the Cafe Terrace with its woven-bamboo ceiling and garden views. Exampling Kume’s merging of architecture and environment, the cafe has picture windows that can be removed to invite a breeze in summer.

In the lobby I met my guide, chief planner Tsutomu Tomita.

The lobby has three stained-glass windows by artist Hideo Unozawa. The one near the Cafe Terrace’s entrance depicts wayfarers, a palanquin, and packhorses in Oiwake, a post town on the Nakasendo, with Mount Asama belching smoke in the distance. Two larger windows are set in the wall between the lobby and the main dining room. In one, a daimyo procession passes over the Nakasendo against the backdrop of the volcano. The third window captures Karuizawa in the 1930s: a roadster with golfers, a man on a galloping steed, church steeples peeping above rolling hills, and the leitmotif of the triptych, Mount Asama.

Indeed, missionaries and mammon have mixed easily here. Evangelists arrived after Archdeacon Alexander Croft Shaw (1880-1964) built a summer home in Karuizawa in 1887; it was Shaw who named Happy Valley; and Karuizawa flourished as an international resort from the 1890s.

Below the last-mentioned window, a wooden rack that was used for the slender golf bags of the 1930s has now made way for skis.

We entered the main dining room, where, while pointing at the short beams between the massive pillars, Tomita explained how Kume employed a complex framework to dampen the shock if a quake hits.

I was told the glockenspiel at the entrance is played to announce lunch and dinner, although its notes are audible only in the Alps, the main building.

As we climbed the stairs to the second floor, Tomita pointed to a tall stained-glass window in which fanciful turtles are depicted, a reminder of the Mampei’s origins in the Turtle Inn.

The guest rooms are striking. Imitation half-timber walls recall the facade. Fretted glass shoji divide sleeping and sitting areas. The bathtub sits on carved legs. The horse-chestnut chest graven with peonies examples Karuizawa-bori (carving).

We returned to the lobby and walked down “Avenue of Repose: Sparrows in Bamboo Inviting Happiness,” so named by artist Reiko Kojima, whose small modernist paintings on Buddhist themes grace one wall of the corridor.

Our destination was the museum. Relics range from the “pee pot,” kept under the side table, to the chairs on which Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and U.S. National Security Adviser Henry Kissinger sat for a conference on Aug. 19, 1972.

Tomita grew wistful; the museum has suffered vicissitudes. Photos of John Lennon and Yoko Ono were stolen from the display case in 2003, and precious artifacts destined for the museum were removed from the storehouse and taken home by members of the Sato family, erstwhile owners of the hotel, following an M&A in 1999. The Satos also souvenired all but three of the guest books.

However, Mr. Tomita does point out a piano, relegated here from the bar. Lennon tickled its ivories and wanted to take it home. John did not get the upright, but did find peace at the Mampei, his home for four summers, 1976-1979. He discovered the hotel through Yoko, whose family owned a summer home in Karuizawa.

In the mornings, he drank a cup of tea in the Cafe Terrace and went for a spin on a bicycle. As he sped with his youngest son Sean down shadowed lanes, Yoko pedaling behind, people perhaps wondered if . . . then concluded “Nah, it couldn’t be him.” Imagine if John had remained in Nagano.

Tomita showed me the way to Happy Valley.

As the flagged path rose between mossy walls, the vacant summer homes cantilevered or perched on concrete piles driven into the ground as support. The path debouched into a mountain road. Where was Happy Valley? I asked a man playing catch with his son.

“You were in Happy Valley.”

His reply suggested a metaphor for life: unbeknown to us, already we abide there.