"I erased him from my world," the girl sat with her friends in a restaurant, discussing a failed date with one of her housemates. The outing in question was with a guy named Yuudai who had the tenacity of wet spaghetti and wanted a girlfriend who would do everything for him, down to putting on his socks. I knew these details because I had watched the entire proceedings unfold the week before.
"Terrace House" is a Japanese reality TV show. While the first season was only in Japanese, subsequent seasons were purchased by Netflix and subtitled. When discussed in media outside Japan, "Terrance House" is often referred to as the nicest reality show on television. This is because very few restrictions are placed on the participants.
Each season of the show involves a large house with six residents --three male, three female-- typically in their 20s. House members are free to come and go and carry on their normal jobs and occupations. People leave the show when they choose and are replaced by a new housemate of the same gender. Aside from the shared bedrooms (one for girls and one for boys) and the cameras reducing privacy, there's little to inconvenience the housemates.
Typically, Terrace House residents sign onto the show for two reasons: they want to promote themselves in careers such as a modelling, singing or dancing and they're looking for a relationship. Without the high pressure nature of something like "Big Brother", action on the show is a slow-burn, punctuated by pretty hilarious passive aggressive moments and commentary from a group of show narrators who discuss their thoughts regularly during each episode. I enjoy the show because it reveals an insight into more natural interactions in Japanese culture.
And frankly, because judging people is fun. Especially when there is reddit thread entitled /what_is_wrong_with_yuudai/.
This season of Terrace House is set in Karuizawa, a town in the mountains of Nagano. While the show doesn't reveal the exact location of the house, it does openly advertise the other location that are visited by the housemates. It was clearly therefore time for a day trip to the countryside.
Since the Terrace House property sits on a 2,188 square metre plot, it seemed like it might be quite easy to spot. Tokyo --by contrast-- sees houses on under 50 square metres of land. However, a quick drive around the town revealed that this house was well hidden not only by trees, but by the massive estates that blend it in like peas in a pod.
Karuizawa is a popular ski resort and a significant fraction of its population seem to echo the wealth that traditionally accompanies that past-time. The houses rival anything seen in the rich American suburbs of the terrible Macaulay Culkin movie, "Home Alone", and even the middle school looks like the latest Google headquarters.
Based on the high street, the prime produce for the town is jam and honey. Multiple shops are entirely dedicated to these jars of preservatives, interspersed by ice cream stalls offering a base on which to drip said speciality. Jam-making never struck me as a multi-millionaire enterprise, so perhaps a more telling addition is the Shinkansen rail station right in the small town's heart.
The Shinkansen is Japan's high-speed bullet train and to utilise this speed, it doesn't make many stops, typically just linking big cities. To board the Shinkansen on the way out to Karuizawa, for instance, I had to travel over an hour across Tokyo. But those living in Karuizawa itself, it's as simple as walking to the store. Presumably, this addition allows the breadwinner within these extensive houses to work from Tokyo, while the kids take to the slopes.
In addition to this season's Terrace House, the town is also known as the popular retreat of John Lennon and Yoko Ono. A French bakery sits between jam stores and boasts a picture of the Beatle on their walls. I took a photo and received a very dirty look by a shop attendant, which I realised afterwards was because I had not only photographed the Lennon poster but also the sign beside it saying no photography. Oops. Sorry people -- I was focussed on the hero of my nation and prospect of good bread.
Despite the popularity of the show, there is no mention of Terrace House on information boards or shop windows. This is feasibly to prevent the current house members being bothered by fans or maybe because reality TV is too crass for the town's image. The show may even no longer be running. Broadcasting several months after filming, the current episode is set around March where snow still lingers over the town. The last two season have run 46 and 36 weeks respectively, suggesting there may be 15 - 25 weeks left on this current household. That should take the show into the summer, but an early finish would be around now.
However, despite the lack of signage, we had come prepared. The day before I had made a reservation at a Soba restaurant frequently featured on the show as it is owned by the father of one of the house members, Tsubasa Sato. Sato is a nearly-pro ice hockey player and a definite show favourite due to her dedication to her sport, her friendliness and the extremely slow-burn relationship she is developing with model, Shion.
When we arrived at noon, the restaurant was just starting to fill-up. This was when we made a mistake. Greeting us at the counter was indeed Sato's father, looking absolutely identical to how he appears in the show. I'm pretty sure by the twinkle in his eye, he knew exactly why we had come.
Our mistake was not asking him for a photograph, especially when we spotted him taking a photo with other patrons as we arrived.
Our plan was to ask him after lunch, when surely the restaurant would be quiet again. This assumption was very wrong. By the time we had finished eating, there was a long queue of people out the door. Judging from the demographic (all young) and the fact the Soba restaurant is a little way out of town, our reasons for selecting this lunch place were shared with the majority. Disappointing it may be, but it's hard to feel too bad. Sato and her family come across as lovely people and it's nice to see the show bringing them success. Also, the soba set was very good.
In the afternoon, we took a drive up to "Cafe Aura"; a small establishment at a look-out point over the surrounding countryside. While the town and Soba restaurant can be explored on foot, this was definitely the point where a car was required. The climb up the mountain was a steep one and our little rental car struggled so much we had to forfeit the air conditioning to make it to the carpark. For a pretty but isolated cafe, there was also a distinct lack of sign-posting.
Terrace House residents visit this cafe a few times in the series, bundled up outside to view the snowy mountains. We were prevented from doing so by the fact the lookout area is not well protected, leading to a blanket children-ban on the restaurant. While the smallest member of our group was still too small to stand, we were obviously considered the type to let her roll off a cliff while reminiscing about TV reality shows, and therefore requested to take-out our drink order.
Disappointingly, the curry enjoyed by house members was also not on the menu. This could be because it was now summer, or it could be because the house member in question disdainfully rejected the bowl she tried, along with --it must be noted-- her date and life in general.
We then drove across town to visit the ice rink where Sato plays hockey. Our timing here was awful, since the rink was closed in June for maintenance. We did see a couple of certificates mentioning the Karuizawa Fairys women's hockey team but were unable to buy the place out of Fairy swag.
Terrace House itself is set in a wooded location within a large plot of land. As mentioned, this did not narrow down the search as there are multiple regions surrounding the town centre where large houses are obscured with trees, as well as several extremely expensive looking hotels. Our best sleuthing on the web suggested that the house is a ten minute drive from Kite-Karuizawa station and slightly uphill. We were pretty sure we were in the right area, but did not spot an obvious candidate while driving around. This is the most helpful link we found to the site and and actually offers a google pin to the house location, but this sadly didn't work on my smartphone! If you do better, do let me know. Along with the consequences of being caught trespassing and your opinion as to whether having a cute baby would get us out of trouble.
On the way back, we stopped once again at the Soba restaurant, hoping we might get a second opportunity for a photo in the quiet pre-dinner hours. However, the restaurant had no quite opened for evening service and it seemed too rude to bother people trying to run a business. As a compromise, I photographed the cat outside. Close enough.