Stay!By Toshio Watanabe
Whether you relax with the family, or roll up your sleeves and give Mother Nature a hand, the slow life is the good life at Azekura Sanso.
The village of Hakuba in northwestern Nagano is best known as the host of the 1998 Winter Olympics; however the beauty of all four seasons is not lost on the town. The area is filled with hiking courses and onsen (hot springs) and is the perfect setting for a “countryside family resort.”
Azekura Sano is just such a place. Owner and operator Toshio Watanabe’s log house retreat lies in forestland not too far from Hakuba Station. Many Japanese people are familiar with the azekura (log house) architectural style, created by stacking materials, from Shosoin, the well-known raised building sitting directly northwest of Todaiji Temple in Nara. Leaving nothing to chance, Watanabe built his log house from ????
He first laid eyes on a log home while traveling in Finland during his university days and was amazed by “the warm and relaxing feel of wood homes.” Over the years, he would spend several months at a time traveling throughout Europe, realizing in particular, “The people in rural areas lived with a deep sense of pride of their country lifestyle.”
The European thinking of “recreation as a part of culture” also became the basis for the concept of his “family resort.” At that time, a log house was quite uncommon in Japan, and the word “family resort” was not part of the lexicon.
After returning to Japan, he spent seven years working and pulling together funds. Finally in 1984 in Hakuba, a village in which he had previously worked for two years, his log house was open for business. His dream of creating a place where families could relax together had become a reality.
Living it up while doing nothing
Since the lodge opened, all the rooms have been kept both smoke-free and television-free. Watanabe not only wants you to take in the homey wood smell and the surroundings (there’s not a spot of concrete or aluminum in sight), but he also wants guests to enjoy some vacation time away from the rat race and TV. The majority of lighting is incandescent and local organic, pesticide-free foods grace the table with simplicity of taste, and the large deck features an outdoor bathtub that holds 10 guests.
“It’s wonderful to have a soak while the snow is falling, particularly during a snowstorm,” he suggests.
The four seasons are certainly quite distinct in Hakuba. Watanabe continues,
“I’m always telling guests to enjoy the four skies—the four seasons. Of course, the winter landscape is beautiful, but for me the emerging new life in spring is my favorite. If you listen carefully you can almost hear the buds sprouting. I want folks to step into this grand piece of nature and enjoy the good life that comes with doing absolutely nothing.”
Hard work, free lodging – and a good cause
Those visiting the lodge can enjoy an abundance of outdoor activities such as walks in the woods, trekking and snowshoeing. If you’re lucky, you join an occasional forest hike with Watanabe to pick mountain vegetables and mushrooms which, no doubt, will find their way onto the dinner menu that night.
One of the programs Watanabe is currently working on is clearing brush from the lowland hills. These hills have long been neglected and are in need of some TLC. Guests are encouraged to get their hands dirty while getting the opportunity to consider environmental issues facing the area.
For those who put in at least four hours of work in the hills, Watanabe will provide three meals and a place to sleep—a working holiday! To date more than 50 young people of various nationalities have participated. Those interested in putting in a little elbow grease, please visit the home page (in Japanese, English, French and German) for details.
Address: Wadano, Hakuba-mura, Kita Azumi-gun, Nagano 399-9301
Tel/Fax: (0261) 72-5238
Access: By Train: (1) Tokyo Station to Nagano Station via Nagano Shinkansen. Nagano to Hakuba via Hakuba Shuttle Bus (Approx. two and half hours). (2) Shinjuku to (may need to change trains in Matsumoto) Hakuba via Azusa Limited Express (Approx. three hours).
By Car: (1) From Tokyo take the Kanetsu Expressway and then the Joshinetsu Expressway and exit the Koushoku Nagano I.C. Then take Route19 to Route 31 into Hakuba (Approx. four hours). (2) From Tokyo take the Chuo Expressway to the Nagano Expressway, then exit at Toyoshina I.C. and continue toward Hakuba on Route 148 (Approx. four hours).