Karuizawa is known as a getaway magnet for the rich, and based on a recent trip to the town in Nagano Prefecture, Japan’s wealthy take their pleasures very seriously.
From the concrete vistas of the capital, just over an hour by train north of Tokyo in this former playground of Japan’s royalty, you’ll find sumptuous houses set in dense forest, and high-end restaurants which, despite their prices, help make this town well worth a visit.
Karuizawa also has at least eight easily accessible golf courses nearby and tennis courts beckoning those yearning something active. In winter, there are curling facilities, and a nearby ski slope is open between mid-October and early spring — with artificial snow guaranteed if the real stuff doesn’t appear on cue. In summer, meanwhile, the cool upland climate gives those who can afford holiday homes a welcome break from sticky Tokyo. But you don’t have to be rich to enjoy Karuizawa’s year-round crisp air, natural splendors and peaceful atmosphere.
In the Edo Period (1603-1867), the town was known as a stop-off post on the Nakasendo — one of the five main roads that sprung from Tokyo to the nether regions of the realm, but thereafter the area turned to tourism after a Canadian priest visited in 1886. By introducing Karuizawa to the intellectuals and missionaries he knew, Alexander Croft Shaw helped Karuizawa to grow in reputation and become a cosmopolitan getaway spot in countryside considered similar to Britain’s.
On the first day of our recent visit, we headed to Shaw’s house via the Kyukaruizawa shopping street. The street gave an insight into the petit-bourgeois nature of the town’s economy. Many of the shops sold crafts or locally made produce such as jams, German-style sausages and organically grown fruit and vegetables from nearby fields. There was not a chain store in sight — at least on the north side of the station. To the south it’s a different matter, and at the huge Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza those who crave Gucci and the like have plenty to choose from.
The walk also gave us a good idea of the people who make up Karuizawa’s transient population. Well-heeled, home-owning housewives up from Tokyo for the weekend sporting bling, leopard-skin leggings and fur coats mingled with young families and twentysomething couples on romantic breaks. The town’s forte, it soon became obvious, was the slow weekend — partygoers looking for wild times would be disappointed, with few restaurants and bars in the area staying open past 10 p.m.
After getting in the swing by buying preserves from one of the many homemade jam “superstores” that dot Kyukaruizawa, we reached Shaw’s former holiday home. The house, and a memorial chapel erected in honor of the priest, paled in comparison to the more lavish houses that have sprung up over the last four decades, but it’s still easy to imagine that Shaw’s wooden home was not to be sniffed at back in the day.
The location of the house is also impressive. When you are standing in the middle of a forested area, with only the sounds of birds singing, the rustle of leaves and water flowing in a nearby river, you know you are far away from the big cities where pachinko parlors shriek out trance. The town’s appeal was becoming obvious.
Our next stop was the Old Hotel Mikasa, an officially designated Important National Cultural Asset (¥400 admission). Completed in 1905, the wooden, Western-style hotel was designed and built exclusively by Japanese, and tourist leaflets claim it is the only one of its kind left standing. Its design had an air of grandeur you’d normally associate with the traditional, high-class hotels of Europe, and acted as a reminder that in the pre-1945 Showa Era, Japan hadn’t forgotten all the finer things in life as the militarists held sway.
Today, the building is teetering toward decay, its outer paint work flaking in places, while inside it’s all but a shell. Surely, we thought, with a little more investment this venerable structure could rival the old, refurbished European stately homes that tourists from all around the world flock to visit.
A representative for the Karuizawa Tourist Board, however, disagreed: “The aim is to keep the hotel in its original state, so we don’t wish to give it an extensive makeover.” When pressed about the state of the inside of the building though, he agreed that “a lot of furniture has been lost over the years — but there is little we can do about that.”
An excellent Italian meal later that night cemented our positive impression of the town’s restaurants. A huge salad full of fresh vegetables accompanied homemade pasta and a pizza from a wood-fire oven. We complimented the owner and asked whether her restaurant was famous in the area. “Not really,” she replied, “we’d go out of business if we didn’t supply food of this quality.”
We headed back to our hotel for the night and prepared for the next day’s expedition to the outskirts of the town on mamachari (old ladies’ bicycles) that cost ¥1,000 a day to hire from one of Karuizawa’s many rental shops.
Bikes secured, we headed first to Kumoba Pond — also known as Swan Lake. A little out of town, it is recommended as a good scenic spot for a morning stroll. Deep blue skies and tranquil waters turned the pond into a mirror, and as we strolled around it we were soon in the shadow of Mount Asama. This snow-topped active volcano looking down on the town was the site of the famous Asama Sanso Incident, a 10-day hostage standoff in February 1972 between the police and the Japanese United Red Army that caused a media frenzy and left two police officers dead. Personally, though, I was too blissed out to dwell too long on such history.
As spectacular as the late-autumn scenery — trees bare of leaves but not yet carrying winter’s snow — were the houses we came across. It seemed that as we cycled round each corner we discovered a new piece of peace for Tokyo’s elite. Huge log cabins jostled with picket-fenced houses that evoked an America of yore when space was not a commodity. Big houses were followed by bigger houses, gardens were adorned with hand-crafted furniture — and this was Karuizawa in off-peak season, when the wealthy owners were not there on their summer vacations.
We then visited Lake Shiozawa via a cycle path that went through the heart of one of the many small forests scattered throughout the area. For its ¥800 entrance fee, Shiozawa seemed a little pricey for November. The lake was pleasant but the small theme park and row boats meant to keep visitors occupied looked decidedly out of place in 10-degree weather. Though the park would probably be as crowded as Shibuya Crossing at warmer times of the year, the food on offer there certainly did’t account for its appeal. Our hot dogs and french fries for lunch summed up the lake area: European elegance had been replaced by Disneyesque tackiness.
On the way back to Tokyo, relaxed and ready for a warmer climate, I knew a little more of how Japan’s wealthier half lived. Perhaps those office workers laboring all the hours god sends and driving themselves into the ground for their companies and their paychecks are aiming to buy something more than a tiny piece of Tokyo after all.
Getting there: The Asama Shinkansen runs frequently from Tokyo and takes around an hour (¥5,500). More details at hometown.infocreate.co.jp/en/chubu/karuizawa/karuiz-e.html