“English?” a much-handled laminated photo, taken in the 1970s. It was a standard family holiday photo but the people looked familiar. With a jolt I realised it was of Lennon, Yoko Ono, and a very young Sean Lennon. “Taken where you stand now!” he gesticulated.
My guide, Soichi, explained that John and Yoko had spent their summers in the nearby resort town of Karuizawa for what was to be the final four years of Lennon’s life. Like me, they had come to Onioshidashi to marvel at the extraordinary landscape formed from an eruption of the Asama volcano in 1783. Onioshidashi translates as “demons pushing out rocks” and, with the eruption killing over 1,000 people and smothering the area in lava, you could see how the park got its name.
Mount Asama is very much still active, the last major eruption being in 2009. Looking over at it from the park on an early autumn day, it dawned on me that what I initially thought was a cloud hanging over the volcano was actually a plume of vapour.
The park was startlingly beautiful in an otherworldly way. The landscape of black solidified lava and rock was dotted with vivid green plants growing where they could. Stop and look more closely and you’d see alpine flowers, darting lizards and a golden moss. Red railings led to the Buddhist Shrine at the heart of the park, dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and to which all the visitors were drawn.
“We Japanese are very confusing!” Soichi smiled, as he explained that most people follow both Shinto and Buddhism.At the shrine, a steady stream of visitors gave an offering of coins, prayed and then rang a bell and bowed. And not just human visitors. One couple arrived slightly out of breath and wheeling a pushchair with a small dog sitting proudly in it.
I asked whether the dog was unwell. “No, but he gets tired!” they explained in a very matter of fact way. With that they lit a votive bundle of incense and waved it over the dog. Another pair of people arrived with a terrier carried against the chest in a baby papoose. Again they bought a small bundle of incense sticks, which they lit and passed over the dog.
Driving back to Karuizawa down quiet leafy lanes, Soichi asked whether we wanted to see the hotel where John Lennon would stay. We drew up in front of what looked like an Alpine lodge, while inside the Mampei Hotel, its lobby with wood panelled walls and Art Deco stained glass was a step back in time. Tracing its origins as an inn back to 1764, the Mampei was transformed in 1894 into Karuizawa’s first Western-style hotel. The Lennons used to stay in room 128, and the terrace cafe still serves what they call ‘royal milk tea’ prepared the way John would ask for it, along with his favourite apple pie.
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