Thursday 19 July 2018

Respite from the Sweltering Heat - A Visit to Cool Karuizawa

Coming back to Japan after a few weeks away was a shock: the fiercely hot summer days over 35℃ known as mōshobi (猛暑日) together with the "tropical nights" or (nettaiya 熱帯夜) where temperatures remain above 25℃ have started early and with a vengeance. Wednesday marked the first time temperatures topped 40℃ this year (40.7 in Tajimi, Gifu) - with Kyoto not far behind. My weather app on that day gave a reading of 35℃ for Western Tokyo with a heat index ("feels like") figure of 42℃! Europe, especially Britain, was unusually hot when I was there but in the shade and in the evening temperatures were comfortable - in contrast to the stifling, energy-sapping muggy humidity that is Tokyo. What do Japanese do to keep cool
Apart from fans (being given out on the street in the picture), parasols, summer kimonos, and various summer foods, such as watermelon, kakigōri (shaved ice), and eel (covered here), more and more public spaces in the city are installing mist showers (pictured) to cool people down. There are also an increasing number of "cool" goods on sale such as personal mist sprays, towels, cool pads to put under your pillow, arm-covers, wipes, and even underwear. But perhaps the best way to deal with the fierce summer heat is to escape the heat-island and basin effect of the big cities and head for the mountains - and for those in Tokyo, Karuizawa, in Nagano Prefecture, 1000m above sea level and only a hour or so away is the perfect place to gain some respite from the heat.

Arriving in Karuizawa, the temperature was a good seven degrees cooler than Tokyo and the "feels like" temperature was about the same as the actual temperature - the air was noticeably cooler. Karuizawa has been a popular get-away for the rich and famous since Meiji, including a number of non-Japanese, particularly missionaries in the past, and has a very cosmopolitan feel. Wood features prominently in the buildings (such as the police box pictured) and the woodland is coated in a lush green moss (koke =苔). The area as a whole is full of second/holiday homes (bessō =別荘) and resort hotels, though there are cheaper accommodation options (including a British-run B&B I would recommend!).
In terms of sightseeing suggestions, renting a bicycle (including tandems and electric bikes) is a great idea. The city is very bicycle friendly - there are cycle lanes and numbered course signs - and one of the many cycle rental shops will provide you with a cycling map detailing the five main courses. For a short 2 to 3 hour course starting from the station I would recommend the Shiozawa area, particularly the the leisure park known as Taliesin (タリアセン) centred around the beautiful Shiozawa Lake (塩沢湖) which features the Suikyū Villa (睡鳩荘) created by lay missionary William Merrell Vories as well as other buildings designed by Antonin Raymond. Nearby, is the quietly impressive Hiroshi Senju Museum (千住博美術館) named after the famous Nihonga (日本画) artist, an incredibly innovative building (sloping floors, open green spaces) designed by Pritzker Architect Prize Winner Ryue Nishizawa (西沢立衛).

Once you've returned your bike, how about catching a bus for lunch or dinner at Harunire Terrace (ハルニレテラス)located on the elm-tree lined Yukino River in the Hoshino area? The terrace has some lovely outdoor restaurants, has a great hot spring (onsen =温泉) just a short walk away, and is also close to some very famous Christian churches (featured in the next post). Be sure to grab a can of Karuizawa craft beer and look out for the can featuring an image from Senju's "When the Stardust Falls"(星のふる夜に)series (pictured). Guaranteed to cool you down!
[UPDATE JULY 23rd: Temperatures exceeded 40℃ in Tokyo for the first time ever while a new record was set on the same day - 41.1℃ in Kumagata, Saitama]