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John Lennon's favored Japan summer retreat hotel to get first major overhaul

The Alps building, the Mampei Hotel's signature building, is seen in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, on Aug. 4, 2022. It is nestled in the woods, accessible by a narrow road. (Mainichi/Shinichi Sariishi)

KARUIZAWA, Nagano -- Mampei Hotel in this central Japan resort town, one of the first Western-style hotels in the country and known as the summer retreat of John Lennon (1940-1980), will be closed from January 2023 to the summer of 2024 for its first major renovation.

    According to the hotel, which first opened in 1894, some buildings will be rebuilt due to aging, but the Alps building where the late ex-Beatle stayed will be repaired with an eye to preserving as much of the original as possible.

    "This is a project to commemorate the 130th anniversary of its (the hotel's) opening in 2024. We want to maintain the hotel for the future and meet our guests' expectations for hospitality," said Mampei manager Shinji Nishikawa

    This photo shows a guest room in the Alps building of the Mampei Hotel in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, on Aug. 4, 2022. It is a blend of Japanese and Western styles with beds and a hanging scroll. John Lennon stayed in this type of room. (Mainichi/Shinichi Sariishi)

    The Alps building, the hotel's signature structure, was built in 1936 and is a registered national tangible cultural property. The wooden "half-timber" style exterior, common in northern Europe, is said to be a symbol of Karuizawa. However, it has sustained a lot of damage in the 86 years since it's completion, prompting the hotel's renovation decision.

    There are currently 15 buildings with a total floor space of 13,279 square meters and 109 guest rooms, all on a 103,676-square-meter site. A total of approximately 7,000 square meters of the five main buildings is set for renovation or reconstruction, including the Alps building.

    Work will begin in mid-January 2023 and is scheduled for completion in May 2024. In the meantime, employees will be temporarily assigned to hotels owned by Tokyo-based Mori Trust Co., which has a capital tie-up with Mampei Hotel.

    The piano at the Mampei Hotel, which was also played by John Lennon, is seen in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, on Aug. 4, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinichi Sariishi)

    Mori Trust Hotels & Resorts Co. public relations representative Naoaki Aizawa said, "The Alps building is a registered tangible cultural property, so we cannot make major design changes. We want to provide a comfortable space for our guests while preserving the traditions and culture of the Mampei Hotel."



    It is estimated that Kameya inn, the Mampei Hotel's predecessor, opened in 1764 at the Karuisawa-shuku posting station on the Nakasendo road, one of Japan's old trunk roads. Because of the high altitude, there were few crops to harvest, and the posting station depended economically on human traffic. In 1884, avoiding the 1,200-meter-high Usui mountain pass to the east, which was considered difficult to traverse, a new trail was opened at a 960-meter-high pass about 3 kilometers to the south, and Karuisawa-shuku fell into decline as the flow of people decreased.

    Soon after, Alexander Croft Shaw, a Canadian missionary, and James Main Dixon, a Scottish teacher, sojourned at Kameya, which led the inn's ninth-generation owner Manpei Sato's blooming interest in Western-style hospitality. Shaw is also known for having built the first vacation home in Karuizawa.

    Armchairs in which then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger sat during their meeting in 1972, are seen in Karuizawa, Nagano Prefecture, on Aug. 4, 2022. (Mainichi/Shinichi Sariishi)

    Mampei Hotel dates its first year of operation to 1894, when Kameya inn was converted into the Western-style Kameya Hotel. The Shinetsu railway line had opened in the area the previous year, and many foreigners visited the hotel to avoid the summer heat. In 1896, the name was changed to Mampei Hotel and in 1902, it was rebuilt in its current location about 600 meters east of the original site. It was said to have been designed based on the advice of foreign guests, and initially had 22 guest rooms. It was then expanded in stages.

    Soviet and Turkish embassy personnel were evacuated from Tokyo to the hotel during the Pacific War. From the end of the war until 1952, the U.S. military seized the hotel, held dance parties, and brought in billiards. Later, writer Yukio Mishima and other Japanese notables stayed there, and in 1972, it was the site of a meeting between then Prime Minister Kakuei Tanaka and U.S. National Security Advisor Henry Kissinger. Lennon stayed during the summers of 1976 to 1979, and enjoyed the Karuizawa lifestyle.

    It is said that Lennon taught staff the recipe for the "royal milk tea" served at the hotel's cafe. Nishikawa said, "We absorbed Western culture and customs from foreign visitors, which led us to who we are today."

    (Japanese original by Shinichi Sariishi, Nagano Bureau)

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