Winter has come.
Winter has come to the town this week with roughly 10cm of snowfall. Unfortunately, I failed to take good pictures of snow covered town scenery; instead, I post the picture of snow covered Mt. Asama. Since Mt. Asama is an active volcano, it usually melts most of its accumulated snow on its slope with its geothermal heat in a week even during winter. If you see wholly white view of Mt. Asama in Karuizawa, you are lucky enough.
People usually hate the coldness in Karuizawa. Seasonal villa residents start to go back to their home in Tokyo by November. Some restaurants, shops, and museums start closing by January and reopen by late April. All these events well represent people's persistent notion, which is, "Karuizawa is a summer resort." I personally used to have the same feeling before moving to the town. Now, I think such people are missing out a value of this town.
Karuizawa scenery in winter is equally picturesque to that in summer. Ice and snow relax your eyes. Cold but crisp and fresh air turns off your brain. Living in Karuizawa gives people such balancing effects to ease a tension from their busy days.
Karuizawa is not a heavy snowfall area, and you do not have to worry so much on life infrastructure failure issues. Rather, you will find many winter attractions nearby. Karuizawa is famous as a favorite place to play golf and tennis in summer, but not so well known for winter sports. In fact, large ski areas of Tsumagoi, Yunomaru, and Asama are within roughly an hour distance. Though not being well known, the town operates an Olympic-class skating facility (since Nagano Olympic Game was taken place here in 1998.) for whole the year. Curling is an authorized town sport and many residents enjoy playing it. Ice hockey and speed skating are local parent's favorites to have their kids to exercise. All these must be exceptional experience for families from cities.
Do not fear the coldness too much. We have something which you do not have in a city. I believe Karuizawa will be known as all season resort someday soon.
Airbnb in Karuizawa
Airbnb, a globally popular platform to find private rental houses, has some recognized popularity in Karuizawa, too. If you simply search "Karuizawa" in Airbnb, you can find more or less 30 private houses and their hosts who rent a whole or a part of their houses to visitors. Design of those houses looks very Karuizawa unique and should be fun to stay. You can find a small cottage look house in forest, or a spacious luxury villas with beautiful garden if you have enough budget. In most facilities (as far as I went through the search listings), the host of the facility lives nearby, and seems to manage check-in and -out process directly. On the other hand, some of them (facilities which are owned by remote owners) seem to outsource such process to a local property management company, and to operate like a hotel. Though the number of those Airbnb registered facilities is limited yet, I think these services are worth trying for people who want to experience Karuizawa life before considering to relocate. You may also be able to socialize with the host and their families, and learn a lot about the local life.
From house owners point of view, Airbnb is practically the only platform choice to rent the houses to short term lessees currently. In early 2014, Yahoo Japan launched an Airbnb-like private house rental brokerage services for vacant Karuizawa villas. However, that service was forced to end after a month from its launch, when Nagano prefecture administration guided Yahoo Japan and its Karuizawa local property management partner company to stop the operation due to its illegality. Though there is nothing clearly defined in relevant national laws, the prefectural administration has so far guided industries to obtain a hotel business permit (which requires strict administrative check on face to face check-in and -out processes, fire safety, etc.) if they are to offer short term facility rental service for the period of less than a month. So currently, other Karuizawa vacation rental services than those on Airbnb are operated under this rule; i.e, to contract a rental service agreement for the service period of a month and longer, and a hotel service agreement for that of less than a month. Double standards exist in the industries, where only Airbnb is allowed to brokerage short term house rental without the hotel business permit while others are not. Very strange, but it is the fact today. In October 2015, Abe administration began discussion to deregulate these inconsistent regulations on private house rental services to accommodate imminent needs by increasing number of foreign visitors to Japan. It is reported that the administration will set consistent national rules by June 2016.
I personally watch the trends in short term villa rental services and its deregulation with strong interest. Not only will it serve to the travelers' and seasonal residents' convenience, but also it will revitalize the town by reducing the number of unused vacant villas. I hope Karuizawa could see a new potential for growth by a right policy.
Town of Growth
In my previous post, I wrote the number of Tokyo commuters from the town is growing. Today, I like to show you the town itself is also growing.
The graph at the left shows the growth in town population and house building statistics for last 5 years. The number itself is small at 19,657 in 2014; however, it should also be remarked that Karuizawa achieved more than 14% growth in population for last 10 years (it was 17,173 in 2005). This fact is regarded very phenomenal in recent trend of population shrink in this country.
When you look at that number in comparison to the house building statistics, you will find another fact. The number of newly built permanent residence is 129 and that of seasonal villas and cottages is 338 in 2013, something which make total of 467 house constructions. This takes roughly 2.4% of town population. I studied the similar ratio in Tokyo metropolitan and Nagano prefecture. Tokyo is roughly 0.4% while Nagano is 0.5%. You will see how actively people are flowing in, and having their house in the area.
As people are flowing in, local real estate market is picking up. Even after the Abenomics economic policy reform was implemented in 2013, generally speaking, Japanese local areas outside three major metropolitan areas of Tokyo, Osaka, Nagoya, are still seeing a problem in their local economy recovery. Land transactions have not picked up, and land prices have been going down for these couple of years.
However, in Karuizawa, the trend seems to follow that of those metropolitan areas. Land prices started to pick up in 2013 as the steady growth in land transactions continues. In 2015, only Karuizawa shows positive annual growth of 1.6% in land price index for residential areas among all the municipalities in Nagano prefecture. The same index for overall Nagano prefecture was -1.8%, and it was 1.3% in Tokyo, 2.0% in Nagoya, and -0.1% in Osaka. You can see how actively and quickly people are starting to spend and invest their money in the real estate here, as national economy is picking up.
I took a quick look at those trends in other Japanese famous resort areas, like Niseko, Nasu, Hakone, Okinawa, etc. Okinawa seems to follow the similar trend with the one in Karuizawa, but other areas seem to be still struggling.
Besides the economy, Karuizawa real estate has another important risk of Mount Asama eruption. In 2008 and 2009, Mt. Asama erupted and then the local house construction and real estate indices went down by a couple of percents. This year, Mt. Asama is observed to start pluming actively again. We should carefully watch it, but I hope nothing serious would happen.
Karuizawa has several town regulations to protect its tranquility and scenery.
Picture above was taken at the Seven Eleven convenience store in the town. Can you see a difference from what you usually see in your vicinity? Yes, a color of the signboard. Original Seven Eleven color of ”Orange-Red-Green" stripe conflicts with the town regulation of "Chroma level must be equal to or less than 4 and brightness level must be equal to or less than 7 for colors being used in the signboards" in this district. So, even Seven Eleven had to follow that regulation to operate its stores here.
There is also operation hours regulation for commercial facilities in the town. Convenience stores, restaurants, and bars must close at 11:00pm at night. There are two big supermarkets in the town, and one closes at 8:00pm while the other closes at 10:00pm. Most gas stations close by 7:00pm while some of them close at 6:00pm. To be honest, I felt inconvenient when I first came to the town and saw them, but now understand that they are all for keeping night tranquility and protecting environment.
If you want to buy or build a permanent or seasonal house here, you have to care the town's house building regulations, too.
See this city planning map (caution: it is 1.5MB jpeg file) issued by the town administration. You do not have to read Japanese characters but should care colors and numbers in circle. You can see the green and white districts are marked with the number "50/30" in the circle while the yellow districts are marked with "200/60." The upper number is called "floor area ratio" while the lower one is called "building coverage (or building-to-land) ratio." For example, if you purchase 1000 sqm of land (it's a bit huge, but common in Karuizawa.) in the green or white "50/30" areas, you can build a house which occupies 300 sqm (30%) as a building site area and has 500 sqm (50%) of total floor space in the house.
"50/30" is a regulation by Nagano prefecture, and actually the Karuizawa town administration further regulates it to make them "20/20." So, in reality, one is only allowed to build a house with 200 sqm (20%) of total floor space and building site occupation in 1000 sqm of land in these "50/30" areas. As far as I know, this is one of the most strict house building regulation in Japan.
Town first enforced this regulation in 1972, and it has served to protect town scenery with villas and cottages in the spacious gardens and forest. It has also served to keep the town's "premier" status and real estate prices as well.
When Mr. Alexander Croft Shaw, a Canadian missionary, arrived in Karuizawa and built the first summer house in town in 1888, it might be enough to have a house with such a simple design and structure to spend only a summer season here. Today, Karuizawa has become one of the preferred places to live in the area, and how to find or build a good house which can cope with significant variation in temperature for seasons is becoming important.
I continue with my story on house building. Pictures from my house during construction are shown above. I discussed with my architect on how to maximize thermal insulation and earthquake-proof performance while minimizing construction cost. In the end, we adopted 25 cm thick of Rockwool insulation for a ceiling, 10 cm of Urethane insulation for walls, and triple glazed sash windows. According to the architect, it is rare to build a house with this level of insulation performance though it may be common in Hokkaido (northernmost island of Japan).
I have been living in my new house for almost a year since I moved in November, 2014. During summer, inside the room is very cool since the walls and windows shut out heat by sunshine. During winter, only one unit of a direct vent oil heater in the first floor heats all the rooms in both first and second floors. It is warm enough. Even when it is - (minus) 10 degrees in Celsius in the early morning outside, without turning the heater on, temperature inside the room is around (plus) 10 degrees in Celsius. It is not so bad. Since we do not use electricity to heat the house, energy cost went significantly down, compared to when I lived in my previous rental apartment. My electricity bill was roughly 40,000 JPY monthly during winter in the rental apartment with electric heating, but it is now less than 20,000 JPY monthly during the winter and even less during the summer. I think it is reasonable enough as an energy cost of standard independent house (i.e., non-condominium type residence).
My local friend, Kevin, is famous in town for promoting his house as "Passive House" where energy cost is actually, negative. See his story in Renewables International magazine. His house follows the German standard by Passivhaus Institut, and has 28 cm of insulation in walls and 60 cm in ceiling. By generating and selling electricity by solar panels on the roof, his house's energy cost is reportedly negative. It is incredible achievement in this severe seasonal environment.
Finding a stylish and design-conscious house should be easy in Karuizawa, when you search in real estate information services on the web. There are many architects who are advertising their capabilities to design luxury and modern taste villas. Appearance tends to be the most important factor for villa buyers, while the house performance tends to be overlooked. I hope more house buyers would care the house performance equally, especially if they care the quality of resort time in this relaxing town.
Karuizawa and Motorsports
Asama highland area, including Karuizawa, is a Japanese mecca of public road motorsports. The area has several competition events every year.
In 2015, we had the following events in the area.
Event courses are located within 30 minutes to an hour drive from Karuizawa, so, many spectators go there from here. You will often see those competition cars running in the town before and after the events, too.
This year, I went to the Asama Hill Climb in May, and took a photo above. Public roads in the Asama highland area were closed for this event, and super cars (like Ferrari above) and formula cars (I should have taken a photo of them, but it was running too fast for an amateur photographer to do it.) were running just in front of spectators in a watching zone. It was really exciting experience.
Last year, a public road just in front of my then apartment was a part of competition courses of La Festa Mille Miglia. I remember I woke up in the morning by series of exhaust sounds from rally cars. It was really strange experience, but fun of course.
For motorsports lovers, Mt. Asama area is a special place since the 1st Asama Volcano Motorcycle Race was held in closed public roads in North (Kita) Karuizawa in 1955. Tradition of the public road motorsports has been inherited to the current generation as a pride in this area.
Wood Stove Culture
When I told my colleagues and friends that I moved to Karuizawa, I was very often asked by them, like "Oh, do you have Maki (wood) stove in your house?" or "Are you going to install a wood stove in your new house?" Actually then, I did not know that having the wood stove in a house was a kind of well known stereotype of Karuizawa people for Tokyo people. After having lived here for three years, I have noticed that the wood stove is a part of important culture of Karuizawa residents, especially winter villa and cottage owners.
I personally do not have it in my house unfortunately. However, when I saw wavy flame in a furnace in Karuizawa houses a couple of times, I felt unconsciously relaxed. Having the wood stove in a house would give you such experiences everyday in the severe winter time. It must be a luxurious moment.
Wood stove was reportedly introduced to the town by foreign residents. When I visited Asama Stove showroom in Kyu Karuizawa this week, there are some American made products being displayed. Other stores in town seem to sell Japanese made products as well as Italian, Norwegian, and Swedish made ones. I understood this area is still dominated by western cultures.
If you have some interests, I recommend to stop by some of those shops in town. I end my post with the store information of Asama Stove.
Karuizawa Area Guide
Original map is provided by d-maps.com.
Karuizawa is a small town in Nagano Prefecture, Japan.
Before I moved to the town, I thought it was too far for Tokyo residents to go back and forth to this mountain resort frequently. The fact is, it is only 70 minutes ride on Bullet Train, or 2 hour drive by expressway from downtown Tokyo. It is located at the east edge of Nagano prefecture, and adjacent to the Greater Tokyo (aka Kanto) area.
Tokyo people usually commute to their workplace in downtown Tokyo more or less for an hour from their home. It is not exceptional to spend 2 hours everyday for commute from their home in especially Kanagawa, Chiba, or Saitama regions. It is real pain to be on 200% crowded commuting train for an hour everyday.
Living in Karuizawa while working in Tokyo should be one of the housing options for progressive businesspersons, who love "work-life balance."
Source: JR East (Bullet Train operator)
Table above shows the growth in the number of commuting pass holder passengers in the Karuizawa station. The number includes both inbound (to Tokyo) and outbound (to Kanazawa via Nagano) passengers, but you can see recent growth in Karuizawa commuters is fairly significant.
Picture above is a very simplified map to show each of main residential areas in Karuizawa.
There are mainly 5 areas in the town.
I chose Shin Karuizawa area to build my permanent residence, to prioritize the distance to Karuizawa Station. However, I think all the areas are equally attractive.
I hope this post would be some help for people to study the area for their permanent or temporary residency.
(Chinese follows after English.)
Just launched my blog today, hoping it to be a resource for people who have some interests in living or having a vacation house in the town of Karuizawa, a famous highland resort in central Japan.
I was born and raised in Tokyo, Japan. I moved from Tokyo to Karuizawa in 2012, though I had a job then in Tokyo. It was about 110 minutes commute one-way every weekday (including 70 minutes on a bullet train), and I was seen by my colleagues with curiosity.
I initially felt tired from such long commuting time, but got accustomed to it shortly. I started my life in Karuizawa by contracting an apartment for rent. The fee was 140,000 Japanese Yen monthly, for roughly 80 sqm of floor including 2 bedrooms. It was roomy enough for me and my wife. It was located in a southern district of Karuizawa, in the area within 30 minutes by foot, or 5 minutes drive to the Karuizawa train station. You may be able to find cheaper apartments for rent in non-walking distance areas in the town though, but I felt it was reasonable enough for Tokyo commuters like me.
Outside windows of the apartment were just forests and mountains. I often meet small animals and beautiful mountain birds from a terrace. Yes, I moved to a highland town at 1000 meters above sea level. I could feel real restart of my life by crisp air, birdsong, and endless blue sky surrounding my new home.
Two years later in 2014, I had our own house built in the town and moved from the rental apartment. I purchased small, roughly 400 sqm lot of land near the rental apartment and asked an architect and builders to build a house with 3 bedrooms, and 140 sqm of floor according to our unique requirements. In Karuizawa, it is roughly 16 to 28 degrees in Celsius during summer and minus 15 to 2 degrees in Celsius during winter. Very comfortable in summer of course, but very severe in winter on the other hand. I discussed with the architect for thermal insulation performance of the house thoroughly, and as a result, our house was named "thermos bottle" house by me and the architect. It is really that. Energy saving but very warm house. I am 120% satisfied with the work by the architect and builders.
I will write another post on my house building story later.
I decided to start my blog, wishing more people to consider living in this beautiful and comfortable town by sharing my experience and knowledge on the area. Either workers and residents in the greater Tokyo area or seasonal visitors to Tokyo can consider to have their primary or second house here.
I hope you enjoy my blog. Welcome any comment.
(Chinese translation for trial purpose - 中文翻译试行)
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