Built to Please Westerners, the Hotel is Where the True Essence of Japanese Hospitality Breathes


WordsJunko Kubodera PhotographyKenichi Fujimoto

The caramel brown of the coffered ceiling in the main dining room, together with the stained glass, evokes past days of glory. This was the first hotel in Japan to offer the bed-and-breakfast plan.

Mampei Sato, the ninth-generation heir to Man’emon Sato, who in 1764 or so founded the Kameya Hatago, an inn for travelers, decided to remodel his family’s establishment after meeting the Canadian missionary Alexander Croft Shaw. Karuizawa, which has thrived as a resort for people to escape the heat of summer, now is one of Japan’s leading areas for private villas. That initial encounter served as the trigger for the opening of the Mampei Hotel (originally the Kameya Hotel), the first in the area built to host Western guests. At the beginning, the parlors, bars and other rooms were separated from each other by fusuma—wooden-framed, papered sliding doors—and the beds were simple affairs crafted by carpenters out of wooden frames, on top of which were placed cushions woven from rope. For foreigners, who were a bit taken aback by the shared-room style of Japanese ryokan with futons laid on the floor, it was a welcome sight. The guests started coming every summer, highly impressed as they were by the diligent efforts of Mampei, despite the many language barriers, whose cooks even provided Western-style cuisine, such as egg dishes and salads, that they had learned just by watching.

The Alps Building of Mampei Hotel echoes the architectural style of the silk-raising farms found in the Saku region of eastern Nagano Prefecture. It was designed by Gonkuro Kume, who also was responsible for the Nikko Kanaya hotel in Tochigi Prefecture. Although he designed such buildings throughout the country, this is the only one left.

A classic-style guest room that has remain unchanged since the time when the Alps Building was constructed. With its glass dividers made to resemble Japanese-style shoji (wooden-framed, papered translucent screens), along with the finely-detailed lighting fixtures, among other items, the room’s atmosphere represents the epitome of a fusion of Western and Japanese styles that is so characteristic of classical Japanese hotels.

Around that period, an Abt-system railway was built through the Usuitoge Pass, making it possible to get to Karuizawa from Ueno Station in Tokyo in just six hours, boosting the annual number of foreign guests coming to the area to escape the heat. In response, Mampei moved his establishment from its original location on Ginza Street to Sakuranosawa, also in Karuizawa, where he constructed a full-fledged hotel. With its catchphrase of being the ‘best Western hotel in Karuizawa’, the hotel enjoyed its golden years during that era along with the Mikasa Hotel. In 1936, Gonkuro Kume, one of Japan’s leading modern architects, designed the main Alps Building of the hotel, which still exists to this day. Having survived the buffeting waves of the war years and the postwar period, the hotel boasts a long history of entertaining Japanese and foreign guests can be glimpsed in every corner of the facilities. And it is there which breathes the true essence of Japanese hospitality.

The bar, which is located deep inside the first floor. When seated next to the shiny counter or on the retro-feeling sofas, you feel as if you have slipped back in time to a bygone era. Wouldn’t you like to sip a drink in the cool air?

The exquisite design makes you unconsciously want to sit up straight. Some of the guests return every year to spend their whole summer here, bringing along all their everyday living items.

An example of the Karuizawa-style carved wooden furniture that started to be installed throughout the hotel in the 1930’s. The unique mode of furniture, which harmonises Western prototypes with traditional Japanese carving techniques, fits neatly into the hotel’s atmosphere.

Mampei Hotel

Address: 925 Karuizawa, Karuizawa-cho, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano

Tel: +81 (0)267 42 1234 

109 rooms in total

Prices: Atago Building from 15,000 JPY (including breakfast); Alps Building and Usui Building from 20,900 JPY (including breakfast). The prices include taxes and service fees. Room rates are per person (two-person minimum).

Access: Five minutes by taxi from JR Karuizawa Station


Information current as of May 2018.