We have just returned from our family trip to Karuizawa in Nagano prefecture. Thankfully, nearby Mt. Asama behaved itself and we didn’t all get blasted to bits by a volcanic eruption.
The main reason for the trip was Y-chan’s piano recital at Karuizawa’a famous Ohga Hall, shown here at dusk. The concert went pretty well and Y-chan acquitted herself admirably in the ivory tickling department. The hall is a fantastic venue for music – its specially designed pentagonal auditorium has superb acoustics and the Steinway grand piano, which Y-chan played so expertly, sounded absolutely wonderful.
The hall itself is beautiful, made entirely from wood. Part of the secret of the hall’s acoustics is the fact that the walls are lined with pine needles from the forests that surround the town. And therein lies the essence of Karuizawa’s undeniable charm – a rather cultured little community nestling amongst some of the most breathtaking scenery Mother Nature can provide.
Somewhat surprisingly, the town owes a great deal of its history to foreigners. Canadian missionary Alexander Croft Shaw is widely credited as the founding father of the community, having introduced it to fellow missionaries as a summer retreat from the heat and humidity of Tokyo in about 1886. This Christian influence can still be seen today in the many churches and chapels that are dotted around the town. As we browsed through a local shop that had reprints of old photographs from the area, I was very surprised to see pictures of Victorian ladies on bicycles and photographs of picnics that could have been taken in Surrey. Given the lush, cool beauty of the forests that surround the town, it’s no surprise that the town became a popular resort – as this rather fine example of Meiji-period architecture shows. The beautiful surroundings continue to draw people here from all over the world.
Here’s a typical summer house. This particular one holds special memories for Big M. When she first started work as a kindergarten teacher, so many parents had summer houses here that the entire kindergarten decamped here for the summer months. This was the house she stayed at. This was her first real taste of independence, and clearly a time of happy memories as she described buzzing around the town on her scooter. We hired a couple of bikes from the hotel where we were staying and spent a lovely afternoon cycling through the woods and the town. Although she hasn’t been here for over 20 years, she has vivid memories of the town, and our journey was punctuated many times by Big M stopping and pointing out a favourite bar, shop or restaurant from her youth.
After exploring the town on two wheels, we gradually worked our back down the hill from the town, meandering through leafy lanes and grassy glades. Eventually we came upon one of the famous sights of Karuizawa, the Kumoba pond. Nicknamed “Swan Lake” for its mirror-like surface, it’s an absolutely beautiful spot, teeming with wild birds, fish and even the occasional bear!
And what about the troublesome neighbour? I personally found it hard to get my head around how such beautiful surrounding could also be so vulnerable. You can’t see Mt Asama from the woods, but as you descend to the valley floor below the town, there is no mistaking its brooding presence just a couple of kilometers away – a sleeping monster that could unleash terrible destruction on this verdant paradise at any time. As indeed it has many times in the past. But this is nature’s way – and, quite interestingly, it is ironic that a town founded by Christians, with their core beliefs in eternal permanency, is built in a landscape that is so volatile.