Karuizawa is a resort town located in the mountainous Nagano prefecture, well-known for its nature and relaxing ambience. Just one hour from Tokyo Station by the Hokuriku Shinkansen, Karuizawa is the perfect place for an excursion from the hectic megalopolis that is Tokyo. Karuizawa has become increasingly popular among Tokyoites, especially in summer, but the town has always had a history of accommodating foreigners as well. Karuizawa began its development in 1886 when Alexander Croft Shaw, a missionary and diplomat, introduced the town to his colleagues as the perfect place to escape the summer heat, where many British expats compared it to Scotland. This legacy has been maintained, with Karuizawa becoming the holiday location of choice for John Lennon and Yoko Ono, as well as hosting the world in 1964 and 1998, for the Tokyo Summer Olympics and Nagano Winter Olympics respectively (the only place in the world to host both Summer and Winter events). With the town also hosting the G7 Transport Ministers meeting in September 2016, Karuizawa continues to be a town that punches above its weight. From staying in a traditional ryokan (traditional Japanese inn), to staying in upscale luxury hotels such as the popular Hoshino resort, there are many places to stay in this slice of woodland paradise. Come and visit this town, and you will discover what the fuss is all about.
The next station is Karuizawa, please mind the closing doors…
Since the launch of the Nagano Shinkansen (bullet train) in 1997 , there has been a convenient high-speed rail link to Karuizawa, ensuring a transport time of just over one hour. Within that time, you’ll be teleported from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo Station to green nature, with birds chirping and a much cooler and clearer air. Just recently, the service was rebranded into the Hokuriku Shinkansen, with a more spacious train and services departing every 30 minutes, making this hour journey relaxing, enjoyable, and highly efficient. I’m sure the G7 transport ministers will be highly impressed when they take this high-speed service to their summit in Karuizawa come September.
One-way fares to Karuizawa from Tokyo via the Hokuriku Shinkansen start from ¥5,500.
Things to do
The nature is the primary reason why you should visit Karuizawa. There are a number of woodland trails available for trekking, where you will constantly hear the chatter of birds. There are some great trails available near Hoshino resort.
You can easily spend a few hours of your day on these trails or even spend an entire day, just be wary of wild animals such as monkeys, boars or bears. You can trek up mountains as well, such as Hanare-yama, a relatively small mountain that takes around one hour to ascend, or trek up Mount Asama, the tallest mountain in the area and the most volcanic mountain in Honshu, which dominates the landscape of Karuizawa.
With the cooler temperature and the vibrant nature, trekking through the forests of the area feels a world away from the sometimes choking crowdedness and noise of Tokyo.
The foreign history of the town is most evident in Ginza-dori, a lively but relaxing shopping street in the historic part of the town (Kyu-Karuizawa). Here you can find several unique boutique shops, restaurants, cafes, as well as great bakeries that serve quality bread and coffee. Specifically check out the “French Bakery”, which is where John Lennon and Yoko Ono frequented to buy their daily baguettes when they holidayed in the town.
If you’re into John Lennon, also check out the Mampei Hotel nearby, a historic Western-style hotel where Lennon stayed regularly, as well as countless prime ministers and foreign dignitaries. There is a piano here in the bar where Lennon played from time to time.
A visit to Karuizawa is never complete without a visit to an onsen, a perfect afternoon activity which washes away all the stress of city-life. There are plenty of nice hot springs in the town, particularly the Sengataki Onsen, Hoshino Onsen, and the Shiotsubo Onsen. Entry to these hot springs range from ¥1,000-¥1,500, and are certainly worth it.
The Hoshino Onsen is especially recommended,as it is known for its skincare benefits,making it highly popular among female visitors. The hot spring was founded in 1915 by Kunitsugu Hoshino (the current Hoshino Resorts president is the fourth generation of the family) and a hotel empire grew out of this enormously popular onsen, where today Hoshino has luxury resorts throughout Japan, as well as in Bali and Tahiti. The Hoshino Resort in Karuizawa was one of the first in Japan to become classed as a Small Luxury Hotel, a rare club, considering only 11 are in Japan. The hot spring is the most upscale in the town, with its modern but traditional design. The main hot spring (Tombo-no-yu 8:30AM-11:00PM) is open to non-Hoshino guests, and offers both indoor and outdoor baths, with the excellent low-alkaline mountain waters that made Hoshino so popular. There is another hot spring, with a more contemporary design called the “Meditation Bath“, exclusively for Hoshino guests and open all day. This onsen is indoors, where guests dip into a combination of carefully managed well-lit and dark rooms (Bath of Light and Bath of Shadow) to “release tensions and stimulate the tenses.” You won’t have to worry about energy consumption while spending time in Hoshino. The resort and its onsens are eco-friendly, with the entire complex being zero-emissions, powered by a combination of geothermal heat from the nearby volcanos and hydroelectric power from mountain streams.
The food in Karuizawa is worth mentioning. There has been a boom in restaurants opening up in the town to accommodate the rise in tourism, and include Italian, French, Scandinavian, Chinese cuisine, and much more. The local jams and honey are well-known in Japan and go great with the fresh bread from the local bakeries. Soba noodles from Nagano prefecture are famous for their taste, and you can visit a number of soba establishments in Karuizawa. Moreover, the vegetables in this mountainous part of the country are terrific too. Check out the newly created vegetable market (Hotchi Ichiba) where you can purchase fresh vegetables such as potatoes, carrots, mushrooms, and konnyaku from local farmers.
If you are craving for a retail shopping experience, akin to what they offer in Tokyo, then definitely check out the Prince Outlet Shopping Plaza, which is located right next to the JR Shinkansen station.
This is the perfect place to spend your final few hours in the town before hopping on the train back to Tokyo. There are a wide range of upscale brands available, with particularly large Burberry and Gucci outlets, and the pricing is reasonable compared to Tokyo.
There is much more to do in Karuizawa, such as golfing, horse-riding and birdwatching, and it is a place for all seasons. For example, in winter, there are opportunities for skiing and snowboarding if that is your thing. Regardless of which activity you want to do, this serene town nestled near the Japanese alps is the perfect place for a Tokyo excursion and will most certainly make you relaxed.