The Japanese are great imitators. They love to take little slices of the rest of the world and put them here in Japan. Go to Nagasaki to experience Holland at the Huis Ten Bosch Dutch Village. Marvel at the tree-lined canals and windmills made with authentic bricks imported from the Netherlands. It’s just like the real thing minus the hash-brownies.
Yokohama does a great impression of China. Their China Town’s colorful gates, gaudy temples and authentic steamed buns and noodles will keep Beijingers from getting homesick. There was even a Russian theme park established at the foot of the Gozu Mountains in Niigata, featuring Russian folk tales, traditional Kremlin-style domed roofs, boiled sausages and borsch. Sadly, this place went the same way of Soviet-style communism and communal work farms and now lies rusting in the sun.
The Naked Stranger recently discovered a place that gives you a little slice of North America in Nagano by recreating that Lake Wenatchee-feel of an authentic North American summer camp. It feels so authentic, you nearly expect a lunatic with an ice hockey goalie’s mask to leap out brandishing a kitchen knife. The aptly named Gaijin-mura (Foreigner’s Village) sits on the edge of beautiful Lake Nojiri in the Myoko Kogen area.
Unlike the commercial theme parks, Gaijinmura was established by foreign missionaries from North America nearly 100 years ago as an escape from the Tokyo summer heat and a refuge from the rat race. They built a number of cabins on the edge of a national park and have managed to protect the place from the ravishes of bubble-era developers. There is nary a swan boat or teddy bear museum to be found here.
Gaijinmura is managed by the Nojiri Lake Association, a foreigner-dominated committee with a mandate to maintain the natural, low-key ambiance of the place. There are cabins to rent, marshmallows to be roasted and old Beatles songs just waiting to be butchered by second-rate guitar picking. Yes, all the things you loved spending summers on a lake in the U.S. or Canada.
Perhaps due to the Japanese fear of death-by-unagi (eel), you will be hard-pressed to find a single local swimming in the clear blue waters of Lake Nojiri, but you will see plenty of foreign kids bombing each other from diving boards.
So, if you are homesick for a little cabin at the lake, it may be worth a visit. Oh, and while you are there, be sure to drop by the Landmark for a bath.
Landmark Myoko Kogen, Ikenotaira Onsen, Niigata Prefecture
Hours: Open 24 Hours (Dec.-April), 9 a.m. to midnight at other times of the year.
Cost: ¥1,000 (3-hour pack), ¥1,500 unlimited time.
Tel: (0255) 86-5130
The Upside: Excellent services outside the onsen, including billiards, ping-pong and karaoke. It is open 24 hours from December to April, offering a cheap and fun accommodation option during the ski season.
The Downside: The baths are quite acceptable, though nothing about which to get overly excited. The rotenburo (outdoor bath) has black mud (kuroi doro) in the water. This is purportedly great for your skin but is not the most pleasant bathing experience.
The Bare Facts: Myoko Kogen is steeped in history. It was originally established as a fortress for the forces of the legendary Niigata samurai Uesugi Kenshin in his war against Nagano’s Takeda Shingen in the 16th Century. The fortress was called Samegao and was maintained by Kenshin’s adopted son Saburo Kagetora.
Saburo Kagetora was renowned for his dashing good looks, and women from all over Japan still converge on Myoko Kogen in spring for a festival in his honor. Being handsome may have won him groupies 500 years after he died, but it didn’t do him any favors with the army of Takeda Shingen. He died by his own hand on Samegao Fort.
The Myoko Kogen area consists of seven main hot spring areas: Akakura, Shin Akakura, Ikenotaira, Myoko, Suginosawa, Tsubame and Seki. The onsen water in the Myoko region is known for its variety, boasting “seven hot springs, five spring qualities and three colors of water.”
Landmark Myoko Kogen has three main types of ions in the water: calcium, naturium and ammonium. The black mud in the rotenburo is said to be remedial for many skin ailments.
Skiiing in Myoko Kogen dates back to 1911, and Akakura, established in the 1930s, lays claim to be Japan’s first international ski resort.
Mt. Myoko is 2,454 meters above sea level and is an excellent place for hiking from June through October. Naena, Fudo and Hore waterfalls are listed in the 100 most beautiful waterfalls in Japan.
Accommodation: During winter, you can pay an additional ¥1,500 per person to sleep on the tatami mat floors. That is ¥3,000 per person for onsen, entertainment and a roof over your head. Not bad for the frugal powder lover.
Food: The seafood rice bowl (kaisen don) is delicious for ¥1,200. The onsen also serves the local brew, Myoko Kogen Lager, and does a 90-minute all-you-can-drink deal for ¥1,500. Try the Pilsener, Weizen or Dark Lager.
Nearby Attractions: Suginohara Ski Resort, Akakura Onsen Ski Resort, Ikenotaira Onsen Ski Resort, Seki Onsen, Lake Nojiri, Kurohime Kogen, Akakura Golf Course, Mt. Myoko hiking trails, Naena, Fudo and Hore Falls.
Access: From Tokyo Station, take the Nagano Shinkansen to Nagano. Change at Nagano Station for the JR Shinetsu Line. Myoko Kogen Station is about 40 minutes from Nagano City. By car, you will need to take the Joshinetsu Expressway past Nagano City and get off at Myoko Kogen I.C.