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Central Japan resort town of Karuizawa attracts working elite amid pandemic

People who have moved to the Nagano Prefecture town of Karuizawa enjoy a discussion in a holiday home in the town, in a room heated with a wood-burning stove, with skylights allowing light in, on Oct. 21, 2020. (Mainichi/Masahiro Ogawa)

TOKYO -- On a late October weekday in the resort village of Karuizawa in the central Japan prefecture of Nagano, six men and women gathered around a wood-burning stove in a luxurious home, engaging in lighthearted conversation.

    "When you're having a meeting on Zoom, sometimes you get the chirping of birds in the background, and get reactions from others, don't you?"

    "Right, like when you're working on the terrace."

    The six are from various backgrounds -- a company manager, an advertising agency employee, a university professor -- and have residences or holiday homes in Karuizawa. Their conversation gets going when they focus on things they have in common in their day-to-day lives since moving to the town.

    "If you spend one hour commuting, it means you'll spend years in a train (over the course of your life). Here your home and work are adjacent, so your work is part of your daily life. It not a competitive situation where it's either work or life. In a city, you might have crowds, but you can still be lonely," one of the six remarks.

    Tomoya Shiraishi, the 57-year-old president of an investment company, bought a property in Karuizawa this summer as a place to settle down in the future. He has previously lived in Silicon Valley in the United States, as well as in Singapore and Tokyo. After the outbreak of the novel coronavirus, he has split his time between Karuizawa and the capital -- "about 80% here and 20% in Tokyo," he says.

    "As long as I can establish a relationship with my clients, I can talk with them online regardless of the time and place. It has hardly any effect on my work. I should have come here sooner," Shiraishi says. The others in the group nod in agreement.

    Referring to the upscale Azabu district of Tokyo's Minato Ward, owners of prime properties in Karuizawa say that the area has become a "Kita-Azabu," or "northern Azabu," of sorts. Located about 130 kilometers away from the heart of Tokyo, a community resembling that of Tokyo's Nishi-Azabu district, where high-income earners gather, is spreading its roots.

    As a representative resort area, Karuizawa has been beloved as a place for social exchange, with industrialist Eiichi Shibusawa of the Meiji era (1868-1912) among the managers who came to the area. In recent years it has drawn people who are tired of life in the city and want to settle there, surrounded by nature. While Nagano Prefecture's population is decreasing, in general the population and number of households in the Karuizawa area are slowly increasing.

    The coronavirus pandemic has sped up the flow toward a "new normal" lifestyle with the spread of telework and other changes. Real estate prices in popular areas in Karuizawa have surged, and there are two-month waits to get optic fiber communications connections set up. This "corona bubble," in the words of a town tourism official, has spread to neighboring local bodies, too.

    Looking at monthly population movement statistics for Nagano Prefecture, it is evident that more than 1,000 people moved to Karuizawa and the neighboring town of Miyota from outside the prefecture between April and September this year. Including people like Shiraishi who choose not to transfer their resident registers to Karuizawa but retain a base in another area, the actual number of people who have "moved" to the area is even higher.

    Kanichi Suzuki, a specially appointed professor at Shinshu University in Nagano Prefecture, who serves as a director of a general incorporated association and is also partially based in Tokyo, says that since the outbreak of COVID-19, interest in "evacuating" from urban areas has been high. He adds, "Interest in moving that had been heightened as a result of work style reform is actually materializing as a result of the coronavirus. Even after the infections are brought under control, this major trend won't change."

    (Japanese original by Kazuhiko Hori, Political News Department)

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