Karuizawa is a breeze even off-season
by Laura Fumiko Keehn
An hour outside of Tokyo and 1,000 meters above sea level, Karuizawa is the ideal escape from the sticky summer in the city. There is no mystery as to why this resort area swells to ten times its normal population-size during the summer months. How Karuizawa became the biggest resort area outside of Tokyo is not as clear. In the beginning of the Meiji era, it was a poor little town with nothing going for it. Perhaps this anonymity was what brought royalty and other VIP types to its woods. Karuizawa is, after all, where Emperor Akihito and Empress Michiko met and fell in love over a game of tennis. According to legend, it was the cool weather that brought Archdeacon Alexander Croft Shaw. He was so taken by the area that he built his summer villa here in 1888, putting the sleepy town on the map. There are still many churches and signs of Christianity dotting the countryside, apparently used mostly for weekend weddings today.
HOW TO GET THERE
Only the shinkansen stops in Karuizawa station. There are no local trains. This place really is a resort town. From Tokyo station to Karuizawa, the Asama (¥2,520) takes 63 minutes.
WHERE TO STAY
Apparently, there are over 200 accommodation facilities in Karuizawa. That’s a lot, and I’m not sure we picked the best one. It seemed to be the bargain stop for conveyor belt weddings, but it was definitely affordable. It’s not hard to find reasonably priced rooms — think less than ¥10,000, in some cases much less, especially off-season. The main choice is whether to stay near the station, in the mountains, or in the woods. It depends on how close to the outlet shops you want to be! There’s really no shortage of greenery.
WHAT TO DO
Karuizawa is still spiced with romance, and its reputation as a European-tinged elite getaway still lingers. In the minds of most tourists, this seems to equal western weddings; wedding chapels and wedding dress shops saturate the town. So the first and foremost thing to do in Karuizawa is have a wedding! That’s the idea we got. Especially when there were two wedding parties in our hotel for two nights running.
Karuizawa may inspire visions of wedding bells for some, but for Yoshiaki Tsutsumi, the disgraced inheritor of the Tsutsumi empire, Karuizawa spelled dollar signs. After buying large amounts of Karuizawa real estate, he wasted no time in building up a Prince Hotel, an outlet shopping mall, a ski resort, and more. Opinions differ as to whether he saved or destroyed the town, but he certainly left his mark. So the second thing to do in Karuizawa is shop! Tsutsumi certainly made it easy. Once you walk out of the train ticket gates, turn right. Outlet shops and the Prince Hotel spread as far as the eye can see. And there’s everything: Nike, Adidas, Levis, Guess, Armani, Tommy Hilfiger, Aquagirl, Laura Ashley. There was even a Starbucks, possibly the busiest Starbucks I have ever seen, and I live in Tokyo. Over-priced American caffeine really puts you in the shopping mood; I almost bought ¥4,000 sweat pants before coming to my senses.
Another shopping area worth visiting is the Kyu Karuizawa Ginza. We heard about this Ginza when we stopped by a showroom. We saw this beautiful house by the side of the road and couldn’t resist popping in. A slick man looked at us with suspicion and asked us where we were from. “Tokyo,” we said. He informed us that he could tell, because we weren’t dressed for the weather. That’s when he said we should go to the Ginza. We followed his orders, and found a big street going up a slope with lots of shops. Think Takeshita Dori, only different. I think Karuizawa must be famous for jam, because there was lots of it for sale. Things were much cheaper here than in Tokyo, we each bought our winter boots for the bargain price of ¥10,000. We swung our new footwear under our arms and skipped back down the Ginza to our hotel.
OTHER THINGS TO DO
There are lots of cute little cafes and cake shops decorating the side streets that are definitely worth stepping into. Another surprising local delicacy is the German sausages available from Meiser Haus Domestic Sausage, a bratwurst store with shops all over Karuizawa. A huge selection of meats are available, with lots of samples set up for you to nibble on while you decide what to buy As if that wasn’t enough, you can also buy a bratwurst on a bun, cooked before your eyes to a perfect sizzling brown in a soft and warm fresh-made bun. Hotdogs of another type also line the streets; people in Karuizawa love their little doggies. Miniature dachshunds were especially in abundance, and were all dressed up in expensive little outfits. If you have a little best friend you’d like to show off, this is the town for you.
The same way you came; hop on the shinkansen, and make sure it’s going towards Tokyo. Don’t forget your ekiben lunchbox. And remember it’s a few degrees warmer back home.