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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.
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 ski and to soak in the town’s many natural, mineral-rich hot springs. In 1957, the then-crown prince Akihito met the then-commoner Michiko while playing tennis here (she won); the imperial family still visits most summers. In the 1970s, John Lennon and Yoko Ono — who was, like Empress Michiko, the daughter of an old, wealthy Japanese family — spent months here as well. (More recently, it’s been rumored that Bill Gates is building a massive estate in town.)
The real curiosity of Karuizawa, though, is not its landscape nor its residents, but rather, its collection of spectacular avant-garde houses, most of them designed by prominent Japanese architects. There is Makoto Yamaguchi’s Polygon House, a quasi-Brutalist geode of distressed steel and glass that perches on a hill in a forest like an abandoned space pod; the concrete, glass and larch wood Omizubata N House by Iida Archiship Studio, whose dramatically steepled roof recalls an ancient Norse ship; TNA’s Passage House, where a horizontally oriented front entryway functions as a trap door, giving visitors the sensation that the forest floor beneath — over which the ring-shaped house hovers — is the ground floor of the structure, and the house itself its attic. […]