Nagano offers a scenic respite from nearby Tokyo
It’s just an ordinary family holiday snap. Dad’s there in straight-leg turn-up jeans and a T-shirt, frowning slightly at the camera through his glasses. Mum’s a bit smarter, hair down, wearing a loose-fitting dress. And their son can’t be more than a couple of years old. He’s holding his bottle, wearing shorts, a stripy top and slip-on shoes. He can’t run off, either: look, Dad’s holding those weird reins that parents sometimes use to keep their toddlers at bay. There’s part of a temple in the background, but as if to emphasise that this is a casual photo, of a normal family doing normal things, there’s a random fourth figure, an interloper in the distance, popping up like a small parrot over Mum’s left shoulder.
My guide, Soichi Tatsuzato, pulls the badly photocopied picture out from behind a wooden temple gate. It’s been laminated; presumably everyone gets to see this. Look, we’re standing in almost the same spot as this family was all those years ago! Imagine!
The Working Class Hero logo on the T-shirt is the giveaway. Along with the fact that the couple in question, posing with their son Sean, were once two of the most recognisable people on the planet: John Lennon and Yoko Ono, on one of the four family holidays they spent in Japan’s Nagano Prefecture in the late 1970s.
Today, Lennon would have been 80. It’s extraordinary to think that everything he ever did – the music, the tours, the bed-ins, the bagism, and indeed the holidays with his family – was done by the age of 40. The anniversary of his murder, 40 years ago, on Dec 8 1980, has a strange symmetry with the length of his life this year.
He came – they came – to Japan because of Ono, of course. Part of a wealthy Japanese family, she was used to visiting Karuizawa, a resort town in Nagano, as an escape from the heat of Tokyo during the summer months. (Apparently a Canadian Missionary called Alexander Croft Shaw started the trend when he built a summer house here in the 1890s, while simultaneously introducing dairy products to the region; a reconstruction of his property can be found in north Karuizawa.) Alpine-style chalets dot the landscape. In winter, the mountains are covered in snow, there’s skiing and snowboarding infrastructure, and visitors throng to the Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park, where the local primates spend their time bathing in hot springs.
These days the Hokuriku Shinkansen can whisk tourists such as myself to Karuizawa from Tokyo in an hour, to stay at the Karuizawa Prince hotel, with onsen hot springs on tap, a variety of golf course to try and easy access to the slopes. But back in the late 1970s, by all accounts, it was rather more elite. The Japanese royal family holidayed here, while the Ono-Lennons found sanctuary in room 128 of the Mampei Hotel. It’s still there today, a strange half-timbered affair that wouldn’t look out of place in Austria. Inside, the foyer and dining room has the air of a hunting lodge, with plenty of wood panelling and art deco stained glass. If you ever want an escape from a life of rock and roll, this is the place.
Like any family, they visited the local attractions. That family photo was taken during a trip to Onioshidashi, which lies just over the border with Gunma Prefecture. Onioshidashi is an extraordinary place, a “garden” formed from coils of lava created during an eruption from Mount Asama in 1783. Here a set of paths wind through the pitted black stone to a temple devoted to Kannon, a female embodiment of Buddha, a place heavy with incense, gold leaf and gongs. If you squint a bit, you can try to make out Kannon’s profile in the surrounding hills, including 3,000 tonnes of belly button (she’s definitely got an outie).
Asama itself, smoking in the distance, is the most active volcano on Honshu, Japan’s main island, and defines the scenery around here. That 1783 eruption blocked out the sun, killed hundreds, and caused a four-year famine. Even now, despite the greenery, despite that alpine feel, there’s still something skewiff about the place: instead of jagged ancient peaks, the land feels freshly formed. On a forest walk along the Old Usui Pass, the viewpoint at the end surrenders a vista exactly like a Sumi-e ink painting: quintessential Japan, the mountains floating in an unkai, a sea of clouds.
If you’re visiting Nagano in the 2020s, you’re likely to be the outdoor type. I try some more trail walking near the Hoshino Resort, close to Karuizawa. Here the Picchio eco-tours have something of the schoolroom about them: we would not get to see the Asian black bears that live here on our particular walk, so I shouldn’t get my hopes up; we might see a flying squirrel, but it was unlikely. Happily there was plenty of flora on show: mizuki trees, with their red berries; the edible Japanese pear or nashi; and mamushi-gusa, the pit-viper weed, which is poisonous, with red pods.
Forest bathing is also big here, although I’m not sure what Lennon would have made of it. Another guide, Shimizu-san, urged me round wooded paths at Nabekura Kogen, at Iiyama in the north of the prefecture, exhorting me to “touch the leaves” of the snow camellia, and “smell the conifers”, while explaining that all the phytoncides in the air were doing me no end of good as they dominated my parasympathetic nerve, giving me mental stability and sorting out my allergies while simultaneously reducing my heart rate. At his behest, I lay down on a mat for a while to look up at the leaves of the canopy, before snapping back to reality over camomile tea and a view of some ducks on a man-made lake.
It’s not so much getting back to nature as getting back to an idealised version of nature, trimmed, manicured, and free of bears. But it works. Just turn off your mind, relax and float downstream…
As stated by the FCDO, Visitors from the UK are currently unable to enter Japan, unless they are travelling for business purposes or in exceptional circumstances.