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Friday, Dec. 26, 2008

Kicking back in Kurohime

There's something for everyone, in every season, at Laboland in the Nagano woods


Staff writer

A school friend of mine did his in Nagoya. An American I met the other day did hers somewhere in Kyushu. I was sent to central Hokkaido, where I did my one-month home stay in a tiny town called Otofukecho. I occasionally check the map to make sure it's still there. But, I have to admit, I've never been back.

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Home away from home: The view from one of the modern family lodges that can be rented at Laboland in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture. Below: The facility is situated in a gently sloping stretch of forest. EDAN CORKILL PHOTOS
News photo

I had to admit it the other day, too, when I went to talk to Kenzo Takahashi, a representative of the Labo Party group. He wasn't too disappointed to hear that the home stay his organization arranged 18 years ago for this former student of Japanese language hadn't resulted in my permanent migration to the northern isle, or even very regular correspondence.

Some home stays work out, I guess, and others don't. One thing about my 1990 trip that was a success was a four-day camp to which Labo Party bussed my fellow home-stayers and I in Kurohime, Nagano Prefecture.

Japan Times readers who either came to Japan on a Labo Party home-stay program (Takahashi says there could be up to 10,000 of you out there) or who went overseas to study English with the Labo Party group (there could be 40,000 of you) will remember the place known as Laboland well.

A gently sloping three-hectare pocket of forest about 30-minutes' walk from Kurohime Station, Laboland is dotted with cabins, tables and barbecues.

In November, when I made my first return visit there in almost two decades, the place was just as it had been — except that the chestnut trees I remembered ladened with snow were this time in the process of dropping their furry-cased yamaguri mountain chestnuts to form a thick carpet on the ground.

Not that I was there for a nostalgia trip. Far from it: I had heard that Laboland, which was originally used only as a venue for language-study camps by Labo Party home-stayers and local students, was now open to the public. This means that as long as you avoid booking at the same time as school groups take over, you can rent out one of the facility's dozen or so affordably priced family cabins (from about ¥8,000 per night for two) and enjoy a peaceful vacation in a beautiful area that boasts ski runs, lakes and mountains.

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Getting their bearings: A signpost in Kurohime indicates the number of residential lodges in the area. Below: A "family camp" held at Laboland in 2002 for the families of children studying English with Labo Party schools. EDAN CORKILL PHOTO, LABOLAND (below)
News photo

"Activities around here really change with the season," explained Rie Koyama, one of the staff members who showed me around.

In summer there is Nojiriko Lake, a 10-minute drive away, where you can fish, water ski, canoe or windsurf.

"They let off fireworks over the lake at night, too," she added.

In September, visitors come for the cosmos blooms — there is a park nearby with entire fields blanketed in their jaunty flowers.

In autumn, families head off into the mountains near Laboland to pick wild mushrooms and collect chestnuts, which Koyama explained are smaller and sweeter here than the regular variety.

She added quickly, though, that when people do embark on such treks, they really need to be wary of tanuki raccoon dogs, monkeys and bears — which are all found in the area. "The local school children have bells attached to their school backpacks," she continued, "so they don't inadvertently startle the creatures."

Come winter, many families set themselves up in Laboland lodges for a weekend's skiing. The Kurohime Kogen ski park is a short drive away, and the lodges have special drying rooms for dealing with sodden ski gear.

We didn't manage any skiing during my four-day midwinter camp at Laboland all those years ago. But the snow that greeted us there was welcome anyway, as it provided ample opportunities for feverish snowball fights — and for me to boast about the permanent and deep snow cover we had up in Hokkaido. I remember having trouble convincing fellow campers that, just the week before, my host brother and I had built an igloo on the front lawn.

But, enough of such memories. Koyama explained that, in spring, visitors to Laboland can buy the sansai mountain vegetables for which the area is famous and then do their own cooking. Alternatively, she said, throughout the year Laboland staff can provide food for groups of 10 people or more.

But most families and other smaller groups, she said, like to do their own cooking in the lodges' small but modern kitchens.

"In summer, of course, most people just cook outside on barbecues," she said.

Outdoor types will be pleased to know that in Laboland, barbecuing is not restricted to gas-powered grills, or even designated sites. Unless you've brought your own hibachi, you're going to have to start by collecting firewood and building a campfire.

Still, those who like their outdoors with all the comforts of home will be more than pleased with the cabins on offer — they're called Shirokuma (white bear) in the Laboland lingo. With a modern split-level design, wood-paneled walls, intercoms and a spacious tatami-mat room for sleeping, they are so comfortable it could be tempting to forgo all that nature and just stay inside. Not quite what I remember during my stay all those years ago, when we bunked down in tatami-mat halls that transformed at night into a sea of futon.

I seem to remember witnessing midnight rendezvous between my fellow bunkers and others from the "girls' hall" on the far side of the camp. My mind is wandering again: so many young bodies, so many hormones — and so many memories.

Not that you need any of those to enjoy a stay at Laboland. I'll be back with my own family soon enough, and, I can assure you, they'll enjoy it just as much as me.

Laboland is a 10-minute drive from Kurohime Station, which is 30 minutes from Nagano Station on the Shinetsu Honsen Line. See www.laboland.jp for details.


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