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Meet the Local Literati: Karuizawa Taliesin

Some might argue that Hokkaido in northern Japan is the country’s veritable summer capital, but for the affluent classes Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture is the It place to build Georgian Colonial, Folk Victorian or Ranch-style summer houses, called bessou in Japanese. Our weekend trip to Karuizawa led us to a park called Karuizawa Taliesin, where we got acquainted with such a house (or two).

Named after Frank Lloyd Wright’s summer home and studio in Wisconsin, Nagano’s Taliesin might be described as the Karuizawa version of an amusement park, with a rose garden, mini museums, playground for kids, and a pretty lake with a selection of rowboats.

View of the lake from a bench.

View of the lake from a bench.

Unfortunately, the English rose garden was not in season so we missed its fragrant beauty. But the summer cottages that doubled as house museums made up for it.

Vacation Home for a Francophile

Welcome to Suikyusou, a summer house designed by the American architect William Merrell Vories in 1931. The house was transferred here from another place in Karuizawa and it now stands serenely overlooking the lake at this Taliesin. Vories’ client was Asabuki Tomiko, who did the French to Japanese translation of eight books by one of my favorite authors, Simone de Beauvoir, including The Prime of Life and Force of Circumstance. It is said that Asabuki was acquainted with de Beauvoir’s partner, Jean-Paul Sartre; whatever it was that made her choose to translate the sometimes difficult-to-grasp works of the existentialist feminist, she has my respect.

Suikyusou, Asabuki Tomiko's summer residence.

Suikyusou, Asabuki Tomiko's summer residence.

Going back to the summer house, the bare concrete chimneys looked out of place (Perhaps a later addition/renovation, along with the concrete slab, maybe during the site transfer?). Yet the two-storey wooden building–with its gable roof, white-painted balcony and porch, double-hung windows with shutters, and sienna-stained wooden clapboard siding–is straight out of a storybook. Details such as a diamond-shaped window by the entrance, and lace-like patterns on the gutters give this home a certain air of craftsmanship.

Too Pretty to be a Post Office

Another building of note is the Meiji Yonjuyonen-kan (completed 1911), formerly a post office and social gathering place of summer home owners in Kyu-Karuizawa (the old location). I liked the decorative brackets under the eaves. The second floor now houses the Fukuzawa Kouko Nonohana Flower Museum. It was filled with watercolor paintings of flowers, along with portraits of women, but what I found most riveting was the open-beam ceiling. On the first floor was a cafe where we had coffee and cake, both affordable and delicious. Views of the lush greenery made for an extra-relaxing tea time.

Karuizawa Yonjuyonenkan

Karuizawa Yonjuyonenkan

Koike Iwataro’s Legacy

Finally, the Karuizawa Kougen Bunkou (completed 1985), or “Literary Museum of Karuizawa” as the park likes to call it, deviated from the wooden summer house theme with its generous use of steel, concrete and glass. It sat on a raised platform covered with Asama stone. This contemporary number’s roof had such an interesting shape that it made me want to look at it from all angles. The building houses book collections and memorabilia of the Karuizawa literati. What caught my eye was how chic the glass panels that made up the second-floor baluster look with the pine floors and fieldstone walls. I found out later that the building was designed by GK Sekkei, an architecture firm headquartered in Tokyo, formed by a group of students who studied under pioneering Japanese designer Koike Iwataro.

Karuizawa Kougen Bunkou

Karuizawa Kougen Bunkou

There were other preserved dwellings within the park, such as the Musee Peynet (which was an eyesore: it was dilapidated and in dire need of a sympathetic restoration), and a few other summer cottages of local literati from bygone eras. You could also buy a bag of food for the school of carp, flock of ducks and lone swan that swam around the lake. I had fun looking at the houses and trying to note down their design-related points of interest; my husband was happiest when I finally relented and let him row us around the lake in a little wooden boat.

Musings

Left, Simone de Beauvoir (photo courtesy of ABC News); right, Asabuki Tomiko (photo courtesy of Art Random).

Left, Simone de Beauvoir (photo courtesy of ABC News); right, Asabuki Tomiko (photo courtesy of Art Random).

As we floated on the lake I gazed at the Suikyusou. The park pamphlet described the original owner, Asabuki Tomiko, as not just being a faithful translator to the French playwright Francoise Sagan, but also herself a novelist. The fact that she could afford a summer house in Karuizawa meant that she was wealthy. Did she keep among her circle of friends the creme de la creme of Japan’s literati? Did she, like de Beauvoir, surround herself with writers, intellectuals, philosophers? Perhaps Asabuki found in her life some parallels with de Beauvoir’s, motivating her to translate the French writer’s voluminous autobiographies. If Asabuki were alive today, would she translate the posthumously published Letters to Sartre, a damning compilation of de Beauvoir’s unedited letters to her lifelong companion, filled with risque revelations and excruciating self-incrimination?

The lake's boat dock from afar. The red building is Musee Peynet.

The lake's boat dock from afar. The red building is Musee Peynet.

As my husband made another turn around the lake, I reminded myself that I had yet to purchase and read the recent, more authoritative translation of de Beauvoir’s tour de force, The Second Sex. I had bought, read, re-read and loved the original English translation when I was about twenty years old, though critics said the book was abridged in all the wrong places and full of mistakes translation-wise. “You need to buy and read the new, comprehensive version”, I told myself. “You need to read more books not directly related to your profession”, I added. “What do you mean, not related? What de Beauvoir wrote about is directly related to your very existence, to life itself…”, I self-countered. And so on, until it was time to give up the boat.

In the end, after all the requisite brand shopping and Western food eating and house sightseeing at the inimitable summer resort that is Karuizawa, this version of Taliesin might just be the place to sit back, row a boat, and ponder upon the meaning of existence. Or the books you need to buy.

Views of Karuizawa Taliesin

Views of Karuizawa Taliesin

Sources

Art Random – source of Asabuki Tomiko’s photograph.
ABC News Australia – source of Simone de Beauvoir’s photograph.

External Link

Karuizawa Taliesin – official website

Books to Consider


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5 comments

  1. krissw /

    lovely, well-selected pics! nice layout too.
    btw, no interior pics of the suikyuso cottage?

    • Thanks, Krissie! Unfortunately, entrance fee to the Suikyusou was not included in the admission ticket package which covered entrance to the park as well as the mini museums. Being the misers that we were, we opted not to pay the separate fee. Now I’m kicking myself for being such a Scrooge! I did find a blog with some nice photos of the interior. Click here.

  2. Sharon /

    Loved your account of all that self-talk!
    That’s a pretty huge building for a post-office!

    • Thanks! I could self-talk myself to the point of madness sometimes ;)

      The main/central post offices in Japan are several floors big but are now all concrete-and-glass buildings. Would have loved to post at this pretty, mint green one when it was still functioning!

  3. Fred Cecilia Fangonon /

    beautiful!!!! Beverly Claire
    Hope someday we will go together to these beautiful places

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