When the country opened up to foreigners in the late 19C, the cool summer weather and high altitude of Lake Chuzenji (1 200m) quickly won the hearts of Western tourists, diplomats and writers. The resort offered an escape from the stifling heat of Tokyo, without visitors having to travel too far.
The first villas
Thanks to the rapid development of the steam railway between the capital and Nikko, the first villas and early hotels for Westerners were built: in 1873 the Kanaya Hotel historical building, in 1893 the new Kanaya Hotel that succeeded it near the temple area, and, at the very beginning of the 20C the Meiji-no-Yakata Villa, the second home of a wealthy American industrialist.
Once the construction of the first Iroha-zaka access road to Lake Chuzenji was completed, it became easy for the new embassies to establish their summer digs on Lake Chuzenji; these were typically luxurious holiday homes drawing on both Japanese and Western architecture.
A coveted southern shore
There are two ways to get to see the finest houses: walk along the coastal path southward on the eastern shore from Chuzenji Onsen, or take to the water by embarking on a wonderful cruise on Lake Chuzenji – the boats get as close as 100m to the shore and the villas, giving you a glimpse of a bygone era of splendour and insouciance. Two villas have recently been returned to Tochigi Prefecture and are therefore now open to the public: the British Embassy Villa and Italian Embassy Villa. The former has a magnificent white veranda set against a uniform black façade, while the latter is entirely covered with cedar bark from the region.
The nearby French Embassy Villa, a two-storey pinewood building, was originally built by a Japanese foreign minister. Purchased by France in 1906, it is currently used as a holiday home. It is commonly called "Villa Claudel" in homage to ambassador and writer Paul Claudel, who visited several times during his four year stint in Japan, writing many passages of his flagship play The Satin Slipper here.
A lakeside resort synonymous with diplomacy and relaxation
The lounges and terraces of these residences with their refined style were the scene of dinners and cocktail parties attended by Japanese officials, Western diplomats, artists and intellectuals, who were unanimously charmed by the soothing atmosphere of Lake Chuzenji. In his writings, Claudel mentions on several occasions that the region’s clean air, the effect of contemplating the waters of the lake, and the proximity of the hot springs of Yumoto Onsen and Chuzenji Onsen fostered a day-to-day entente cordiale between the members of each nation. At the end of the Second World War, American officers occupied the Kanaya Hotel north of the lake for many years. They built a large wooden Californian Boat House nearby, which served as a hangar and launch pad for dinghies and sailing boats.
By train, daily departures from Tokyo with the Tobu Line from Tobu Asakusa Station (exit 4 from Asakusa Station), “Limited Express SPACIA” train (7 stops) or regular train (8/12 stops and one change at Shimo-Imaichi Station), hourly departures, reservation mandatory, 1hr 50min/2hr 30min, 2700/1400 JPY (2160 JPY/free if ticket purchased in conjunction with a City, Region, Park Pass). Tobu offers three Bus&Train Pass deals, City, Region and Park, including an Asakusa-Nikko return on the regular line, Dec-mid-Apr: 2670/4150/8010 JPY, mid-Apr-Nov: 2670/4520/8010 JPY. Purchase of Bus&Train Pass, tickets and information at the Tobu Sightseeing Service Center situated on the ground floor of Tobu Asakusa Station (daily 7.20am-7pm).
From the capital’s large JR stations and for Japan Rail Pass holders, numerous daily services connect the stations of Tokyo and Ueno to Nikko by JR lines, by Yamagata or Tohoku Shinkansen with a change of train at Utsunomiya Station, 1hr 45min/5570 JPY. From Shinjuku Station, three daily services with combined Tobu/JR trains with no changes (7 stops), 2hr 15min/4000 JPY.
From Tobu Station, there are regular Tobu bus services to the temples and hotels dotted along the main road. It’s preferable to take the bus there (290 JPY; 500 JPY return) to get there as early as possible and come back on foot as far as Shin-kyo bridge, then walk along Route 119, which is lined with shops and restaurants. It is more economical to get the Buss Pass if you plan to make more than one or two visits. Purchase of Bus Passes and tickets, and information available at the Tourist Center in Tobu-Nikko Station (daily 8.30am-5pm) or the Nikko JR station ticket office.
The temples of Nikko can be visited on foot; they are located a 20min walk from Shin-kyo bridge, itself around 25mins’ walk from the Tobu and JR stations.
An information centre for tourists is located inside the train station, with staff on hand to give tourist information in English on request, as well as large interactive touchscreens with an English-language option. Left luggage service and luggage-free visit service available. Ticket machines with English-language option, train tickets, Tobu Bus Pass and tickets for tourist sites (Tosho-gu Shrine, Rinno-ji Temple, for example).