While Tokyo is unbearably hot and humid in the heat of the summer, in Karuizawa verdant grass and moss carpet the floors of forests and the mountain air is perfumed with the scent of larch leaves and wild flowers. The area is a little over a one-hour train ride from Tokyo, enabling visitors to quickly escape the hustle and bustle of the big city and enter a world where nature rules.
Sitting on a plateau at the foot of Mount Asama, Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture has long been a popular summer destination in Japan. Last year, over 7.5 million people visited this highland resort with summer visitors topping 4.5 million, according to the town office.
Although Karuizawa attracts a number of weekend tourists, it is best known as a summer retreat where people like to rest and relax for an extended period. The town boasts over 13,000 holiday homes. Karuizawa’s history as a summer retreat dates back to more than 100 years ago when British missionary Alexander Shaw stopped over in 1886. It was then a shabby village, but Shaw fell in love with the cool climate and landscape, which is so often shrouded in mist; it reminded him of his homeland. He found it an ideal summer retreat and built a summer house for his family — the first villa in Japan — and invited fellow missionaries and other foreigners to do the same.
Wealthy Japanese and noble families followed suit, forming a unique community of intelligentsia influenced by Western culture. Villagers were quick to adapt to the new environment. They learned to bake bread and make jelly for Westerners and Japanese who had begun to live like their western counterparts.
In 1894, an old Japanese-style inn called Kameya was converted into a Western-style hotel and renamed Manpei Hotel. The opening of the hotel coincided with the first session of the so-called “Karuizawa Meeting,” a supradenominational missionary meeting where hundreds of missionaries from all over Japan and China gathered every summer.
From the early 1920s through the 1930s, many distinguished Japanese artists, poets and novelists, such as Saisei Murou and Tatsuo Hori, made Karuizawa their summer home. They left behind many works on Karuizawa that helped publicize the area and enhance its reputation.
In the late 1950s, Karuizawa became famous again because of the romance between the Emperor, then Crown Prince, and the Empress, then Michiko Shoda, who met on the tennis court while on holiday there.
Today, the resort is no longer reserved for the privileged. Large-scale development in Karuizawa and neighboring areas has brought commercialization and an increased population.
An increasing number of lodging houses and pensions provide reasonably priced accommodation, while a full range of recreational activities — cycling, horse riding, tennis, golf and a variety of museums — await visitors.
The main street, which runs north from Karuizawa station, is now lined with a number of souvenir shops, boutiques, cafes and restaurants. During the peak season, it is crowded with young tourists in scenes reminiscent of downtown Tokyo.
Despite all these changes, however, Karuizawa retains much of its old charm. Local residents and long-term villa owners like to point out that, once away from busy streets, tree-lined lanes — some too narrow for a car and often unpaved — offer a quiet atmosphere reminiscent of past times.
A walk through the woods is the essence of the attraction of Karuizawa — sweet-smelling forests are filled with a multitude of birds, rushing brooks and waterfalls. It’s the perfect summertime antidote to urban bustle.
Kyu-Karuizawa, for example, still has a quiet, romantic atmosphere. Just a 20-minute walk from JR Karuizawa station, you will find Sasayaki no Komichi, a path popularly known as a “lovers’ path,” along the banks of the Yagasaki River. And the only sounds “disturbing” you will be birdsong and the murmuring of water.
Walking to the north, you will come to Manpei Dori, a row of fir trees. At the end of this tree-lined cul-de-sac, you can see the old but magnificent form of the Manpei Hotel peeping from behind the trees.
Behind the hotel, lies Happy Valley, where elegant summer villas are scattered in a white birch grove. A moss-covered paved pathway leads to a statue of Alexander Shaw.
Another popular walk takes visitors through to the western side of Karuizawa. Near the Roppon Tsuji, a crossroads of six avenues, which is about 1 km west of JR Karuizawa station, there is a graveyard for former foreign residents of Karuizawa.
From the graveyard, it only takes five minutes to walk to the legendary pond, Kumoba no Ike, popularly known as “swan lake.” It is said that the pond was formed by rain filling the foot-print of a giant who lived in Mount Asama. It takes about 20 minutes to walk around the pond, which is surrounded by many varieties of trees.
From the pond, walk further north to the Kajima no Mori forest. Through the forest you will find St. Paul’s Catholic Church, a symbol of Karuizawa and designed by the American architect Antonin Raymond. You may even see a newly married couple emerging from the church.
From here, take Mizuguruma no Michi lane to the monuments of two Japanese Taisho-period novelists, Saisei Murou and Hakucho Masamune. The lane was a favorite walking route for novelist Tatsuo Hori, who introduced it in his work “Beautiful Village.”
Near JR Naka-Karuizawa station, there is the huge Yacho no Mori forest of white birch and Japanese larch. The forest is known for its bird sanctuary, which was established by one of the founders of the Japan Wild Bird Protection Society. Numerous species of birds live in the 100-hectare sanctuary, including Japanese paradise flycatcher, arctic warbler, yellow wagtail, and brown dipper. The forest is also a perfect habitat for many species of mammals, including the red fox, the raccoon dog, the rarely seen Japanese serow and giant flying squirrels. Bird-watching walks are organized twice daily during the summer.
If you have more time, take the popular hiking trail from the Shiraito no Taki (White Thread Falls), via Kose hot spring and recreation area, down to the Old Mikasa Hotel.
Deep in the still forest the crystal-clear waters of the Yu River fall over a broad rock ledge creating a waterfall that resembles a fine silk curtain. Although only 3 meters high, the falls are about 70 meters wide. They nestle beautifully among the fresh rich greens of early summer and then the scarlet-tinged leaves of autumn.
After walking the trail for about two hours, you will come to the peaceful Kose hot spring, that has private baths.
The trail leads to the Old Mikasa Hotel, one of the oldest Western-style hotels in Japan. The main building was designed about 60 years ago by a Japanese architect who combined the style of local farmhouses with that of the Alpine houses he had seen while studying in Germany.
Besides the many popular trails, there are also roads where you will hardly ever be disturbed by passing cars and where you will also find many coffee shops and tea houses.
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