It was Karuizawa’s cool climate that first attracted Alexander Croft Shaw to the town back in 1888. Located roughly 1,000 metres above sea level, on the plateau of Mt. Asama, the British born, Canadian missionary discovered a place of natural beauty that was significantly cooler than Japan’s capital.
He spread the word to his fellow missionaries as well as other prominent foreigners and Karuizawa soon became well known as the ideal spot to get away from the heat and humidity of Tokyo – and that is still true today. Take a break and enjoy the crisp air and gorgeous green surroundings of this picturesque mountain resort.
For the Outdoor Type:
Just a little over an hour away from Tokyo on the bullet train, Karuizawa is an idyllic setting to stroll or cycle around while taking in the sights. The temperature (averaging around 25 degrees Celsius in the summer) makes it possible to do both without getting too tired or sweaty!
One of the highlights of our trip was a hike through the woods. With many different kinds of birds chirping away, giant trees overhead and carpet of lush moss, it was a very pleasant walk. A recommended trail is from Mine-no-chaya (mountaintop tea house) to Mikasa, which is around 10km. It is a 22 minute bus ride from Naka-Karuizawa station to Mine-no-chaya and from there the trail leads downhill through the forest towards Shiraito Falls (approx 70mins).
The name shiraito means ‘white strings’; and with the water flowing like threads of white silk over the rock face, you can see why. Three metres tall, the falls are spread over a 70 metre wide arch; it really is a stunning view. If you can’t face the hike, a bus takes roughly 30 minutes from Karuizawa station.
Continuing the descent along the river, our next stop was at the Ryugaeshi falls, about 90 minutes walk away. While the water drops delicately at Shiraito, here it gushes out a quite pace. They are two hugely contrasting views, both spectacular.
Just 10-15 minutes away from Ryugaeshi falls, you can stop off and recharge your batteries with a bath at the therapeutic Kose Onsen before walking around 70 minutes onwards to the final destination, Old Mikasa Hotel. An elegant, western style wooden hotel that was built during the Meiji period by Japanese architects and carpenters, it became a popular place to stay for cultural figures and intellects alike. After ceasing operations in 1970, Mikasa opened up to the public as a museum in 1983 and it is currently one of Japan’s designated important cultural assets.
The hike should take around four hours but, if you think that might be too much for you, the Usui Pass Yuranhodo trail is a lot gentler. It lasts around 90 minutes and arrives at a platform with fantastic views of Mt. Asama and down to Karuizawa. Or, you could rent a bicycle from one of the many shops in front of either Karuizawa or Naka-Karuizawa stations.
For the Romantics:
As well as being known for it’s natural beauty, Karuizawa is regarded as a romantic hot-spot in Japan, with some believing that there is a certain something powerful in the air. Princess Michiko became the first commoner to marry into the Imperial family, after meeting now Emperor Akihito at a tennis court in the town. John Lennon and Yoko Ono saw it as the perfect romantic retreat, visiting there every summer between 1976 and 1979. It is also the setting for Minae Mizumura’s novel, Honkaku Shosetsu, a much acclaimed retelling of Wuthering Heights.
Other places that may be of interest to couples are Sasayaki no Komichi, popularly known as ‘lovers’ path’ and Kofuku no Tani (Happy Valley). With so many lakes, rivers, trees and wildlife, the whole town has a romantic feel to it.
Kumoba pond, also known as ‘Swan Lake’ because of the birds that visit in winter, is a particularly popular place for lovebirds to visit. A serene environment where people can stroll around during any season, it is particularly beautiful in autumn, when the leaves change colour. It truly is an amazing sight, particularly when reflected in the the sparkling crystal surface of the water. Emperor Akihito is known to be a regular visitor to this particular spot.
For the Sports Enthusiast:
All that talk of romance doesn’t mean Karuizawa is solely a place for couples to enjoy the countryside. There are a variety of activities to keep all manner of people entertained throughout the year, particularly sports enthusiasts. The only town in the world to have hosted an event at both the summer and winter Olympics – equestrian and curling, respectively – Karuizawa is known throughout Japan for it’s excellent sports facilities. There are a number of riding clubs, tennis courts and luscious green golf courses in the area. For when it gets colder, curling is an interesting option, while the ski slopes open between mid-October and early spring.
For the Shopper:
Before heading home after a nice relaxing trip, it is always a nice idea to get some souvenirs, an especially popular ‘pastime’ here in Japan. Karuizawa is famous for jam, as it has varieties that cannot be found elsewhere. The best place to look is at Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Shopping Street, which has a large number of homemade jam stores as well as craft shops, boutiques, cafes and bakeries. It is a charming, old fashioned shopping area where the produce is, on the whole, locally made.
Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza is the complete opposite. It is a huge mall, boasting around 200 stores, including many luxury foreign brands like Burberry, Paul Smith and Gucci. Fashion is the main draw bringing customers to the Plaza, but there is also an Imax cinema, a bowling alley and a wide selection of restaurants. The area around Karuizawa station can get pretty crowded in the summer so for a more relaxing atmosphere, Harunire Terrace is a good option. Just a short distance from the Hoshinoya Resort (featured on p.29), you can do a little shopping and eat lunch surrounded by spring elms, while listening to the soothing sound of the river below.
Best of the Rest:
Karuizawa is known as the ‘City of Churches’ in Japan. The influence that Priest Alexander Croft Shaw had on the Town is easy to see. Lying deep in the woods, his statue stands at the front of the Shaw Memorial Chapel, which is the oldest church in the area. Also, nearby is St. Paul’s Catholic Church, a distinctive structure – designed by American architect Antonin Raymond – that is often described as the symbol of Karuizawa.
Other highlights of the town include Yacho no Mori, a wild bird sanctuary where you can see over 80 species of birds and Lake Shiozawa, an ideal spot for boating in the summer and skating in the winter. There is a wide selection of museums and hot springs, so you should never get bored; for anyone looking to take a short break away from Tokyo but not looking to venture too far, Karuizawa might just be the ideal location.
How to get to Karuizawa:
Take a shinkansen from Tokyo Station, depending on the train, it is about a 65-80 minute journey.
Or, you can drive from Tokyo in around 3 hours. Take the Jo-shin-etsu highway.
By Matthew Hernon