Again we travel out of Tokyo and headed slightly westward from Tokyo city. The both of us traveled up to this beautiful and peaceful location called Karuizawa. It is an upmarket mountain resort at the foot of the active volcano Mt Asama in Nagano Prefrecture. Hidden away a little north-ward and while it sits on a plateau with an altitude of 1,000 meters, it is quite chilly too. It is now a famous tourist spot for the locals from Tokyo, who travel to this place to get away from the summer heat and bustling city. I guess that’s due to the reason that it is only about an hour plus away from Tokyo by the Shinkansen and it’s rather easy to get here.
In order to save money and utilize our rail pass, we took the normal JR Yamanote train from Uguisudani down to Ueno station. From Ueno station we boarded the JR Nagano Shinkansen. In about an hour, we have reached this peaceful and lovely town.
On the train, you could see everyone dressed in ski outfits and we all know where they are heading. Upon arriving at Karuizawa Station, I could feel the strong wind and it was extremely cold. My hands almost dried up instantly like dried prunes. Just to the right of the station, you could see Karuizawa Prince Hotel Ski Resort. The others on the train all gushed out and headed towards the Prince Hotel. But that wasn’t our main purpose to Karuizawa, we were here for the sceneries and the also not forgetting the awesome and delicious jams.
As we left the station, we noticed that the town was rather deserted. There were not many cars and we didn’t see any taxis at all. Well, to me that wasn’t a bad thing, in fact I loved it. The town buildings and layout looked very pleasant and it was rather cozy and romantic. Having the whole place to ourselves. We walked slowly, hoping to find any sights that we’ve researched online, but it seemed like we had a lot of walking to do. Then, we passed by this cute little bicycle shop. It looked closed but it was open.
What’s funny about this place is that there was a public phone outside the shop and we had to call up the owner if we wanted their bicycle rental service. So we did. The owner told us to wait for a few minutes and then he came in his car and greeted us with a big fat smile. Thank God he spoke english. He was so friendly and he told us that we could choose any bicycle we wanted. He allowed us to test it around the area before deciding on the ones we wanted. The conditions of the bicycles here are extremely well-maintained, unlike the ones back home in Malaysia. Where the rust and dust are competing against each other on the bicycle body and don’t get me started on the brakes.
Anyways, after we chose our bike, the owner gave us a small map and it had all these attractions listed on it with the bike route. All around Karuizawa, there’s these numbers that tells you exactly where you are, so you need not worry about getting lost. Once you have the map, you are ready to go.
We started out slowly with our bicycles, enjoying the cold breeze and the beautiful buildings us. To my astonishment, most of the buildings here doesn’t look Japanese at all. It had all these westernized architecture around, and it makes me feel like we’re in some European town. Karuizawa was indeed in the past, introduced as a summer getaway by a Canadian missionary Alexander Croft Shaw in 1886. It reminded him so much of Canada that he decided to stay. Karuizawa has ever since not only maintained its natural beauty, but somehow kept the idea of a western-inspired, summer vacation town. Hence, the wonderful and awesome architecture around it. Even the phone booth looked extremely unique.
The feeling of riding a bicycle here with Fann is extremely romantic. It feels so relaxed and it just washes all my troubles away. Just look at the pictures of the trees and roads. The place is so quiet and tranquil, that you might think you’re in a dream.
Our first main attraction was this gorgeous little chapel. The St Paul’s is a Catholic church. Established in 1935 by a British priest, the church was based on a design planned by an American A. Raymond, the master of modern architecture. Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church is famous for its appearance in Hori Tatsuo’s literary work Ki no Jujika. Now it’s one of the most symbolic looking churches in the town of Karuizawa. Too bad it wasn’t Sunday and the church was closed.
Right opposite the church, was this gigantic structure called Church Street. I guess this is your one stop Christian shopping mall, where you can get all your churching needs. Anyways, Further down, we headed to our next destination.
Here we are at the famous Old Mikasa Hotel. Welcomed with a large red gate, this building was built by a Japanese carpenter. This former Mikasa Hotel is one of Japan’s designated important cultural assets and is made of wood. The hotel opened in 1907 during the Meiji period. For 64 years, it was loved by a number of cultural figures and business people as the place for socializing. The hotel was named “Karuizawa’s Rokumeikan.” The Old Mikasa Hotel is currently owned by the Town of Karuizawa and is designated as Important Cultural Property of Japan.
Today, a portion of the historic building is open to the public as a museum. With a small entrance fee of ¥400, you get to visit the interior of the building. The geometrically designed window frames and the elaborate patterns carved into the curtain boxes are some of the extravagant ornamentation that characterizes the hotel. Despite the eerie feeling of empty furnitures sitting around an empty house, it gives you a good idea of how the rich in the past enjoyed their days in this hotel.
After this destination, we decided to not go any further because Fann’s bicycle skills were quickly running out. So, we headed down to the town area to look for lunch. Many of the shops that day were closed, but fortunately we found one restaurant called Cafe Sashi that would serve us. We parked our bicycles downstairs and headed up the stairs were it was situated. We had some of these fusion food. Looked pretty western to me.
After filling our tummies, we went for the jam hunt. We found this huge jam store and quickly walked inside. I swear to God I saw Fann’s eyes sparkle when she was inside the shop. Jams were literally everywhere and the flavours were absolutely unique and beautiful.
What’s best about jam shopping here, is that they allow you to taste the jams before purchasing. They have these sample jams around the corner with some crackers. You spread as much as you like and give it a go. Fann was so excited that she tried almost every single thing there. There were so many flavours to choose from and many of the flavours cannot be found elsewhere. We decided to buy this delicious paste dip, honey flavoured jam and best of all, the Apple Jam!
After jam shopping, we went to others stores to buy some other good looking snacks like cheese tarts and cookies, etc. We then returned the bicycle to the shop and headed to the station. It wasn’t such a long day spent here but we had a great time. We had to rush back to Tokyo that day because it was a holiday and we wouldn’t want to be trapped on the Shinkansen with no seats and also get stuck in the massive crowds in Tokyo too. I think I would visit Karuizawa again. It’s one of the most relaxing visits throughout my entire Japan trip. The place was beautiful and the air was extremely good.
Here are some fun facts about Karuizawa:
- 1. It hosted equestrian events in the 1964 Summer Olympics
- 2. It hosted curling in the 1998 Winter Olympics
- 3. John Lennon and Yoko Ono spent several summers at the Mampei Hotel in Karuizawa
- 4. Emperor Akihito (the current emperor) met Empress Michiko on a tennis court at Karuizawa in 1957