Karuizawa is a beautiful alpine resort in eastern Nagano just one hour away from central Tokyo. A suburban town tucked away in the mountains, its relatively cooler climate makes it an ideal retreat from Japan’s sweltering summer heat. I abhor summer, especially summer in Japan, where its daily average temperature of 40 degrees is even higher than that of Singapore. When I found out about this summer retreat so close to Tokyo, I knew I had to have a mini-vacation there to escape Japan’s terrible summer.
The rich, dense green of the forests and the crystal clear lakes surrounding the resort gives it a relaxed feel absent in the gray metropolitan city of Tokyo. Everything seemed to move at a slower pace here, perhaps owing to the town’s proximity to nature. The songs of birds and rustles of tree leaves swirled through the cool crisp air as we ambled along this cozy town wrapped in nature’s greens.
Staying in a Cottage in Karuizawa
For our two-night stay we opted to for a unique hotel experience, a quaint cottage stay at Karuizawa Prince Hotel East. Nestled deep within the forest, the wooden cottages are lined up neatly in rows, giving the appearance of a forested village.
The cottage is spacious, with sufficient space for up to four people. It consists of two bedrooms, one living room and a bathroom. Probably as it was raining then, there was an adorable teru teru bōzu (traditional handmade doll made of white paper or cloth with supposed powers to prevent rain) on the table in the living room with a welcome message for us when we arrived.
As the cottages are located far away from the main hotel, we were chauffeured to and fro by drivers in little green and white cars. It might sound a little inconvenient, having to wait for your driver to pick you up, but their service is always prompt.
Getting to and around Karuizawa
By taking the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tokyo or Shinagawa Station, you will be able to reach Karuizawa in around an hour’s time. Once there, you will have to get around Karuizawa via bus and train or taxi, as the various attractions are not necessarily within walking distance. However, the buses and trains are very infrequent, so you should take note of the timing and plan your schedule accordingly to maximize your stay. Alternatively, you can also rent a bicycle or even a car to get around the town. Karuizawa is mainly divided in three areas, Shin-Karuizawa, Kyu-Karuizawa and Naka-Karuizawa.
Nature to soothe one’s soul
Heaven wasn’t exactly on our side when we were at Karuizawa, the rains were relentless even by the time we left. But before it began to pour, we made sure to first visit a place of nature, being city dwellers surrounded by grey all day, we needed to see some green, to feel nature’s energy seep through our skin.
One of the most famous natural locations in Karuizawa is the Shiraito Falls. Located a few bus stops away from Kyu-Karuizawa and a short pleasant 5-minute walk up to the falls, Shiraito Falls is strikingly gorgeous in summer, surrounded by lush vegetation that paints the water green. While the falls may only be 3 metres tall, the width along with the water that cascades down like millions of silky white threads onto the moss-covered rocks and jade green pool creates a spectacular view.
The star attraction may be the main waterfall with its languid, emerald pool, but I thought the cascading rapids were absolutely breathtaking as well. While there is only a dirt path leading you to the waterfall, the track is well-maintained and easy to walk. The gushing stream next to the path makes the walk utterly scenic and relaxing. On a wet day however, do take care to tread your steps more carefully as you might slip on the muddier areas.
Best Shopping Spots in Karuizawa
After visiting the falls, we backtracked to Kyu-Karuizawa, the central town of Karuizawa, with a romantic shopping street seeped in European influence known as the Karuizawa Ginza. We totally enjoyed exploring the little alleyways filled with trendy cafes and whimsical shops. Also, there are many places where you can drop in to sample their food products entirely for free. We sampled many things from wine to sausages to honey.
Jam is probably the most renowned local specialty in Karuizawa, you will find many shops here selling jams of all flavors, and you can also sample them with little bread crusts. Nakayama’s Jam is the most famous amongst the jam stores, with over 100 years of history and producing hundreds of different flavored jams ranging from Kyoho grapes to watermelon lemon.
Another popular store right next to Nakayama’s Jam is St. Cousair Winery, with their vineyards located in the northern part of Nagano, the winery specializes in Chardonnay, but they also produce many other varieties of wine such as Merlot and Pinot Noir. Besides wine, there are so many delicious jams and sauces sold in the store, and you can actually try them all!
And right at the entrance of the south exit of JR Karuizawa station, Shin-Karuizawa is a shopper’s paradise with the seemingly endless shops in Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza. With over 200 shops, there is a good mix of both international and Japanese brands in this enormous outlet mall. You can totally spend an entire day shopping with all the great bargains found here! As the mall is spread out over five different areas, you will actually need to take a shuttle bus to get from one shopping area to the next.
Naka-Karuizawa, though offering fewer shops and restaurants than Kyu-Karuizawa, has a beautiful wooden terrace shopping area known as the Harunire Terrace, with many specialty shops and restaurants surrounded by Japanese elm trees and a bubbling river. Though we were there in summer, it was raining so heavily and the skies were constantly overcast, dimming the beauty of this terrace. But apparently during the rainy season in June, the terrace is decorated with colourful umbrellas hanging from the top to create a stunning contrast against the grey skies. Pity we only had the rain without the rainbow of umbrellas as merry accompaniment.
While there were about 16 shops in the terrace, I was particularly enthralled by a wood carving speciality shop, Garando. It featured many different merchandise made entirely of wood, spanning from adorable figurines to artistic clocks. Apparently, the clocks and other furniture items like tables and shelves can even be custom-made!
The Churches of Karuizawa
Karuizawa is also famed as a romantic destination wedding spot, and when you see all the beautiful churches nestled deep in the green forests, you will not be able to stop yourself from envisioning the two of you taking a wedding vow in a holy sanctuary amongst the tranquil nature. There are a few churches within Kyu-Karuizawa, such as the St Paul’s Catholic Church and the Karuizawa Shaw Memorial Church.
Located at the back of Karuizawa Ginza, Shaw Memorial Church is Karuizawa’s oldest church built in 1895. Nestled within the woods, this rustic wooden church gives one a feeling of serendipity even from the outside.
Naka-Karuizawa also has its own share of beautiful and interesting churches such as the Karuizawa Stone Church, a truly unique church carved out of stone, and the Karuizawa Kogen Church, which has a distinctive triangular roofing reaching all the way to the ground. Karuizawa Kogen Church holds a summer candles night event lasting an entire month every year, and is positively enchanting in the amber glow of the thousands of candles lit during the event. I would have loved to witness the candle-lit church scene but it was raining so regrettably the event wasn’t on.
Dining at Karuizawa
Food is always a very important part of DH and my travels. We always make sure to do our due research before trying the locale’s eateries so that we won’t waste our stomach space on lousy food. Being a luxury resort, dining options abound in Karuizawa. From casual restaurants to fancy hotels, there is a wide range of options to choose from.
For tea, we headed to Mampei Hotel, the summer home for the Lennons. Just a short 10-minute scenic walk from Karuizawa Ginza, is full of classic Western charm and a perfect place to while the afternoon away with an enchanting forest view. While in the hotel’s cafe, we ordered a Royal Milk Tea, a recipe said to be taught by John Lennon himself, and a matcha latte. The matcha latte was a little on the thin side, but the Royal Milk Tea was divinely fragrant and intensely rich in flavour.
We wanted to have Japanese cuisine for lunch, so we headed to Sonmin-Shokudo at Naka-Karuizawa. Known for their fresh locally sourced ingredients, this casual Japanese restaurant has a chic interior with a great view of nature as its ceiling-high windows and glass doors flood the entire place with natural light. It also boasts a bar area right at the entrance which adds a wild, rugged meaning to the term ‘alfresco dining’. Their set meals are reasonably-priced and delicious. I had the Pork and Shinshu Salmon baked with Miso Paste Set which costed ¥1,730.
For dinner, we had a full-course meal at Kastanie Rotisserie. Just a 5-minute walk from Karuizawa station, this restaurant is famed for their roast chicken. It is a very popular place, so you should definitely make a reservation in advance, or be prepared to wait. The set meal course for two at ¥5,800 gave us a food coma with its quantity of scrumptious sides served along with the main course.
And when the roast chicken arrived, the fragrant aroma wafted to our noses, making our mouths water even before we took a bite of the meat. The chicken was not only crispy, the juices were well sealed within the meat. It was really, the best roast chicken I have ever had. Their drinks menu is extensive as well, and they provide excellent house wine.
The dessert was the cherry on the cake. I opted for a Kyodo grape sorbet while DH had a rich chocolate ice-cream. I usually prefer creamy ice-creams over sorbets, but I am a big fan of grapes and Kyoho grapes are known as the king of grapes. It tasted incredibly like frozen red wine, the richness of the Kyoho grapes has well-balanced notes of sweetness and tartness, and the actual grape skin adds a chewy texture to the soft ice.