‘One of the principal points to which travelers will direct their steps is the Lake of Chuzenji,” writes Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929) in “A Guide Book To Nikko,” the first English tourist guide of the area published in 1875. Satow, a British diplomat and Japanologist, arrived in Japan in 1862 at a time when the nation was facing a shift in political power and rule from the shogunate to the Emperor in the form of the Meiji Restoration.
“Within a week after his (Satow’s) arrival, the country experienced the ‘Namamugi Incident,’ in which a British merchant was killed on the Tokaido road. But, still, he decided to stay in Japan,” says Kimio Kojima, the owner of local liquor shop Raku Sen Koh Kojimaya who often volunteers to give lectures about the area. “Traveling from east to west, he worked for almost 20 years to establish a strong bond with clans such as the Satsuma and the Choshu.”
It’s late November and I’m on a Tobu Top Tours travel agency tour to Oku-Nikko, where Kojima, as our guide, is taking us around the area, explaining its history as we travel. Although it’s too late for the autumn leaves that the area is famous for, Kojima’s knowledge of the historical background of his hometown and his commentary about the international exchanges that took place there make the trip different from the usual sightseeing tour.
Located in the northwestern part of Nikko in western Tochigi Prefecture, Oku-Nikko, a part of Nikko National Park, is centered around Lake Chuzenji, the largest in Tochigi and the highest altitude lake in Japan. Described it as “a lake of fortune,” by Emperor Meiji, Satow saw it as being as “beautiful as a painting.”
Kojima says the Oku-Nikko area was one of Satow’s favorite places in Japan. Fascinated by its rich nature, he built a lodge to be his summer villa, on the southern shore of the lake in 1896, and frequented the area to go climbing and collect plants. His enthusiasm for Oku-Nikko triggered the construction of various international summer resorts in the area. After Satow left Japan, his lodge became the British Embassy Villa until 2008, after which it was donated to Tochigi Prefecture in 2010. Under renovations now, it is scheduled to be opened to the public in summer 2016 as a new tourist attraction.
It wasn’t just Satow who found Lake Chuzenji irresitible. Scottish merchant and Order of the Rising Sun Thomas Blake Glover (1838-1911), who loved fly fishing there, also built the Nishi Rokuban lodge in 1893. His lodge was then later purchased by Hansaburo Hunter (1884-1947, known as Hans Hunter), a business executive who founded the Tokyo Angling and Country Club in 1925, many members of which were diplomats of European countries. It was no wonder that people would often joke that Japan’s foreign ministries all moved to Nikko during the summer. Although Kojima explains that Glover’s original building burned down in an accident in 1940, its chimney remains and the space is open to the public as a park, a monument to the international exchanges that took place there.
As we pass what was once Nishi Rokuban lodge, we come across the Lake Chuzenji Boathouse, which was formerly used by the members of Tokyo Angling and Country Club. Built as a subsidiary of Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel (formerly known as Nikko Kanko Hotel) in 1927, the leisure facility, we are told, played an important role in the city’s efforts to attract foreign tourists. Now it is a memorial museum exhibiting various boats that were once owned by the Embassy of the Kingdom of Belgium, as well as a display of specimens introducing Lake Chuzenji’s native fish.
“While you can see strong European influences in many places of Oku-Nikko, this boathouse was the only one that features American-style architecture,” Kojima explains. “After the war, it’s believed that the members of Supreme Commander for the Allied Powers took over and hung out in the area.”
Near the Chuzenji Boat House is the luxurious Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, which was inspired by the Kanaya Hotel History House, a historical building we had already visited earlier in the day. Kanaya Hotel History House was one of the first hotels in Japan that aimed to specifically attract non-Japanese visitors and, as a former residence building, it was built in the architectural style of a samurai home of the Heian and Kamakura periods (794-1333). The house became a hotel after its then-owner, the performer Zenichiro Kanaya, offered American missionary Dr. James C. Hepburn a room there on his first visit to Nikko in 1870. Hepburn suggested that Kanaya open a hotel and Kanaya decided to use his own home. Built in the late Edo Period (1780-1867), the building is now a designated Tangible Cultural Property and though not used as a hotel any more, it is open to the public as a rare opportunity to see Japanese traditional architecture up close.
Having heard so much about the attraction of Lake Chuzenji, it becomes the inevitable next destination. With ferries that stop at four wharfs — Fune no Eki Chuzenji, Shobugahama, Senjugahama and Tachiki Kannon — we take a boat tour to make sure we get to see the best views from the lake. This includes the mystical Kozuke Island, which is about 100 meters from the lake’s shore. To the north we also spot Mount Nantai, a volcano that is one of the 100 famous Japanese mountains.
We alight at Tachiki Kannon, which is near the British Embassy Villa. Then after just a 10-minute walk, we find ourselves in front of the former Italian Embassy Villa, a building designed by Czech American architect Antonin Raymond (1888-1976), who arrived in Japan in 1919 as an assistant of Frank Lloyd Wright when they came to design the renowned Imperial Hotel in Tokyo.
An unusual work, the villa’s outer walls are made of cedar bark to match its natural surroundings, and although it is relatively modernist in its concept, the structure’s lake-facing large sliding windows and a wide wooden passage, resemble a Japanese engawa (veranda). Open for viewing, it’s still furnished with European-style items and its annex building now houses the Nikko International Summer Resort Historical Exhibit of photographs, video footage and documents telling the history of the lake and its surrounding social clubs.
This tour may have missed the autumnal beauty of Oku-Nikko, which we’re told reveals a beautiful gradation of red orange and yellow, but having instead enjoyed so much of the history of the area, I consider returning for the winter snow. Designated by the tourism promotion group Yakei Convention and Visitors Bureau as a Night View Inheritance of Japan, the Oku-Nikko Yumoto Onsen Snow Festival, a series of events that takes place from the end of January through February, is enticing.
In the evening, 800 yukiakari snow domes will be lit in blue, green and purple, a display that the Yakei Convention and Visitors Bureau ranks 10th in its Illumination Awards. But it is the festival’s National Ice Sculpture Competition, featuring 10 sculptors, including professionals and chefs from famous hotels, that draws crowds. Entrants prepare sculptures more than 2 meters tall for a show that starts from Jan. 30 and ends when they all melt into nothing.
Getting there: The Oku-Nikko area is a two-hour train ride on the Tobu Line from Tokyo’s Asakusa Station to Tobu Nikko Station, followed by a 40-minute bus ride to Chuzenji Onsen Bus Terminal. For a round trip, it costs ¥5,020 (excluding seat charge). The upcoming Oku-Nikko Yumoto Onsen Snow Festival runs from Jan. 30 to Feb. 27. For tourist information in English, visit www.nikko-travel.jp/english.