Karuizawa home of Nobel Prize winner demolished

The historic holiday home of Nobel Prize for Literature winner Yasunari Kawabata in Karuizawa has been demolished this month. The town had petitioned the current owner to allow the structure to be relocated but was unable to obtain their approval.

The 2-story wooden house has a total floor area of 140 sqm (1,506 sq.ft). The Literary Museum of Karuizawa estimated it to be over 100 years old. Kawabata purchased it in 1940 from a British missionary who was returning home.

Kawabata’s main residence was in Kamakura City (another place popular with Japan’s literary masters), and he would frequently travel back and forth to Karuizawa. It was while spending time in his Karuizawa home that he penned The Lake (1954). 

After his passing in 1972, his heirs inherited the Karuizawa property. This spring, the heir passed away with the property sold by the estate to a Kanagawa Prefecture-based real estate company. That company said it was the wishes of the surviving heirs that the house be sold to them and demolished. This is an unusual request as Kawabata’s former home in Kamakura City is preserved and operated as a memorial museum.

In response, six heritage protection groups, including the Karuizawa National Trust, submitted a petition to Karuizawa Town Council seeking the culturally valuable home be saved from demolition.

The Karuizawa mayor expressed the town’s willingness to relocate the historical home elsewhere at the town’s expense. The real estate company refused on the grounds that it would take time, and there was a risk that the land value could fall during this time.

The house is expected to be flattened this month. And with that, the town will lose another piece of its amazing 20th century history.

Back in 2007 the town paid 210 million Yen to acquire the Miyama-so Villa. It was built in 1943 and later used as the Legation of Switzerland. It was also the place where a telegram was sent in 1945 declaring Japan’s acceptance of the Potsdam Declaration. The previous owner planned to demolish it until the town stepped in to purchase and preserve it.

Over the span of one week in October 2019, the second-oldest Japanese-built holiday home in Karuizawa was swiftly demolished after having been sold to an offshore entity earlier that year. The house was built around 1900 for Saburosuke Mitsui and had been in the same family until early 2019. Locals tried in vain to have it preserved but the owner was not responding to any correspondence. The town was unable to assist in time.

About Karuizawa:

Karuizawa is a popular and wealthy summer resort area just 70 minutes by bullet train from Tokyo. In the Edo period it was a small town with lodgings for travellers passing by alongside the Nakasendo (Central Mountain Route) which connected Tokyo and Kyoto. It wasn’t until two foreigners, Canadian missionary Alexander Shaw, and English professor James Dixon, wrote about the town after visiting in 1886 that it drew attention as a holiday destination. Shaw built his own holiday home in the area, and within a few years 20 foreigners had moved to the area.

Two years later Karuizawa Station went into service with the opening of a horse-drawn carriageway connecting Karuizawa to Yokogawa Station in Gunma Prefecture. Trains were eventually introduced, and the Shinkansen train line opened in 1997.

The very first vacation home to be built for a Japanese person was the Hatta Residence built in 1893 for naval captain Yujiro Hatta. The early residents of the town included foreign diplomats and businessmen, Japanese nobles, politicians and wealthy industrialists.

In 1894, the Kameya Hotel (later renamed the Mampei Hotel) opened, followed by the Mikasa Hotel in 1906. By 1903 there were already over 100 holiday villas. In the 1960s, this number had swelled to over 4,000 homes, and by the late 1980s there were over 10,000 homes in the town.

In 1912, Zenshiro Handa acquired around 38 hectares of land and began subdividing it for resort homes. Genjiro Nozawa followed suit, selling resort land in 1916. In 1918, Yasujiro Tsutsumi, founder of Seibu Group, began subdividing and selling land in the Sengataki holiday home area. This area is still managed by Seibu Group.

During the forced evacuation of foreigners in the early 1940s, many embassies and foreign residents relocated to Karuizawa.

The Tokyo Shimbun, September 13, 2021.
The Chunichi Shimbun, September 12, 2021.

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