Posted by: mariabro | November 30, 2011

Gaijin Ghetto in the mountains of Minakami

published in In Touch Magazine Dec 2011

The international cast of Gaijin Mura is an eclectic one; perhaps one could say an eccentric one. When most Japanese people think of Minakami they think of onsens. But this hidden jewel, located just 175 km north of Tokyo in the mountains of Gunma prefecture, is an outdoor enthusiast’s idea of heaven.   Club member and local home owner Jon Sparks says, “It is some of the best skiing, rafting and road biking in the world.  The infrastructure was built during the boom era, the roads are great and sometimes we are the only people on them.” 

It also happens to be an expat enclave that has remained off the radar to most.  Gaijin Mura was the starting point for this community of hardy foreigners. It’s remained hidden beneath the dense foliage and the steep mountain roads required to access the cabins perched precariously on the hillside of the mountain.

Gaijin Mura is not for the faint of heart.  Cabins are located along the side of a mountain road described by long-term resident, Tom Scully as, “steep like the streets of San Francisco, but only one lane, covered in gravel and, for much of the year, snow and ice.”  He laughs as he recounts conversations with Gaijin Mura neophytes.  “I ask them, ‘is your car four-wheel drive?’ ‘No’.  ‘Do you have snow tires?’ ‘No’.  Then you’re not going to make it to the parking lot let alone the top of the mountain!”

Fellow Gaijin Mura devotee, Marc Wesseling, is well aware of the hazardous roads.  He rents near the steepest part of the hill and warns everyone driving up to be cautious.  Still, one of his buddies went over the side and rolled his SUV.  Thankfully, he wasn’t hurt, but the same couldn’t be said for the vehicle which was a write-off.

Scully is one of the old-timers, a group of the original pioneers who built Gaijin Mura with their bare hands.  He has been on the mountain for 40 years. Sitting in his cabin, dressed in his trademark denim shirt and blue jeans, he leans back in his chair and lights a Marlboro. 

“The first gaijin up here, the guy who really found the place, is my oldest friend in the world Jack Mosher.  He came to Minakami  in 1957 to go fishing and he fell in love with it.  He is a great outdoorsman and bought some land over in the next valley.  They used to call him the mayor of Kamimoku.”

Back in the day, Scully worked at Stars & Stripes as a slotman on the copy desk.  He settled in Japan after the Korean War.  He used to spend his R&R time near Osaka, where he developed an appreciation for the local culture.  Mosher would frequent the Stars & Stripes pub where scotch was 25 cents a shot.  It was here Mosher would meet friends and invite them up to his retreat in Minakami.  Over the years Scully also fell in love with the place and eventually asked Mosher to find him some land to build on.  That land, was Gaijin Mura, where he built a modified ‘A’ frame on 780 tsubo or just over half an acre.

About the same time, Fritz Schmitz, who worked with the U.S. Travel Service, began building his own getaway.  This was the beginning of the gaijin community.  Then Schmitz, Mosher and a local Japanese lumber dealer formed a triumvirate and began building more houses on the hill, on spec.  This was the boom era and the area was hopping.  Friends would come to visit and end up buying their own place.  Japanese salarymen would fill the local onsens for a weekend of libation and relaxation.  As you walk through the town now you can almost hear the toll of expense accounts being rung up.

This was Minakami before the Shinkansen to Jomo Kogen station, before the Kan-etsu highway and before there was even water on Gaijin Mura.  Water was the main topic of conversation for the growing crowd of resident revellers.  After a few failed attempts, Schmitz, Scully and Mosher dug a hole, with a pick and shovel, on a stream near the top of the hill.  They laid plastic piping down the mountain, cutting through tree roots along the way.  This back-breaking work was done on the weekend, after they finished their day jobs. Fortunately, about 15 years ago, the local authorities installed safe, chlorinated city water making life much easier. 

Scully, sipping on some wine and lighting another Marlborough, describes a typical weekend.  The group would meet at Ueno station after work and line up at the entrance to the dining car.  The trip took 3 hours and 20 minutes.  The party started on board and continued through the weekend.   And the parties were epic.  Apparently worth the train trip, the dig for water, and navigating the precarious roads on an icy evening.

He smiles as he recounts one such evening.  It began at noon with a pig roast and ended late in the evening with a live country and western band serenading the crowd of 60-70 people.

Another party was set up outdoors on a field covered with snow.  Like the ice hotel in Sweden, it was made with snow benches and included a champagne rack carved out of the icy mounds.  Lights from the neighboring cabins illuminated the field, while the speakers blasted Eric Clapton.

While the sense of camaraderie was a big draw, the beauty of the place is the main reason he remained.  “Tanigawa is one of the most beautiful mountains I’ve ever seen.  This valley is called Tsukiyono machi or Moon Valley because when there’s a full moon the whole valley lights up.  It’s one of the most peaceful places in the world.  The lights I see across the Tone River have not changed in 40 years and I’m so thankful it has not been developed.”

But he admits Minakami is a dying town. It was built up during the heydays of the 80s’s when salarymen and company receptions supported the place. That is gone now and in many ways Minakami has the feeling of a ghost town, with empty onsens and closed up shops.

Jon Sparks, who has been coming to the area for 14 years, disagrees.  “It’s not a ghost town by any stretch.  It’s changing from a weekend onsen town to an outdoor sports destination.  One hundred ninety three foreigners are registered in the area and five of them are club members. The Chamber of Commerce is doing a better job of packaging tours.  There are 16 rafting companies up here now.”

One of the most well-known rafting companies amongst the English speaking crowd is Canyons.  Partner Mike Harris says the ski run down Tenjindaira is as good as any heli-skiing he has down in Canada or around the world.     Harris, from New Zealand, arrived in Minakami in 1995 and started up Canyons in 2000.  He says even though it’s been slow times in Japan, the number of people looking for outdoor adventures has been growing every year. 

“With the emergence of rafting, canyoning, paragliding, mountain biking and later bungee jumping,        it gives an image or branding of the area as an outdoor adventure location.  One of my visions for the place, is for it to be like most outdoor adventure places around the world, the Queenstown’s, or the Whistler’s, they all have a big nightlife scene, what I call ‘apres adventure’.  That’s why we wanted to bring a music culture into Minakami.  We wanted to introduce the Japanese to a new kind of après adventure activity.”

Apres adventure parties, beautiful mountains and the proximity to Tokyo are what drew Wesseling to the area.  The 39-year old Dutchman also discovered Gaijin Mura through friends and he too, fell in love with the place.  Wearing funky red sneakers, sitting in a café in Harajuku,  Wesseling says,  “I would be in a straitjacket if I didn’t have Minakami.  I love Tokyo, but I work and live in Harajuku and I need to get away.”  He says every season is uniquely defined and beautiful.  You can escape the heat in the summer, see spectacular colors in the fall and enjoy some top-notch skiing in the winter.  And for someone who recently went heli-boarding in Kamchatka, Russia, that’s quite a compliment.

Club member Sparks says, “The skiing is every bit as good as Niseko except it’s not minus 30 degrees and it’s not overly crowded like Hakuba can sometimes be.”

He and his wife Jenni have been coming to the area for 12 years.  As outdoor-sports loving Aussies, living in Tokyo, they were thrilled to discover what Minakami had to offer.

Sparks is part of the new guard of gaijins who have discovered the oasis of Minakami.  Like Scully, Schmitz and Wesseling, he was invited up by friends and decided to stay.  Nestled in the mountains, with easy access to winter and summer sports, the area soon became their second home.  Sparks also rented on Gaijin Mura but ultimately wanted something more permanent, more accessible and completely tranquil.  On one of his rafting expeditions he was fortunate to discover an old warehouse which had been the home of a now defunct rafting company.  As he shares on his website, “the location was perfect, only a few minutes from shopping centres, the Shinkansen station and within easy reach of 42 ski fields. It also had absolute privacy on the banks of a crystal clear river. In short, we could see that it offered everything in terms of lifestyle that Tokyo could not provide.”

Times have changed and life is not as harsh as it once was for the pioneers of Gaijin Mura.  The new generation has the benefit of the Shinkansen, the Kan-etsu, city water and high speed internet.  Sparks is able to have wine from the Tokyo American Club cellar delivered to his door.  Costco has opened nearby and is delivered by one of Canyon’s employees. Some would say progress.  As American author Frederick Douglass says, “If there is no struggle there is no progress.”   For the original residents of the mountain there definitely was a struggle to make it a viable, liveable home.

While they may have had different experiences on the hill, the old-timers and the new guard have much in common.   Over morning coffee at the American club, Sparks talks about his weekend routine, so similar to Scully’s 40 years ago.  “My wife and I would meet at Tokyo station, buy some bread and wine and lay it out on the table on the Shinkansen.  We would chat about the week and before you know it we would arrive at Jomo Kogen station.  Our car would be waiting in the parking lot, as the town provides free parking to local residents”, he says.

Riding on the Shinkansen you may hear the voice of another resident of Gaijin Mura, well-known actress and narrator, Donna Burke.  “Ladies and Gentlemen, welcome to the Shinkansen. This is the Nozomi super express.”

Burke and her husband looked at other areas but felt they were too suburban. She says the places they saw near Mt Fuji didn’t seem remote enough. According to Burke, Gaijin Mura is now referred to by the locals as the more politically correct Kokusai Mura.

“I love the silence, the creek, the smell of the forest, the community of people available if I’m feeling social.  We’ve learned many new skills living up there, a complete break from urban life…chopping trees, seasoning wood, skiing whenever we want….heaven!”

The colourful cast on Gaijin Mura also includes French wine importer Marc Fouqueau.  According to Scully, he is a Paris-trained chef who once cooked for a member of the Rothschild family.

Club members, Morgan and Rumiko Laughlin have made Minakami their second home for 15 years, buying up cabins along the hill and renovating the aging structures.  Laughlin warns friends who are looking for vacation properties, “This is not Karuizawa.  This is definitely a mountain house,” she says as she swats away a spider the size of a kiwi.

With such an eclectic cast of characters in this dramatic setting, Gaijin Mura looks set to have an indefinite run on the Minakami stage.Save on your hotel - www.hotelscombined.com

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Responses

  1. As someone who spent 4 years in this little cradle of Paradise, I urge anyone going to Japan to check it out and spend some time out of the cities, as amazing as they are!

  2. Hello,

    Could you please pass on my email address to my dear old, very old friend, Mr. Tom Scully, from his best neighbour of the former ‘Chrysler’ house in Gaijin Mura. Please tell him that I miss him and wish I could be there, but I’m still busy pursuing princesses back in Europe. I’ve nearly finshed and hope to be back in Giajin Miura soon for some Scully therapy, Cigarattes supplied by C.Wood and ranting by Mr. Scully, as would be normally expected. Kind regards – Chris Wood – the best of British 🙂 x

    • I most certainly will pass on your kind message to Scully-san, king of the mountain. He will be delighted to have free cigarettes and an audience for his rants. Best of luck in the princess pursuing. Though there are plenty in Japan if you turn up empty-handed. best regards, Maria

  3. I was a dancer/showgirl at the Minikami Juraku for two contracts in the late 1980s, and I remember well Gaijin Ghetto, only “Ghetto” was replaced with another word. The cabins and views were magnificent. We dancers had friends that would come see our show on weekends. They were British and American ex-pats who were bond traders, living in Tokyo. While Japanese culture and people are great, it was nice to rally with some Westerners occasionally, because one could get a bit home sick on a 6 month contract.
    Good memories – good times.

    • Diane, I’d love to hear more about your story. You were there in the heydays! Please email me at Maria.bromley@gmail.com
      Thanks for your comments.

      • Hi Mariabro – I fell in love with Minakami and its residents. The Hotel Jiraku was huge – it was practically a city in itself. The town residents were warm and friendly. The town itself was like a Japanese-Swiss Alps. During the winter, there were sprinklers in the narrow streets to keep the streets from completely icing over. These were pre-internet days. It was an adventure to go from the hotel to the post office. It was almost impossible not to slip and fall, but we were well insulated from the cold, so it was fun.

        During the Spring, there were frogs and toads galore – freaky, but cool. As the weather warmed up, there were spiders like I have never seen. There were also unbelievably beautiful blossimings of Cherry Trees and Spring bulbs – mostly Daffodils.

        I remember when my favorite trail by the creek had finally become passable after the winter freeze. We dancers had become stir-crazy from the Winter lockdown. I decided to hike along to the next small-town, down river. This amazingly lushj trail had unbelievable greenery – trees, ferns, the creek down to the right side crashing over boulders, and daffodils – it just overwhelmed the senses. My eyes couldn’t take in enough. Then, my hand hit something sticky… weird… I looked down and saw a zillion big (1.5″ to 2″) bright lime-green and electric-yellow striped spiders with red bellies! Pretty much Nature’s way of screaming, “Poison!”. I almost fainted. I had been so enamored with the amazing greenery and water and flowers, etc., that I did not notice the crazy spiders.

        I was half-way to the next small town. It was a 50/50 shot – to go forward or to go back. Spiders were above me and surrounding me on all sides. I was truely in a situation in which I had to steel myself, or freeze up. I took a big gulp and slowly plowed forward. Boy, was that scary! When I finally made it to the next town, I was immensely relieved, but I noticed other huge, bloated dark-brown spiders in telephone lines and bushes, had joined the electric yellow/green red-bellied spiders that resided in the less obvious foliage.

        I still loved Minakami – I just was a bit more circumspect about where I hiked in the Spring! I miss the shows that we danced in. There were “acts” from all over the world, and we all intersected at the Hotel Jiraku.

        I could write on and on about the onsens and nature, but I would be writing forever. Minikami was quaint, but clearly, money rolled through there while I was there. It was such an honor and such an experince to dance and live there. It will always be a part of me. It is so cool to see you keeping the memory alive. I hope people get to experience its beautiful and varied seasons, and I hope developers never hear of it so its pristine state can be enjoyed by those who visit. 🙂

        Peace

        Diane

  4. It is with profound sadness that I must report the passing last night of Thomas Scully. His “Scotch, soda & stories” (although his true favorite was real Irish whiskey – “not Jameson’s” he insisted – and soda) will be sorely missed. He was preceded last month by Toshi Suruga, Jack Mosher’s stout Kagoshima Mrs., who always prepared the best snacks to go with Tom’s “3S’s”…; adieu, both!

    • hello,
      I know this is an old post, but I was wondering if anyone might see this and be able to tell me how Jack Mosher is doing these days. My parents had a house on the mountain in the 70s and my dad and Uncle Jack remained close friends until my dad’s passing in 2008. My mom was concerned when her New Years card was returned to her this year and the phone just rings out every time she calls. If anyone is in touch with him, I’d appreciate it if you could reply.

      • Hi I checked with my friend who has a home in Minakami and she said jack moved back to Maine last year. He is still trying to sell his home in gaijin Mura. I don’t have an address for him but I’ll keep looking into it. Thanks for your comment.

  5. I danced two 6-month contracts at the Minikami Hotel Jiraku. Our bond-trader friends in Tokyo rented cabins in what was then called “Gaijin Gulch”. The picture of the balcony in this article is spot-on for so many of the A-frame cabins I visited. The onsens were insane. What fun memories the cabin picture brings back. I hope this area doesn’t get overly developed. Sometimes, a secret is best kept secret.

  6. Tom Scully lived right next door to me and my brother, sisters, and parents, in Hiroo (Tokyo). He was the nicest guy. When I was 19 (1975), I was sneaking through my bedroom window on the second floor because it was so late and I forgot my house key. As I slipped through the window I looked up and there was Tom Scully looking out his window at me with a smile on his face. I said to him, “sshhhh, I forgot my house key”, and we both laughed quietly. I will never forget that.
    Sincerely,
    James Waterhouse (class of ASIJ, 1974).

  7. OMG – I just went back in time! I danced at the Minikami Hotel Juraku in 1989 and 1990. We called Gaijin Mura- “Gaijin Gulch”. Some of the owners told us that was the name. Minikami is unbelievably green, and the spiders are exotic, huge, and scary! In the spring, they are huge, colorful, and absolutely everywhere! Also in the Spring are hill sides of daffodils. The beauty of Minikami is otherworldly. The cabins in Gaijin Gulch are exquisite and whimsical – I so miss it! Than you for this wonderful update!


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