During my many years in Japan, I’d often heard of the ‘Snow
Country’ made famous by Kawabata and his book of the
same name, and seen shots on TV of people shovelling
meter-thick snow off their roof in winter as heavy snowfalls
hit the Japan sea coast. However, despite travelling up and
down the Japanese islands, I’d never visited this part of
the archipelago until I recently had the opportunity to visit
a friend’s country cabin and experience a piece of living
history. Little did I know that within 6 months I’d have my
own mountain hideaway too!
Many people know that Karuizawa got its start as a summer
getaway for foreign missionary families, but far less known is
a second community, hidden away in remote Nagano, and
still going strong since 1921. This community is the Nojiri
Lake Association (NLA) on the shores of picturesque Lake
Nojiri, the second biggest lake in Nagano Prefecture.
The NLA was born when a group of foreigners, shocked
at the ‘party town’ Karuizawa had become (yes, even in
the 1920s), decided to find a quieter place to spend their
summers in a more pristine and tranquil environment, playing
tennis, swimming, sailing and relaxing, away from the bustle
and incessant tea parties. On finding Nojiri, they set about
buying land and starting the community. At the beginning,
facilities were basic; water came from springs at the bottom
of the hill near the lake and many families slept in tents while
waiting for their summer cabins to be built. Now, about 250
small, basic wooden cabins dot the wooded hillside, together
with a small golf course, tennis courts, community hall, boat
and swimming area.
Sitting at the base of Mt Madarao, with its back to the
beautiful peaks of Iizuna (1900 m), Kurohime (2000 m)
and the somewhat jagged Myoko (2400 m), Lake Nojiri is
roughly circular. The three peaks—all dormant volcanoes—
make for a very beautiful sight; Iizuna and Kurohime are
classic cones while Myoko is more broken and is part of a
much bigger caldera. Not being too deep, the warm summer
lake water is perfect for swimming and other water sports.
I got my lucky break in June 2008 when I was invited
to help set up wireless Internet at a friend’s cabin—heaven
forbid, NLA was moving into the 21st century. We left Tokyo
late morning and arrived mid-afternoon. When I saw Lake
Nojiri, I was immediately reminded of other vacation lake
communities, like Lake Tahoe in California or one of the many
lakes in the English Lake District; different to be sure but with
a similar atmosphere. In fact, it seemed very different to the
lowlands of the Kanto Plain we’d just left behind and not at all
like Honshu. The climate, open space and rounder mountains
are more like Japan’s northern island of Hokkaido. Best of all,
it was cool and I could see sailboat sails flapping in the light
breeze. This was good news, because I’d learned to sail at
school, and couldn’t wait to get out on the water.
Turning off the road by a wooded hill on the south side
of the lake, we headed down a gravel track and I got my first
glimpse of an NLA cabin—wooden and traditional, small
and basic. We were lucky to have road access and could
drive up to the cabin, because many cabins perched on the
hillside and surrounded by trees, do not. Instead, a network
of walking paths crisscross between them.
Entering the cabin, I felt I was stepping back in time.
This cabin was built over 50 years ago with traditional straw
roof and wattle-and-daub walls or tsuchikabe in Japanese.
Small bunkroom out back for sleeping and two open lofts
Snow capped Mt Kurohime (Author)
Many in the community aptly call the cabins ‘rustic.’ Largely
without connection to town water, most rely on standpipes or
wells for water in summer. In winter, the community water
is turned off and all water has to be carried in. Interiors are
basic with simple panelling and no insulation, old exposed
electrical wiring snakes across walls and over beams. Worst
of all for some people might be the botonchi waterless toilets.
Once widespread throughout rural Japan, they still live on in
the NLA. Most simply open to the septic tank below, but a
lucky few with well water have luxury units with minimal flush
and a trapdoor to hide the view. After taking one look at a
rental cabin, many a town dweller has fled to the nearest hotel
for the duration of their stay. However, adapting to the quirks
of NLA life is remarkably easy for the right personality. As
rustic as they might seem, the cabins are the perfect escape
for relaxing and taking it easy away from the noise, pollution
and concrete of Tokyo or Osaka.
In fact, the whole area seems to be in a time warp.
Spared the overdevelopment and urban sprawl of the 70s
and 80s bubble years, there is a natural calm about a place
where bears still roam the forests and the largest old-growth
silver birch (shirakaba) still rustle in the cooling breezes.
Lake Nojiri and the cabins are a great place all year
round, but turn up during July and August and you’re in for a
surprise, because ‘the summer getaway season’ has begun,
just as it started 90 years ago.
As with all good things, owning a piece of paradise is not
easy. A cabin cannot be bought, the community is held in trust
and a cabin can only be obtained when a member leaves.
Rather than buying the property, an incoming member buys
a share that includes the cabin. On top of that, entry requires
spending 2 weeks in the community during the summer
period, an interview, and recommendation by two members.
Only then, after passing approval can you search out that
elusive lakeside residence.
Fast-forward 6 months and now I’m the proud owner of
my own Nojiri cabin for less than the price of a family car!
Like all NLA purchases I don’t really ‘own’ it and it doesn’t
have that wonderful lake view. But it already feels like home
and is now my valued escape from the city. Once in the
community, there’s always the future possibility of trading-up
to the sought after lake view. I can see that I’ll be making the
Nojiri area a big part of my life from now on. There’s still a lot
to discover; my next task is to search out a dinghy so I can
rediscover the joys of being master of my own craft—even if
it is less than 4-m long.
You might come to the lake to relax, but there’s a lot to do
and see. In summer, you can kick back, swim in the lake, and
enjoy the cool northerly breeze blowing in from the Japan
Sea. Using that breeze, go for a sail in your own boat or share
with one of the many sailors in the NLA crowd. If you don’t
want to sail, you can take the picturesque passenger ferry
and discover the lake or pedal a ‘swan’ boat out to the small
island not far from Nojiri village. The island has a colonnade
of beautiful tall pine trees leading to a small shrine and is a
great place for a picnic.
The district is famous for its produce; at 500 m and more,
the mild summer and autumn climate offers near-perfect
growing conditions not found in many areas of Honshu. This
is where some of Japan’s best soba buckwheat is grown;
in summer, delicate white flowering soba fields cover the
landscape like early snow. From late spring to late autumn,
local markets are full of produce not usually seen in the big
cities. On walking into a market, I was surprised to find the
fat, green-and-red stalks of rhubarb, taking me back to my
childhood and school desserts of rhubarb crumble. Almost
impossible to buy in Tokyo, rhubarb was introduced by local
missionaries. Bicycle around the lake in summer and pick up
fresh sweet corn, another local delicacy.
Close-by, the slopes of Mt Myoko have many hiking
courses that can—with good planning—end at a free natural
rotenburo open-air hot spring. For something more civilized,
stop at Akakura Onsen and take a dip in one of the many
hotel baths. Further afield is Togakushi, a beautiful small town
famous for wickerwork. Nearby are the forbidding Togakushi
cliffs and the very beautiful Togakushi shrine. According to
Japanese folklore, the sun goddess is said to have hidden in
a nearby cave.
Winter also offers many opportunities but you need to be
prepared for some of the heaviest snowfalls in Japan. You’ll
need a good four-wheel drive vehicle for some of the more
inaccessible parts, and make sure you have snow tyres or
chains—minus zero temperatures are frequent even during
the day. The area offers snowshoeing, and cross-country
skiing as well as snowboarding and regular skiing and Mt
Myoko boasts some of Japan’s longest ski runs.
How about getting there? Nojiri is reached easily by
car in 4 hours from Tokyo via the Kanetsu and Joshinetsu
expressways, or in less than 3 hours using the Nagano
Shinkansen to Nagano and the Joetsu Line to Kurohime
If you want to know more about the NLA, go to: