Cucumber sandwiches? Tea in bone china cups? Scones? We must be in Blighty. One could be forgiven for reaching that conclusion, but the British Embassy Villa Memorial Park, on the shores of Japan’s Lake Chuzenji, is a world away from Mother England. After Japan began opening up, in 1853, foreign diplomats stationed a long way from home discovered Okunikko – a lesser-known part of Nikko, a small city in the mountains of Tochigi prefecture, nearly two hours by train north of Tokyo – and quickly adopted it as their summer home. Some of them are still here. So what is the story behind this property? Sir Ernest Satow, a British diplomat stationed in Tokyo, first visited Okunikko in 1872 and fell in love with the area. He wrote a guide book to Nikko and, in 1896, his villa was completed on the shores of the lake, starting a trend for spending summers in these mountains. The villa was used by a succession of British diplomats before being handed over to the city in 2008. The property has been turned into a museum about Satow and the British diplomatic community. Upstairs, the length of the building opens to incredible views over the water. Fittingly, the small restaurant serves tea and scones, as well as light meals and decidedly un-English croissants. So what does the park tell us? Diplomats in Japan lived very pleasant lives. The two-storey building covers more than 460 square metres and was sited for optimum vistas. The ground floor has been remodelled, with two rooms for exhibits behind a veranda with sliding doors. One of the rooms depicts – in images, maps and letters – Satow’s early life in England, from where he arrived in Japan aged just 19. The second room is fitted out with old-fashioned furniture and details the lives of Western diplomats in Okunikko. Upstairs, a former bedroom houses an impressive writing desk as well as photos related to Britain’s long friendship with Japan. The garden is confined to a narrow strip of grass and pathway between the veranda and the lake, but it is a nice spot in which to while away a few hours with a good book – as Satow surely did. Have other nationalities left a mark in Okunikko? A short stroll along the shore is the Italian Embassy Villa, which has also been restored and turned into a museum. The three upstairs bedrooms look across the lake and a wooden jetty, where ambassadors once moored their yachts. On the opposite side of the water, a wooden building jutting out over the lake was constructed in 1947 for the United States Occupation authorities. Modelled on similar properties in the US, the Lake Chuzenji Boat House was popular with the local boating fraternity and is today operated by the nearby Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel, which can organise receptions and events on its spacious decks. Why did foreigners head for the hills? They found the summer heat and humidity on the Kanto Plain too much to bear. Okunikko became so popular with Tokyo’s diplomatic corps that many an official meeting was held here through the summer. Pioneering English writer Isabella Bird tramped through Nikko in 1878 on her way to the wild north and recorded her impressions in the travel tome Unbeaten Tracks in Japan (1881). Bird stayed at the venerable Kanaya Hotel, which still greets guests with old-fashioned grace and also hosted physicist Albert Einstein, architect Frank Lloyd Wright, author Natsume Soseki and American aviator Charles Lindbergh. What else is around Lake Chuzenji? The 97-metre-high Kegon Waterfall, where water from the lake plummets into the valley, is the biggest attraction in the upper town. The fall have become something of a tourist trap, though, so probably best not to linger. Pleasure boats cruise the lake and there are pedal boats and canoes for hire. The region is renowned for its hiking, including a 20km circumnavigation of the lake. Another path leads up 2,486-metre Mount Nantai, the napping volcano that overlooks the town and lake, with the uphill leg likely to take 3½ hours. In the better-known Unesco-designated part of town, visitors flock to the Nikko Toshogu Shrine and Nikkozan Rinnoji Temple, which includes an impressive five-storey pagoda built in 1648 and a selfie-friendly carving of the three wise monkeys on the stables for the shrine’s sacred horses. Is there a best time to visit? Summer is unquestionably a very good time to be here instead of in Tokyo; it’s several degrees cooler thanks to the altitude, less humid and the air can still be crisp first thing in the morning. Winter gets very cold and there is often thick snow on the surrounding mountains.The hillsides come alive in spring as the snow dissolves and meltwater rushes into the lake. But autumn here is incomparable, as trees in the valley surrounding the lake turn gold, orange and deep red. The effect is stunning. Entry to the British Embassy Villa Memorial Park costs 200 yen (HK$14.50). Are there any accommodation options? The Chuzenji Kanaya Hotel is the sister property to Kanaya Hotel and is situated amid old-growth cedar trees at the foot of Mount Nantai and just yards from the edge of Lake Chuzenji. The rooms are spacious and have balconies from where the lake can be spied through the trees. Not far away, The Ritz Carlton Nikko, is scheduled to open its doors in the summer of 2020. Each of the 94 rooms will have views of the lake and the mountain, with the entire complex designed so that it meshes with the natural landscape. What’s the best way to get there from Tokyo? The most convenient route is by train from Asakusa Station in Tokyo with Tobu Railways. The express Spacia train takes 110 minutes to reach Tobu Nikko Station, where a shuttle bus can deliver guests to either of the Kanaya hotels. For anyone who wants to make the journey that little bit more special, reserve one of the private four-seater cabins and watch the urban sprawl of the capital give way to the green and mountainous countryside of Tochigi Prefecture.