Historic home matching service for Karuizawa

In an effort to save the historic holiday villas of Karuizawa, a matching-service has been set up by the Karuizawa Cultural Heritage Preservation Association.

In the past few years, some culturally significant old homes have been sadly demolished. The Association hopes to prevent further loss by connecting the owners of old homes with potential buyers who want to carry on their historic legacy. 

The Karuizawa Cultural Heritage Holiday Home Bank will allow homeowners to list their homes. Already, a villa built in the late Meiji era for American missionary T.C. Winn has been listed for sale. It is two-story and clad in cedar bark. It was later owned by famous poet Hiroko Katayama (1878-1957). Music critic Motoo Ōtaguro (1893-1979) purchased the home from Katayama. 

The wealthy summer retreat has been seeing its historic holiday homes gradually demolished as older owners and their heirs sell off their homes. With heritage protection laws lacking any enforceability, there is often nothing that can be done to stop their demolition. 

In September 2021, the 100+-year-old home of Nobel Prize for Literature winner Yasunari Kawabata was swiftly demolished. Kawabata had purchased the home from a British missionary in 1940. The town had petitioned the current property owner to allow the old house to be relocated, but could not get them to agree.

In October 2019, the holiday home of Saburosuke Mitsui (1850-1912) was demolished after the property had been sold to an owner registered in an offshore tax haven. The house was built around 1900 and was the second-oldest home built for a Japanese resident in Karuizawa.

The town introduced a blue plaque scheme in 2015, with homeowners of eligible properties able to apply for blue plaques to affix to their homes. The scheme does not come with any restrictions or obligations for the property owner.

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 travelers 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.

When it received its designation as a town in 1923 it had a population of 5,000 residents. The population as of October 2021 was 19,783.

Source: The Mainichi Shimbun, November 5, 2021.

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