Karuizawa is Japan’s premier resort area. Time passes slowly here, and the atmosphere is refined. Karuizawa is at its best in summertime. Departing from bullet train platform 21 at Tokyo Station, bound for Nagano, we take the blue-and-white “Asama” shinkansen, sinking into the comfortable seating and enjoying the scenery from the windows as we speed along at 260kmh. We arrive in Karuizawa just over an hour later. Stepping out onto the platform, the pleasantly cool air tells us that we are no longer in Tokyo.
(*When sightseeing in the greater Kanto area, the JR Kanto Area Pass provides excellent value.)
After looking around the retro-style old station building, we soon come to the bustling downtown area known as Karuizawa Ginza, which is the heart of the town and is also referred to as Old Karuizawa. Here are lines of antique stores, high-class brand shops, stylish restaurants and so on. After some window shopping, we quickly arrive in the middle of a dark and mysterious forest that feels more like a European forest than a typical Japanese scene. This is a moss-covered, historical area of holiday homes where there is lush undergrowth beneath the fir trees and larches. We take a while to stand and enjoy the silent air of this forest, which is home to old-fashioned Western-style houses as well as modern houses. Somewhere along the road the scenery changes as the famous Karuizawa fog appears, seemingly inviting us into a world of fantasy.
For the Japanese, summering in Karuizawa represents one of their highest status symbols. Japanese political, business and cultural figures have all built holiday homes here in order to spend their summers in comfort. It was in Karuizawa in 1958 that the current Emperor of Japan and then-Crown Prince first met Michiko, the present Empress of Japan. Deep in the forest you can also find Mampei Hotel, of which John Lennon was very fond. Time seems to stand still in the coffee house of this hotel. Spending some relaxing time in such close proximity to nature is truly one of life’s great luxuries, and being here it is easy to understand why John Lennon and his family liked this coffee house so much. It is no exaggeration to say that Karuizawa is one long forest walk. Highlights of the forest include Karuizawa’s oldest church, the Shaw Memorial Church, other cathedrals such as St. Paul’s Catholic Church (designed by Antonin Raymond, who received an award from the American Institute of Architects), and Kyu-Karuizawa Trick Art Amusement Museum. Also nearby is Kyu-Mikasa Hotel, which is an important cultural property and was Karuizawa’s oldest hotel, while one can also enjoy the refreshing natural scenery together with Karuizawa’s uniquely stylish townscape.
John Lennon and Karuizawa
John Lennon and his wife, Yoko Ono, used to take their family along to Karuizawa every summer. Their long stays at Mampei Hotel were particularly famous, although there are also many other places in Karuizawa that the couple frequented, such as cafes and bakeries. If you are a Beatles fan, you will no doubt want to visit these sites. *Pictured here is the “French Bakery” in Karuizawa Ginza. John Lennon liked to eat French bread from this shop, and there are photos of him on the walls inside the bakery.
We take a taxi ride to the sightseeing areas on the outskirts of Karuizawa. The cab drives up into the mountain, and before we know it we have arrived at a pass where there are no signs of life. This location on the border between Nagano Prefecture and Gunma Prefecture is called Usui Pass. Daring to explore, we head along a woodland path and find a vast viewing platform at an elevation of 1,200m, which offers superb unbroken views of the mountains around the southern Japanese Alps and Mount Asama. As soon as we saw the various shades of green and blue, it felt as though we were looking down at the earth from its rooftop.
Having enjoyed the scenery for a while, we return to the taxi and head for our next destination. The taxis of Karuizawa that run through the forest are much cheaper than city cabs. With our driver at the ready, we were able to enjoy a tour of sightseeing areas around Karuizawa, such as the renowned picturesque scenery of Kumoba Pond and Shiraito Falls, the lava formations of Onioshidashi Garden, and the Karuizawa Taliesin lakeside leisure area. At Shiraito Falls we followed a gentle stream and small river before encountering a calming screen of water.
Having heard that Karuizawa is famous as Japan’s original wedding resort, we visit Stone Church, which is also a renowned wedding hall. The chapel is formed with an arch made of stone and glass, creating a mysterious space in harmony with nature where light pours in from the sky as the pure sound of water echoes around. My pulse quickens as I imagine exchanging marriage vows here with a special person while being blessed – it would surely make for an unforgettable wedding. Nearby is Harunire Terrace, a line of wood-built stores surrounded by the forest and clear streams, where we were able to enjoy some relaxing shopping and meals, right here in the middle of the forest.
Before we know it, evening has fallen and so we head to our lodging quarters at the famously high-class HOSHINOYA Karuizawa. Here, Japanese-style cottages are dotted like stars along the riverside in a mountain valley flowing with crystal-clear streams. Terraced rice-fields spread out, woven together with paths and small bridges. As a foreigner, I get a feeling of fresh scenery mixed with a certain nostalgia… Yes, this is Japan, a place full of charms that I have yet to discover. As I think these thoughts, I relax by soaking in a hot spring and looking up at a star-filled sky. Unlike tourist spots in the city, this resort is a place where one can enjoy the luxury of taking time out from busy life. With its elegant ways of passing time, there is no doubt that Karuizawa is a genuine resort town. Tomorrow we will visit the prominent Kusatsu Hot Spring located north of Karuizawa. Sweet dreams…
Surrounding Sightseeing Spots