Kiyosato: High plains drifter

(part two of two)

“My brother dabbles in stocks,” said the winningly frank B&B landlady, slight, short-cropped, and in her mid-sixties, as she caught me leafing through the Nikkei over morning coffee on the terrace.

“Only as a hobby, mind. He’s retired now. He was a salaryman, back when times were good.” She meant the Bubble.

“But us self-employed folk, with our meager pension pots, well, we’ll just have to keep working until we drop.”

She would have had a little more in her pension pot, I reflected maliciously, if she hadn’t amassed the vast collections of ceramic clowns and brass reception bells arrayed in the lobby—not the last time that day I was to come face-to-face with the obsessions of the collector.

“We had a French intern with us this summer. After the accident, she was the only one in her class to come back. Loves it here, she does, wants to get a job here after she graduates. But things aren’t the way they used to be, are they?” I agreed they weren’t; they rarely are, these days.

“What brings you to Kiyosato?”

“I was wondering what there is to do here.”


“Yes, do. In Kiyosato.” Aside from letting a Jersey ice-cream dribble down your fingers while rifling through knick-knacks in the last few souvenir emporia.

“Well, there’s golf. Putting courses, park golf, real golf, we’ve got it all.”

“Not much of one for golf, I’m afraid.”


“I’m on my own.”

“There’s skiing, in winter of course.”

“In winter.”

“Down at Cote de Vert, you can pet farm animals and let your dog off the leash, let it run free.”

A pause ensued.

“Here,” she said, handing me a local brochure, “you can read.”

After meandering the highways and byways for a day, at least five distinct ecosystems in Kiyosato revealed themselves: the tumbledown center, built up and brought low by the Bubble: the farmers—of corn and cabbages and cows—who have their own sad tales to tell, some forebears having arrived before the war from dam-flooded villages near Tokyo and some forebears after the war, repatriates from ill-starred settler colonies in Manchuria and elsewhere in the empire, forebears who found scratching a living from the unforgiving high plains almost intolerably hard at first; the owners of besso holiday homes, homes that run the gamut from rustic pine dachas to old-money piles with private tennis courts and hypermodern concrete-and-glass affairs; a crescent of lavish dormitories to the north-west belonging to universities—Meiji, Aoyama Gakuin, and Nihon—and to Tokyo commuter-belt cities—Tachikawa, Fuchu, Chofu, Kodaira, and Hino, short stays at which are free for their lucky residents; and a community of potters, weavers, woodworkers and other artisans in the cheaper, lower foothills to the south-east. The economy will truly have to fall into rack and ruin before the farmers, the bessoites, and the dormitory sojourners feel much anguish, and it is they who provide the residual flicker of vitality, although none of them can be of any comfort to the hoteliers and little to the restaurateurs.
Then there were the museums.

Down a long and winding lane that swung between fields of corn, now as high as an elephant’s eye, and prim and proper besso, stood the Kiyosato Museum of Photographic Arts, which likes to style itself K*MoPA. The staff were stiff, the echoes were cavernous, and the lavs were marble. Museum-goers were notable only by their absence. The exhibition, titled Great Spirit: Photographs of Curtis, Sardar-Afkhami, and Yagi, showcased the early twentieth century “noble savage” Native American photos of Edward S. Curtis, some jaw-clenching and jaw-dropping Mongol images by Hamid Sardar-Afkhami, of whom I’d never heard, and in a sop to the locals, some tepid Aleut shots by Kiyoshi Yagi.

Of as much interest, though, was how the museum could possibly finance itself. Its negligently maintained website reveals superfluously that its restaurant, La Premiere (I did say we were very French around here) closed in 2006. I sat where its terrace had been, sipping a watery vending-machine coffee. Its resort facility, Patrie (I did say), closed at the same time—it was clear the museum was now clad in concrete clothes far too big for its shrunken dimensions. Its funding sources and ownership structure have defied my best attempts to prise them out, however, so I can only conclude it is a yakuza money-laundering front.


Down at Cote de Vert (I did say we were very French, if grammatically inaccurately so, around here), lay another museum, the unimaginatively named Kiyosato Bokujodori (“Ranchroad”) Antiques. This was more of a one-woman affair; in her mid-fifties, the owner fussed intrusively over slipper provisions while revealing she had lived a decade and a half in Australia. The second-floor museum, dedicated largely to old Noritake porcelain, was half shop; the first floor was all shop. As an occasional though now largely dormant collector of ceramics, mostly somber Bizen-yaki and neoclassical celadon, I have strong opinions about old Noritake: most of what remains should be piled in a heap in the road and run over by a fleet of steam-rollers, although I would spare the occasional late pre-war Art Deco piece, such as this sugar bowl.

It wasn’t wholly the fault of the Noritake company, to be fair; they were catering to fantastically depraved late Victorian tastes. The owner explained that some eighty percent of old Noritake went to the US, ten percent to the UK, and ten percent to the UK colonies; nowhere was the attempt to accommodate local sensitivities better on display than in this plate for the Australian market, depicting a pair of not very lifelike Kookaburras sitting in the old gum tree.

I wondered about the impulses behind the retrieval and repatriation of old Noritake: by my book, at least, it is severely subtracting from rather than adding to Japan’s GDP (gross domestic pulchritude).

“So what did you like the most?”

“The Satsuma-ware was quite attractive.” Although at $6,000 or so for this tea caddy, it was just out of my price range.

“Oh yes, all the foreigners like that. It’s so colorful, gaudy even.”

Your old Noritake is not a model of understatement, I thought to myself.

“I’ll be closing for winter next month. I spend six months here and six months on the road abroad, collecting.”

“Nice life.”

“Oh no, not at all!” She recoiled, horrified at the accusation, and I made my excuses.


Damned hard to find, the Kiyosato Museum of Contemporary Art was an implausibly modernist confection to come across at the end of a rutted gravel road best navigated by a four-by-four. By “contemporary”, the curators meant bleeding-edge avant garde from World War One Duchamp Dadaism through to Christo’s wrapped “environmental art”, with an accent on the High Dadaesque Modernism of Fluxus (“purge the world of bourgeois sickness”) and John Cage from the fifties and sixties. Their clock had stopped in 1990 or thereabouts; there was nothing “contemporary” on show at all. Most ultramodern art has always struck this determined middlebrow as the province of charlatans, fraudsters, and conmen, and there was little the museum offered to change my mind, although I was smitten with Christo’s oil drums,

Bernard and Hilla Becher’s beautiful typologies of functional industrial ugliness,

and this shot of the lunatic Lithuanian George Maciunas, Fluxus guru and inadvertent pioneering gentrifier of New York’s SoHo warehouse district, unsung hero to the bourgeoisie he professed in his too short life to despise. 

As intriguing as the art on its floors and walls and doors was the museum itself, which, in betrayal of any minimalist aesthetic that might be associated with much of modernism, was brimful to bursting with piles of posters and books and assorted paraphernalia.

Clearly the museum was the product of a very personal mania; while there were no truly costly works on display, no Duchamp Fountain, say, or Yves Klein monochrome, the collection must have cost a small fortune to assemble. In an annex at the back, a man in late middle age, leafing through a catalogue, struck up a conversation.

“We don’t get many foreign visitors. Where are you from?”


“Oh, Britain’s been very helpful to us,” he said with a gratitude that made me feel personally responsible for the assistance rendered.

“Sotheby’s offloaded some Beuys

for us a while back. The thing is, the museum can’t truly pay its way, not on the admission fees. The season’s so short, the visitors are gone by October.”

“That’s my brother.” He gestured at another man in late middle age, leading around a small tour party, whose members were also uniformly in late middle age. “He built this place, twenty years ago. I retired and joined him last year.

“Japanese people,” he harrumphed, “they’ve got no time for modern art. Thirty seconds in here is enough for most of them.”

I tried an upbeat tack. “But things were different back in the sixties, weren’t they? More folk were interested in those days, no?”

“Not really. Most people were only interested in getting rich. It’s a shame. I lost my house building up this collection. Now I guess we’ll have to sell up and close down in a few years, if things go on this way.”

There can be little doubt that things will go on, kono mama, in this way. To have spent one’s adult life acquiring, accumulating, above all collecting, and to be faced in old age only with dissolution, the brutal whittling away of what was so patiently and painstakingly amassed; well, it would be more than this curatorial heart could bear.


Like its better-looking and better-off sibling, Karuizawa, whose flagging fortunes were reputedly restored by a Scottish-Canadian theologian, Alexander Croft Shaw (1846-1902), a foreign missionary godfather (of a later generation) was instrumental in the development of Kiyosato: American Paul Rusch (1897-1979), who orchestrated the construction of Seisenryo, a “Christian fellowship youth retreat” in Kiyosato in 1938. It’s fitting, if regrettable, that otherwise godless Kiyosato, devoid of Buddhist temples and Shinto shrines, a once creamy cheesecake slice of the foreign set upon a native plate, should have had a Bible-thumping mentor.

At the now sprawling Seisenryo complex, there were suddenly tourists, busloads of them shipped in on daytrips from the plains to do not very much, save buy trinkets and slurp ices and admire Mount Fuji from afar.

Busloads, but not busloads enough to save the heart of Kiyosato from an aortic aneurysm.

There were other, still more curious attractions to explore—The Japan American Football Hall of Fame and the Dormouse Museum (“no live dormice were used in the creation of this exhibition”, the sign assured)—but for museumed-out me they would have to wait. A faint fondness for Kiyosato welled up as I prepared to take my leave: where else in the world, after all, can you run across a mid-sixties Mazda whimsically plomped on the roof of a roadside flower-shop shipping container,

a searing photomontage condemnation of Adolf Hitler by John Heartfield/Helmut Herzfeld (1891-1968), Nur keine angst, er is vegetarier,

and still be home in time for tea?


18 responses to “Kiyosato: High plains drifter

  1. “Its funding sources and ownership structure have defied my best attempts to prise them out, however, so I can only conclude it is a yakuza money-laundering front.”

    Wonderfully wry.
    I especially like reading your fey conversations.

    Thanks for enriching my life, pachiguy

  2. Sad to hear of the museums in such dire straits. I do wonder though how many museums make any money over here, I’m too used to Britain with its government funded stuff.

    You chose just the wrong time to come I must say though, I for one am looking forward to next weekend’s Paul Rush festival. Apparently it is a wonderfully bizzare Japanese take on America.

  3. “Most ultramodern art has always struck this determined middlebrow as the province of charlatans, fraudsters, and conmen, . . . ”

    Yup. I’ll never understand the “genius” of a guy silk-screenings someone else’s black and white photographs.

  4. It’s been a few months since I last read your blog, summer is very busy here in Karuizawa, and am apalled to see you mention places close to here. Saku – that “city” totally confused me for the first months here because I could only go there after work, in darkness, and dark it is when you are used only to Tokyo lights (pre 3/11); there is no real center street, just spots strung together by two bigger roads running in a rather illogical way. But than again one has to remember that history around here is still very young, it dates back only to when the highway and Shinkansen arrived a dozen years ago. As for Karuizawa, parts look like Kiyosato, whether it’s the main drag KyuKaruGinza or all the Besso-chi that litter the whole place, there are many empty shops and properties for sell, or old houses unoccupied for many years. Even the Cafe & Restaurant I used to work, bit the dust last month, the owner being to gentle and having spent to much money on staff or advertisement. All those worries culminated in a hemorrhage before summer season from which he arose nearly 100% healthy, but not having been around during the busiest time meant a big financial loss, as no one was there to push the staff, and this year there were a lot of cheapskates in town, the convenient stores where most happy. Sad thing is he doesn’t want to give up, trying to run the cafe with his wife alone since all staff are gone…
    Karuizawa is a nice place to live, but it is going through a rather big change and you feel a bit in the wrong place when you visit the supermarket on the weekend and about 2/3 are out-of-towners, besso people and younger groups.
    Oh, as for Saku being in the middle of Japan, they even have a marked spot, somewhere east of the town, also Google map has its middle about 30 km west of Saku.

    • Wolfgang, many thanks for the tales from Karuizawa. Guess it isn’t faring quite as well as I painted in my Kiyosato Part 1 post.
      “This year there were a lot of cheapskates in town, the convenient stores where most happy”
      I think you’ll find a lot of cheapskates in town from now on.
      “You feel a bit in the wrong place when you visit the supermarket on the weekend and about 2/3 are out-of-towners, besso people and younger groups”
      Wasn’t that always the way?
      One of these days I’ll stop in Saku, instead of just passing through, and see what charms it has to offer.
      Thanks again.

  5. As for Saku, Google’s gone there so you don’t have to, LOL

  6. OT, but any comment on the Olympus scandal?
    Thought this NYTimes article was rather interesting:

    “Nobumasa Yokoo’s part of the story traces as far back as 1998, to his days at the Japanese financial powerhouse Nomura. According to company records at the time, Mr. Yokoo — who had also spent time on Wall Street at Wasserstein Perella — was head of Nomura’s prestigious Shinjuku Nomura Building branch. There, he dealt with some of the firm’s top clients, including Olympus.

    But in June of that year, he and many others at the firm chose to leave after a scandal involving payoffs to Japan’s organized crime gangs led to resignations, and later arrests, of top executives. Mr. Yokoo was not implicated in the scandal. But he left, telling the Nikkei business daily at the time that he wished “to be able to cook the rice I live on.””

    • Ah yes, that scandal. Sadly, corporate policy precludes me from making any comments about the relationship or otherwise between the executives of a certain maker of endoscopes and digital cameras and the gentlemen of the punch perm, or rest assured I would have been slaving these past dozen days to bring you as many salacious tidbits as I could.

  7. Ah, I’m sad, but I understand completely. I do hope the part of the company that actually makes things survives. My father is an endoscopic surgeon and has great affection for Olympus instruments.

    • Actually there was a special drama honoring the guys who made the first endoscopes at Olympus just after WW2. It’s a very special stuff in the Japanese psyche since they made it first, so I think it will probably survive in whatever form.

      • Indeed, that unnameable company was the first, in 1950, to develop a gastroscope with a camera (says Wikipedia, and who are we to quibble). A rumination on why one of Japan’s last tech bastions is in imaging, broadly defined–80% of the global digicam market, 70% (?) in photocopiers, and about 80-85% in endoscopes–would be well worth writing (and reading). Sadly it will have to come from someone other than me.

    • There’s not a scintilla of doubt the endoscope business will survive, come what may: with a 70% global market share and 20% operating profit margins, even if everything else were to fall apart, there’d be some willing buyer. Please reassure your father!

  8. These videos, gathered at, struck me as up your ruined alley:

    • Lovely, thank you. I’m not quite the urbex type–too fearful of a foot put through to the floor below–but I respect them.

  9. Disappointed to see no mention of Risonare, the one place in Kiyosato that really does seem to be thriving.

    • A little bit too far away from central Kiyosato to be of concern. Still, looks absolutely hideous, thank you for that. Must investigate!

  10. Thanks for the read(s)! Visited last autumn for the koyo, and missed all the haikyo hot spots. This time I’m off to Kiyosato KEEP for three days with 50-odd middle schoolers, so don’t know if I’ll get around town much this time, either. In any case, now I’ve read your posts, kinda already “been there done that,” haven’t I. Cheers!

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