July 30, 2009


A hospital without a roof, a summer retreat for the wealthy, the perfect spot for a wedding or simply a great place to take the family shopping. These are all perfectly accurate ways of describing Karuizawa, a town in Nagano prefecture set in the shadow of the volcano Mount Asama.

Just over an hour from the capital thanks to the Nagano Shinkansen, it's an ideal place to get away from the summer heat of the concrete island that is Tokyo, and last week that's exactly what I did for a couple of days, relaxing in the cooler mountain air.

Being a week day when I arrived, and not yet at the peak of the summer holiday season, the town was remarkably quiet in the daytime, though I imagine that at weekends it's an altogether different story.

There are a fair number of places to visit, some of which can be reached easily by bicycle, as there are numerous places renting them out for the day in the town itself. Some of the other points of interest are a little further afield and to get there you either need access to a car or to the not so frequent buses.First port of call was the Shiraito no taki (White Thread Falls), waterfalls that seemingly appear from the middle of a bed of rock, with the white threads of water cascading down into a pond below. The falls are not particularly high, but are 70 metres wide and the water itself is not so cold as rather than coming from a river or snow melt, it comes from inside the rock itself. For those interested, there are a number of hiking routes in the hills above the falls, and there are supposed to be some bears living wild in the area too.

From there it was a bus back into town and then on another bus out to an area called Hoshino which is a fairly recent development that includes an onsen, some classy but tasteful small shops and a hotel. A walk through the woods will also bring you to the modern architecture of the cocoon-shaped stone chapel which was built back in the boom times of the eighties, and just one of the many chapels in the area that make a lot of money from the popularity of western style chapel weddings. Some people may disagree with this sentiment when they hear that drill, but each to their own I guess. It's just a short walk from the stone chapel to the wooden chapel, which can be seen on posters in stations around Tokyo enticing people to the delights of Karuizawa.

After this it was back into town for a quick look around, though by this time the day trippers had gone home, and it was really like a ghost town, something exacerbated by the heavy mist that enveloped the town like a blanket. The following morning I decided to rent a bike for the day and cycle around the town. There are a number of cycling routes marked out on the map, none of them particularly long or punishing, so I opted to combine a couple of the routes in order to make a day of it. Close to my starting point, there was another wedding chapel. I use the phrase wedding chapel simply because their sole raison d'etre is for hosting weddings, and there is no notion of Christian worship involved whatsoever. In fact, one fairly lucrative line of work available for foreigners who speak Japanese is to work as a wedding priest (absolutely no theological qualifications needed), where you go through the motions of reading out the vows for the couple dressed in a cassock and dog collar. A lot of the roads lead through a tall canopy of green, with little sunlight getting through, thus keeping the local temperature that much lower than in the city. The Manpei Hotel is one of the older and pricier places to stay in town, and it is set deep in the woods away from the main road leading through the town. Apparently John Lennon used to like staying here when he was in Japan.
One name that can be seen a lot around town is that of A.C. Shaw, the British-Canadian missionary who "discovered" Karuizawa in the late nineteenth century and described as a hospital without a roof and introduced it to other expatriates as a great place to escape Tokyo's summer heat. It was from this time that the town developed into the resort it is today, with expatriates slowly being replaced by wealthy Japanese, including the Imperial family, who are said to spend time here quite often.

There is a (real) church in memory of Shaw, a street named after him and an annual festival which also carries his name ~ all in recognition of the way that his actions changed the economic fortunes of the area. There is another real church in the area, the Catholic Saint Paul's, which is close to the famous Ginza shopping street. Heading out of town on a two-lane tree-lined road you reach the old Mikasa Hotel, one of the old western-style hotels (though completely designed and built by the Japanese) that was open for business from 1906 until 1970. It now stands as a museum piece which you can look around for a small fee, and pages from the guestbook in the early 1920s shows that most of the guests were expats resident in either Tokyo, Yokohama or Kobe.

In the woods around the town, you can see lots of house built on very large plots of wooded land, many of which are second residences of the wealthier section of society, though some are also available for seasonal rental.

With it's heritage as a resort town owed to the expatriate community of years gone by, as well as the disproportionately large number of western style churches and chapels in the are, many of the eateries in town serve French or Italian food, or their is even the 'domestic sausage' shop selling locally produced German-style sausage and cured meats.
I opted for something Japanese in the evening, however, and, lured by the stylish decor and jazz being played with the volume cranked up high, I went to Kawakami An for my evening meal.

No doubt there are many other much cheaper places to get a bowl of soba noodles, but if this restaurant were in Tokyo, I think I'd be a regular, as it was rather special.

Along with all the wedding chapels in the area, there are, of course, wedding outfitters too, and this one has a name that seems to reflect the almost Disneyfied fairytale romantic vision that the Japanese have of western-style white dress weddings. Even the walk down the aisle is described in Japanese as the 'virgin road' ~ I kid you not.

For the last morning, I headed back to the Hoshino area to have a dip at the Tombo onsen, which is new and pretty stylish. The other choice would have been to visit the huge outlet mall, the far side of the station, but I decided to leave that to the bargain-hunting families with bored kids in tow.

July 28, 2009

Books: McMafia by Misha Glenny

At first glance, you could be forgiven for thinking that this book is the movie edition of a pulp fiction crime novel, but once you open it and look inside, you soon discover that it is instead a well-written piece of investigative journalism that reveals just how much of the world's economic dealings are linked to organised crime, which according to the author amounts to about twenty percent of the world's GDP.

Misha Glenny is a reporter who made his name at the BBC and the Guardian reporting on the collapse of communism in the late eighties/early nineties and then the Balkan Wars that followed. It is the knowledge and experience he gained in this period that have allowed him to explore the present day world of organised crime. In the course of the book, he visits all corners of the world demonstrating the extensive reach of criminal activity executed in the search of maximum profit.

Glenny traces the rapid rise of organised crime from localised gangs to a truly global concern back to the twin collapse of communism and the deregulation of global financial markets which happened at around the same time. Even before the final collapse of the Iron curtain Eastern European states were involved in the illicit smuggling or arms and drugs as a means of propping up the ailing economies of their countries. Once communism suddenly collapsed, an out of work police force together with steroid-popping weight-lifters as muscle, suddenly found that they had had good grounding in how to get rich quick.

The chapters that focus on Eastern Europe and the collapse of the Soviet Union come across as the strongest as it is in these areas that Glenny is clearly more knowledgeable. He also visits India, Brazil, Dubai, South Africa, China and Japan on his travels, each time showing how enterprising individuals with little respect for the law or lives of others have becoming ridiculously wealthy in a short period of time off the back of illegal business activities. The chapters on the Far East are, by comparison to the rest of the book, a less satisfying in their scope, but given the huge scope of this project it is almost inevitable that some parts will be weaker than others.

At times some of the stories are shocking, and at others they are heartbreaking, yet all show what can happen if the untamed pursuit of profit is allowed to develop and grow without regulation.

An eye-opening book that shows the darker side of how today's world really works.

July 25, 2009


Hamamatsucho Station is probably the closest point on the Yamanote Line to Tokyo Bay, with the sea being less than half a mile away, and as a result the area you can look around is somewhat restricted.
If you head towards the sea on exiting the station though, you soon arrive at Kyu-Shiba-Rikyu Garden, which makes for a pleasant stroll and seems to be a spot that office workers in the area like to come to during their lunch break if the temperature isn't too high.

The main street leading inland from the station is lined with office buildings including the World Trade Centre Building, and most of these buildings are of a characterless, purely functional design.

The Shiba Dai-jingu is an all-concrete ultra modern shrine that seemed to attract a steady flow of office workers coming to pray for luck during their break. People work through the rope circle part way up the steps following a prescribed pattern in order to bring good luck/ward off bad luck, or something of that order.

This guy with a shoe fetish on a retro looking sign was above a shop in the area, though I forget whether or not it was actually a shoe shop.
Back on the main street and half-way between the station and Shiba Koen is Daimon, an old gate which straddles the busy road.
One of the main attractions in Shiba Koen is the big temple Zojo-ji, and here you can see the Sangedatsu-Mon entrance to the temple grounds.

This tree just inside the main gate was apparently planted by Ulysses Grant on a visit to Tokyo during the Meiji era.

Tokyo Tower viewed from the temple grounds on an overcast afternoon.

After wandering around Shiba Koen for a bit, I headed back towards the station, because there wasn't a great deal else to see to be honest.
Would love to know the story behind the naming of this wine bar.
Just as I was about to head back into the station, I noticed this airship flying past Tokyo Tower.

How can I sum up Hamamatsucho? Well, it's hardly the most vital stop on the Yamanote Line, and while it does have one or two points of interest, I found it largely devoid of local atmosphere.