View of the British Embassy Villa from Lake Chuzenji Photo: VICKI L BEYER
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Seeking escape from summer heat at an embassy villa

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By Vicki L Beyer

It’s no secret that coastal Japan is stiflingly hot and humid in summer. Those with the sense and wherewithal head for cooler climes. This was even more the case in the bygone days before air conditioning.

Mountain lakes have long been known to be a great escape. In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many in the Tokyo diplomatic community decamped to Lake Chuzenji, north of Tokyo. The highest altitude lake in Japan, Lake Chuzenji sits in the mountains above Nikko in Tochigi Prefecture. At the height of its popularity, more than 40 European countries had resort villas in the area, creating quite a community in the summer months. In fact, it was often quipped that “The Foreign Ministry moves to Nikko in summer.”

Meiji era (1868-1912) British diplomat and early Japanologist, Sir Ernest Mason Satow (1843-1929), led this charge.  During his early years in Japan -- at the very beginning of the Meiji restoration -- Sir Ernest, then a lowly (albeit highly talented) embassy interpreter, travelled the length and breadth of Japan, penning both accounts of his experiences and the earliest guidebooks to Japan.

It stands to reason, then, that Sir Ernest would know the best place for a summer respite from Tokyo’s brutal summers. Nikko and Lake Chuzenji were long-standing favorites of his, as evidenced by his 1875 “A Guide Book to Nikko.”

In 1896, Sir Ernest, who loved to hike and collect plants around Lake Chuzenji, built a summer home for himself and his family on the shores of the lake. He also convinced many of his diplomatic counterparts to build villas in the area. A number of those villas still stand today. Some (eg., those of France and Belgium) are still in use; others have been converted to museums that enable tourists to enjoy them and imagine lifestyles of a century ago.

British Embassy Villa

When Sir Ernest was posted to China in 1900, his Lake Chuzenji villa became the property of the British Embassy, which continued to use it as a summer home for diplomats until 1997. It was donated to Tochigi Prefecture in 2010 and has been restored and opened to the public.

The two-story villa sits just meters from the southeastern shore of the lake. Its broad verandas, on both the first and second floors, afford incredible views of the lake and Mt Shirane beyond.

Displays in the refurbished rooms of the ground floor help visitors understand and appreciate Sir Ernest’s contribution to British diplomacy and the world’s understanding of Japan. One room is furnished as Sir Ernest's study and includes a timeline of his life overlapping with the history of Japan and Nikko's development as a mountain resort, as well as photos and other memorabilia of his personal life. The other room (actually two rooms that have been combined) contains more displays on Lake Chuzenji's attraction to foreign visitors, the design and construction of the villa, and the lives of other foreigners who visited the area during Sir Ernest's time.

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Sir Ernest's "picture perfect" view Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Sir Ernest once referred to the view from his second story veranda as being “as beautiful as a painting”. Not only can visitors be inspired by this picture-perfect view, they can do so while enjoying a British-style afternoon tea in the café that has been opened there. The cafe, which offers formal table service, can get quite busy, necessitating a wait to be seated. Take advantage of this wait to really appreciate the views from the veranda.

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Sir Ernest's study, with displays on his life Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Hours: 9:00-16:00 (17:00 May through October); closed December through March

Admission: 200 yen (children 100 yen); a "joint ticket" for 300 yen (children 150 yen) provides admission to both the British Embassy Villa and the nearby Italian Embassy Villa

Italian Embassy Villa

Nestled in the trees not far from the British Embassy Villa is the Italian Embassy Villa, built in 1928. Designed by Antonin Raymond (1888-1976), a Czech-born architect who came to Japan to work with Frank Lloyd Wright, the villa is larger, with more bedrooms -- more obviously designed for use by a diplomat.

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The Italian Embassy Villa, set for a dinner party Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The main room of the ground floor runs the length of the house, fronted by a glassed-in veranda overlooking the lake, and anchored by two massive stone fireplaces. The room contains many original or period furnishings. One can almost imagine the ambassador's wife instructing servants as they prepare to host a dinner party for other diplomats temporarily residing at the lake to escape the summer heat of Tokyo.

A small, self-service cafe is tucked behind the dining room's fireplace. Rather than the expansive views of the British villa, diners can enjoy the cool atmosphere of windows opening onto woodland.

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The lakeside veranda of the Italian Embassy Villa Photo: VICKI L BEYER

Giving the house a particularly rustic appeal is the cedar bark used to cover both its internal and external walls, as well as its ceilings. While this is an interesting building material, apparently it requires substantial maintenance; the exterior is currently being renovated.

A smaller house behind the villa was used by the ambassador's staff, and now contains more displays on the history of the lake as a summertime resort by the diplomatic community. A sign at the entrance reminds visitors to close the door behind them, to keep out monkeys and other wild local residents.

Hours: 9:00-16:00 (17:00 May through October); closed December through March

Admission: 200 yen (children 100 yen); see above for joint ticket details.

Other suggestions

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An expansive view from Akechidaira lookout Photo: VICKI L BEYER

The Nikko/Lake Chuzenji area has lots to see and do. Although it’s do-able, Nikko is a bit far for a day trip from Tokyo. Stay longer if you can and take in all the sights of the area. Particular activities that might supplement a “villa visit” include:

  • a first stop in Nikko itself to visit the Tamogawa Imperial Villa
  • a stop at Akechidaira along the switchbacks up to the lake to ride the ropeway to a 1,473 meter observation platform overlooking Lake Chuzenji and its outlet, Kegon Falls
  • a visit to the 97-meter Kegon Falls
  • a boat trip around Lake Chuzenji; get off at Tachiki Kannon and walk 10 minutes to reach the villas
  • a visit to Chuzenji temple and the Tachiki Kannon, just a 10 minute walk from the embassy villas

Getting there from Tokyo

Both the JR and Tobu lines run from Tokyo to Nikko. From Nikko, there is a Tobu bus to Lake Chuzenji.  For JR, Shinkansen from Tokyo to Utsunomiya and then the Nikko Line to Nikko. The trip takes about two hours and costs 5,780 yen one way.

For Tobu, take the Tobu line from Tobu-Asakusa station to Tobu-Nikko. The Spacia express train makes the trip in just under two hours and costs 2,800 yen one way (including express train supplemental charge).

The bus from in front of Tobu-Nikko station takes about 50 minutes and costs 1,150 yen one way. (Note, if you want to be assured of a seat on the bus, it's worthwhile to walk three minutes to catch the bus from JR Nikko station, its origination point.)

Tobu Railway’s Nikko Pass (all area) is highly recommended. Valid for four days (but offering value even to a day-tripper), the 4,520 yen pass provides one round trip from Tokyo to Nikko (additional charge for the Spacia express), unlimited rides on Tobu buses in the Nikko area, a trip on the Akechidaira Ropeway, a boat cruise around the lake (great way to reach the embassy villas) and various other discounts. 

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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