Otherworldly Architecture in Japan’s Magical Mountainside

THE MOUNTAIN TOWN of Karuizawa is about an hour’s train ride northwest of Tokyo, a journey that zooms past the small, heartbreaking scenes of beauty that any traveler here knows, an endlessly repeating pattern of fragile persimmon trees, their unlovely black branches sagging with dusty orange fruit; splintered wooden torii gates, their vermilion paint bleached to a fleshy pink; tin-roofed factories and squat apartment buildings, their patios hung with laundry.

One expects Karuizawa to look and feel the same as all the other villages on the route, but despite its totems of contemporary Japan — the tidy, utilitarian concrete train station; the ubiquitous bright-lit convenience stores selling ice cream and compression socks — it feels not of Japan, but of elsewhere: a pretty, bourgeois commuter’s hamlet in central Europe or New England, the kind of place where a character in a John Cheever story might disembark on a Friday evening, his gray suit jacket folded over his arm.

This sense of geographical displacement is partly due to the relative un-Japaneseness of Karuizawa’s landscape — deciduous where much of the surrounding countryside is piney, and punctuated by hills instead of fields (there’s even a 10-trail ski slope directly behind the station). But it also has something to do with how the town has chosen to define itself: A self-consciously Alpine aesthetic dominates here, complete with snug, peak-roofed cottages, their white stucco facades adorned with wooden latticework. It is a Japanese dream of a particular kind of Western idyll, an idealized village convincingly radiating its own, sincere brand of gemutlichkeit.


Slide Show

The Houses of Karuizawa

CreditPhotograph by Mikael Olsson. Producer: HK Productions


It has also been, for many decades, an escape for the rich and the royal, who come here in the summer to get away from the Tokyo swelter and in the winter to…

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