As the brilliant red, green and white explosions reflected off the surface of the lake, I turned to my partner with two simple words: “Merry Christmas.”
Our journey had begun eight hours earlier at Takasaki Station in eastern Gunma Prefecture. Alighting from the Niigata Shinkansen, we navigated through a small forest of bus stops before finding the boarding point for our holiday getaway. For around 20 km, the bus scooted through rural scenery dotted with fields of plum, peach and pear trees, and then climbed the switchbacks of the Tenjin Pass before we debouched beside the chilled depths of Lake Haruna, Japan’s answer to Oregon’s Crater Lake.
After checking in to our hotel, we strolled around the crystalline lake overlooked by 1,391-meter Mount Haruna-fuji’s flat-topped conical symmetry until we arrived at the foot of a ropeway. Once aboard, we were whisked vertiginously up 300 meters to a lofty and panoramic perch.
The sun had already set behind the broad horizon, sculpting the Japan Alps into a backlit stage prop for the light show about to commence. The two of us hopped around, attempting to bring the blood circulation back to our frozen appendages. The Kanto plain slowly awakened from its daytime slumber, a vast network of sodium-vapor and neon glowing ever stronger with each passing minute, as the rising moon looked on from the east.
Our eyes, however, were mostly trained directly below, where at precisely 5 p.m. everything changed with the flick of a switch: the Lake Haruna Illumination Festival had begun.
The gondola ferried us back to the village of lights, where tourists wandered in search of the holiday spirit. We spent the next several hours meandering through a maze of LED-lit archways, wire-sculpted reindeers and pyramidic trees, the soft lights refracting against a fresh dusting of sparkling power. Not only were we rewarded with a white Christmas, but a dazzling light show for accompaniment.
With the encroaching darkness came a deepening chill, so we scurried across the grounds in search of warmth. True to any celebration in Japan, a row of yatai (food stalls) lined the entrance to the free event. We sampled the amazake, a sweetened and low-alcohol variant of Japanese sake, while gorging on bulbous, piping-hot udon noodles.
Afterward, with our core temperature thawed, it was time to shuffle back to the shores of the caldera lake for one final display of pyrotechnic prowess. The rockets were launched from the edge of the park, exploding just meters above the surface of the lake and setting its waters ablaze in multicolored reflections. Fireworks for Christmas: It was the icing on our cake — and the perfect way to round out what has become Japan’s most romantic holiday.
The following day, it was time to see what natural beauty Haruna had in store. After a morning soak in our hotel’s hot spring, we donned silly Santa hats and hit a deserted trail for the 30-minute jaunt up to Suzuri Rock, which offered a bird’s-eye view of the entire volcanic plateau. Several hundred millennia past, the area was one giant stratovolcano rising to a height that would dwarf today’s 3,776-meter Mount Fuji. Then, however, aeons of violent explosive events reduced Mount Haruna-fuji to a fraction of its former self. The lake today is ringed with remnants of the geological transformations, offering a variety of short, challenging hikes to satisfy all finess levels.
From our lookout point, the volcanic geography started to take shape. The water-filled crater sat directly below us, framed on three sides by knobby summits laid bare by the leaf-stripping winds sweeping down from Siberia. Directly in front, on the far side of the lake, Mount Fuji’s minor mimic stands guard over the body of water like a samurai loyal to its master.
Despite its proximity to Tokyo, the plateau has mostly been spared the misplaced ambition of huge cedar plantations and the wrath of tourist development, with only a couple of concrete hotels marring the landscape.
We spent the better part of an hour soaking up the vista before continuing up to Mount Kamon, at 1,449 meters the highest peak in the range. Here, the views really opened up, with Mount Asama cloaked in a pure white veil leading a procession of like-minded wintry summits marching across the northern horizon in Niigata Prefecture.
With our thirst for nature adequately quenched, we searched the main street to satisfy our hunger and settled into a family-run souvenir shop-cum-eatery tucked away in a cove. One of the dangers of traveling just before New Year’s is that a lot of places will be closed for traditional end-of-year cleaning, but the elderly caretaker joyfully delivered a set meal of the local delicacy, wakasagi, a freshwater smelt fished straight from the waters behind.
In late January, when the lake completely freezes over, the area turns into a real-life version of the Arctic, with scores of enthusiasts spread around the caldera, drilling holes in the ice to sit by them and try their hand at catching the elusive fish.
In the afternoon, our search for culture led us by way of a short bus trip to the gates of Haruna Shrine, arguably one of Gunma’s most acclaimed religious centers. The 20-minute approach to the grounds follows a narrow path sandwiched between a long cliff face and a row of giant cryptomeria trees, with life-sized bronze statues of the seven chief Shinto gods on hand to offer silent spiritual guidance.
The area was first settled around 1,400 years ago by Buddhist monks engaged in esoteric practices among the peculiar rock formations. Shinto worshipers also moved in over time, and for centuries the two co-existed harmoniously. Then, in the Meiji Era (1868-1912), the authorities imposed shinbutsu bunri (the separation of Shinto from Buddhism), and Haruna became strictly a Shinto shrine, though a three-storey pagoda serves as a reminder of its earlier incarnation.
The site’s main buildings are buttressed against delicately balanced towers of igneous rock as if the giants of yesteryear were suddenly called into service, leaving a half-finished game of Jenga behind. The mystic aura of the shrine complex is undeniable, and visitors flock there year-round hoping to soak up the energy of this renowned power spot. I felt a cold chill piercing deep to the bone, but wasn’t sure if it was the hidden force of the gods or the setting sun sucking the day’s warmth away — but whatever, we needed to keep moving.
The following day, we opted for a quick morning ascent of 1,363-meter Mount Eboshi at the northern end of the lake. Hundreds of tiny ceramic foxes enveloped the Inari shrine marking the trail entrance, as we pulled ourselves up the impossibly steep contours of the knobby flank. Just below the summit plateau, at the base of a 5-meter cliff, stood a large shrine torii.
As I gazed up the hill at that from below, something moving caught my eye. Standing directly below the torii, a large Japanese mountain serow (goat-antelope) gazed down as if to scold us for our unsolicited trespassing. We stared in awe, feeling as if we’d been transported into the Hayao Miyazaki movie “Princess Mononoke.” The creature soon lost interest, shuffling away out of sight while we remained rooted in a state of amazement.
There followed a relaxing afternoon of hot-spring baths and leisurely cat naps confirming what we knew to be true: that often when you go on holiday you end up more exhausted than when you left. As I stared out at the thin layer of ice floating over the waters, I tried to envision the life of the warmer months: the contrast of the vibrant green of the foliage as it meets the cobalt hues of the lake; the scores of car-campers competing for precious space to spread out their creature comforts; the flotillas of swan boats roaming the calm waters in search of nature.
I wouldn’t trade this magical Christmas moment for any of those things. So if you’re searching for something unique this holiday season, you too just might find it in the volcanic hinterlands of Lake Haruna.
The Lake Haruna Illumination Festival runs nightly from 5 p.m. to 9pm until Dec. 25. Fireworks are scheduled for Dec. 16 and 25 at 9 p.m. Haruna Ropeway runs nightly until Dec. 25 from 4:30 p.m. to 9 p.m. Lake Haruna is accessible by bus from stop #2 at Takasaki Station.