Just over an hour away from Tokyo lies Karuizawa, a beautiful mountain resort, that famously serves as an escape from the suffocating summer heat of the city in summer, as a stunning retreat in spring and fall to watch the cherry blossoms and fall foliage, and as a winter sport hotspot.
It doesn't come as a surprise that this place has become such a popular destination for everyone who wants to escape the bustling beehive that is Tokyo. Whether you love outdoor activities, historic and unique sights, great food, relaxing onsen or fantastic shopping facilities - Karuizawa has it all!
During the Edo period, Karuizawa has been one of the 69 stations of the route called Nakasendo that connected Kyoto with Tokyo. In 1886 the Bishop of East Tokyo, Alexander Shaw, started to introduce this town to other foreign residents as a retreat from the sweltering Tokyo summer heat.
Ever since then, Karuizawa has become not only a summer retreat, but also an all-year-round resort and a bit of a hotspot for celebrities. Writers, artists, photographers, politicians, actors, musicians, even the Emperor himself, and of course John Lennon, have stayed in Karuizawa to enjoy its natural beauty and laid-back atmosphere. It is also the only town to date to have hosted both a summer, as well as a winter Olympic event.
Where is this magical place....
Karuizawa is located in the mountains in the eastern part of Nagano prefecture, on an elevated plain at the foot of one of Japan's most active volcano, Mount Asama. But don't let this scare you away; the volcanic activity is very closely monitored and the last destructive eruption took place in 1783. Climbing Mount Asama's summit is prohibited, but it's a stunning view that contributes to Karuizawa's unique charm.
Due to its elevation at roughly 100 meters and its moderate summer climate, Karuizawa is an all year around resort, that boasts with a variety of outdoor activities, hot springs, as well as its own unique attractions.
Hard to believe, but this gorgeous natural resort can be reached in a bit more than one hour from Tokyo!
.... and how do I get there?
The fastest, but admittedly more expensive option to get there is by taking the Hokuriko Shinkansen. If you have the JR Railpass, rest assured, the route is of course covered and won't cost you anything!
The Shinkansen leaves from Ueno Station as well as Tokyo Station, with a one-way ticket coming at a price between 5000 - 6000 Yen.
Local trains are available, however their fare is between 6000 - 11 000 Yen for trip that might take up to 8 hours in total!
A more sensible option is taking a high-way bus or a combination of train and bus.
A possible train-bus-combination could be taking the JR Takasaki Line from Tokyo Station to Takasaki, change there to the JR Shinetsu Line to Yokokawa, where you then take the JR Bus to Karuizawa. Journey time clocks in at around 2 hours 15 minutes and the fare is about half of the cost of a one-way Shinkansen ticket with around 2800 Yen. The JR Bus is also covered by the JR Railpass, but be aware that the "express route" busses are not included.
Highway busses leave from Shibuya (Shibuya Mark City), as well as Shinjuku (Shinjuku Expressway Bus Terminal) and Ikebukuro (Ikebukuro Station, East Exit). The journey is around 3 hours long and the fares range from 2000 - 3000 Yen, with the busses departing mainly in the morning, between 6:45am and 9:35am.
You can also visit Karuizawa by car, which gives you a bit more freedom to roam the area around the town. Coming from Tokyo, the most convenient and fastest way is by taking the Expressway, which costs around 3600 Yen in tolls. However, if you just want to get a car to explore the area around Karuizawa, you can easily rent a car at the train station.
Where to stay when visiting Karuizawa?
Karuizawa is famous for being an all-year-round resort, that offers a wide range of accommodation choices. From luxurious onsen hotels, to hostels and camping grounds, there's something for everyone's budget!
This luxury resort is definitely not made for smaller budgets, but oh my, how stunning it is!
The whole resort is designed in a village-by-the-river style, with individual little pavilions that aim to not disrupt the gorgeous fauna surrounding them. The interior is kept in a traditional Japanese style, with cedar bathtubs, large windows, private courtyards and terraces that are right by the river.
In addition to that, Hoshinoya also offers spa treatments and onsen, as well as a variety of outdoor activities, such as horseback riding, ice-skating and private eco-tours. These customized tours are also held during the evening hours when the flying squirrels can be observed, which is quite an experience! It's not often that one can see a huge squirrel soaring through a forest!
At first, this sounded a bit dodgy to me , since "trailer" is not exactly the word I would look for when choosing an accommodation. But this is not just some kind of caravan! These trailers are the equivalent of a tiny house!
You can choose a two or three bedroom trailer and even though they are a bit pricier, if you are spending a weekend in Karuizawa with a group of friends, this might be a great option! The interior of the little homes is surprisingly spacious, with any available space being used in an efficient and clever way!
Each trailer comes with a little terrace, private bathroom and a kitchenette. If you want a bit of luxury but combined with a quirky tiny house, this is your place to stay! Check out their website here http://jennie.jp/e_home
Karuizawa Guest House Dorakuso
This is a more budget-friendly option and great if you are traveling with friends.
They offer dormitory style bunk beds, as well as a tatami room that hosts 4 futon beds. Bathrooms are shared and some attractions of Karuizawa, such as the shopping mall, are a bit further off.
If you are here in winter for some skiing, then Dorakuso might be just the right choice for you, as it is close to the ski slopes. They also offer a discount ticket for the host spring nearby if you check in before 8pm!
Karuizawa Camp Crest
A great summer option for nature lovers is camping! This camping area costs 500 Yen per adult per day and even gives you free parking for the first car.
The camping area is well maintained and has shower facilities, a coin laundry and a small shop. And you don't even have to be a well-seasoned camper: any necessary camping tools, such as lamps, mats or even tents can be rented on location! So if you forget anything, or simply don't own any camping gear, fear not! They got you covered!
If camping and sleeping in a tent does not sound very appealing to you at all, then try one of their cabins! They have a fridge, ceiling fan, futons and bedding and come at 15 000 Yen per day. Great value for a camping trip for a group of 4-5 people!
This place is gentle on your budget but will floor you with its cozy and friendly atmosphere. The house is a refurbished traditional Japanese home, that hasn't lost its unique charm.
A mixed dormitory with bunk beds, as well as a female dormitory with tatami floor are available for the budget-conscious traveler. They also have a private room for up to 3 people that has a small sitting room attached for some extra relaxation time.
If you are planning your trip in summer, you can enjoy some of Karuizawa's nature in one of the hammocks provided! Koya is unfortunately only open from April to November, but if you want a cozy place with lots of charm during the summer, this is my recommendation!
If you are looking for some retail therapy, Karuizawa has you covered!
Prince Shopping Plaza
Located just a few walking minutes from JR Karuizawa Station, this 26-hectare outlet mall will keep your fashionista heart beating faster for hours!
With over 200 stores distributed over two sections, one east and one west of Karuizawa Station, offering a variety of different brands from Levis over Adidas to luxury labels such as Gucci and Bulgari, you can spend days on end in this shopping heaven!
Should your shopping spree leave you tired and in need of an energy fix, you can choose one of the many restaurants and cafes to recharge and get ready for another round!
The Shopping Plaza is open every day from 10am to 7pm in winter and 9pm in summer.
Karuizawa Ginza Dori
If you prefer shopping with a flair of nostalgia, then head to Karuizawa's old center and stroll down Ginza Dori.
Many stores from Tokyo started to establish branches on Karuizawa's Ginza Dori when the town rose to fame amongst politicians and international prominent figures. The street has a bit of a romantic and nostalgic ambiance with an additional touch of character lent by many Western-style buildings such as the Old Mikasa Hotel and St Paul's Catholic Church.
Ginza Dori invites to slow down, stroll around the shops, enjoy some desserts and browse for some of the town's famous jams. Nakayama's Jam is definitely worth a stop and their jam variations make for a great gift!
A nature lover's dream - outdoor activities all year around!
Being famous for its gorgeous scenery, Karuizawa will not disappoint you if you are looking for some outdoor adventures!!
If you truly want to enjoy the beautiful nature surrounding Karuizawa, then consider renting a bicycle! There are many places around town that offer mamachari (typical bicycles to get around town) for just 500 Yen a day!
This mountain pass lies between Nagano and Gunma prefecture and has served as one of the major transportation routes in Japan since the eight century.
About four kilometers from the old town of Karuizawa, you will find the Usui Pass Observation Platform, from where you get a stunning view over the mountains of Gunma Prefecture on one side and Mount Asama on the other side. Not far from there you can visit the Kumano Kotai Shrine, which sits right on the border of the two above mentioned prefectures.
The Karuizawa Aka Bus operates once every hour between the Mampei Hotel, the Ginza Dori and the Usui Pass Observation Platform. A one way trip costs 500 Yen and a round-trip 800 Yen.
Only about 20 minutes walk from Karuizawa station lies this scenic idyll. It's a bit off the main attractions and invites you to slow down and relax whilst taking in the beautiful scenery.
The reflection of the green trees in the clear water surface changes depending on the angle you look at it. There is a promenade around the pond, so have a stroll and make sure you take some photos at various angles!
This scenic spot is a bit further out, located deep in the mountains of Karuizawa.
This unique waterfall is only 3 meters high but its width is what will stun you! Like a curtain made of white strings (shiraito) the water flows over a 70 meter wide edge with a force and power that is truly impressive! The water is groundwater and quite warm due to the geothermal effects of the close-by volcano . It surfaces before the waterfall which explains why no actual river is flowing into the Shiraito Falls!
A bus departs from Karuizawa Station that takes you to Shiraito Falls for 710 Yen one way.
This park is unique as it features a rugged landscape, shaped by volcanic rocks and sediment that were deposited during Mount Asama's last big eruption in the 18th century.
It's located in Gunma Prefecture, just across the border and offers an amazing view over Mount Asama and the nearby towns. A temple dedicated to Kannon, the goddess of Mercy, can be found at the center of the park. There is also a Asama Volcano Museum, where you can learn more about the geography of volcanoes, as well as experience some volcanic activity in a simulator.
A bus departs two to four times a day from Karuizawa Station to Onioshidashi Park and costs approximately 1200 Yen one way.
Skiing in a winter wonder land!
The surrounding mountains, combined with a drier kind of snow compared with the one found on the Sea of Japan side of Honshu, makes Karuizawa a perfect ski resort! Snow can fall as early mid-October, so get your skis ready!
Prince Snow Resort
With ten slopes covering Mount Yagasaki almost to its summit, this is the biggest ski area in Karuizawa and it is operated by the Prince Snow Resort.
Each slope has a chairlift and many of them are operating even after dark, letting you enjoy those rare skiing experiences under the starry night sky! There are three expert level slopes with the longest being 800 meters, as well as two medium and five beginner level slopes with about 900 meters and 500 meters in length respectively.
It's a great place for families as the Resort also offers Kids Park for children and a facility called Mori Kids Room, where infants are taken care of whilst the parents enjoy the slopes.
The Prince Snow Resort ski season usually starts from middle of November to about the end of March. Skis and snowboards can be hired and a school offers lessons in either skiing or snowboarding for all ages.
The location is great since it's only a few minutes from the Karuizawa Shinkansen Station
This ski area is part of the President Resort Karuizawa and located on a mountain north of Karuizawa town.
With only six slopes, this skiing area is much smaller than the Prince Snow Resort, but not less enjoyable! Three chairlifts and one snow escalator make sure you get back up the mountain in no time, so there's no delay in you swooshing down again!
The ski season usually starts in December and lasts until April. Skis, snowboards, and ski wear (except for hats and goggles) can be hired and lessons are available at the local ski and snowboarding school.
A special treat for children is the 200 meter tubing course, complete with a curve and a tunnel.
Free shuttle busses are available from the South Exit of Karuizawa Station, but make sure to book them by 5pm on the previous day!
What to do when the great outdoors takes a rain check?
Despite of a great variation of outdoor activities, Karuizawa is not immune to bad weather that might interfere with your outdoorsy plans. So what to do when it rains? Why not visit one of Karuizawa's museums!
Karuizawa New Art Museum
The Karuizawa New Art Museum, or KaNAM, is dedicated mostly to post-war Japanese and foreign modern art. Rikuo Nishimori designed the glass building with the white supports that represent the surrounding forest and which is a piece of modern art in itself.
One of the most recent exhibitions was Yayoi Kusama's "I love myself TOO much - Narcissism that moved the world", who is famous for her colorful creations with loops and dots.
The KaNAM is only a 10 minute walk from Karuizawa Station, and is open from 11am until 5pm, except Tuesday when the museum is closed.
This is a more low-key onsen but that also makes it quieter and less touristy.
For 1200 Yen during the week and 1300 Yen on the weekend, you can enjoy one indoor pool (not onsen), as well as one open-air and a full outdoor onsen. Children between the age of 3 and 12 years can enter the onsen for 700 Yen on week days and 750 Yen during the weekend.
Sengataki Onsen opens from 12pm until 9:30pm, Monday to Friday, and from 10:30am until 10pm during the weekend and on public holidays.
All these activities will leave you hungry, so let's find some great restaurants and cafes to recharge your energy!
Founded in 1933, this bakery, or boulangerie, is famous for making European-style bread and pastries.
It prides itself with making only hand-made bread and only using machines that support this process rather than automating it. Their chocolate bread and their blueberry loafs are amongst the most popular products and you will always find people queuing for it!
It's only a 24-minutes walk from Karuizawa Station on Ginza Dori.
This Japanese-style cafe is a bit away from the big bustling center of Karuizawa.
The building is nestled between lush greenery and is a stunning sight during the fall months when the foliage changes colors. In front of it is a small pond accentuates the calm and tranquil atmosphere and perfectly complements the freshly brewed tea and homemade sweets. Matcha au lait is and Gateau O Chocolat, a rich chocolate cake with a refreshing subtle lemon note, are their bestsellers and definitely worth a little culinary sin!
To get to Furico sabo, you can take the Karuizawa town loop bus that will take approximately 14 minutes.
A 25-minute walk from Karuizawa Station, located on Ginza Dori is this restaurant which is famous for its firm and tasty soba noodles.
Their most popular dishes, such as Seiro (steamed soba with a dipping sauce on the side) and Ten Seiro (Seiro set with additional tempura side dish) are simple but very tasty due to their excellent home-made soba.
The building has its own charm as its big windows give you a sense of openness and the illusion of eating outside in the forest rather than inside the restaurant.
This list wouldn't be complete without this famous bakery and patisserie.
Having been one of John Lennon's favorite places in Karuizawa, this place quickly rose to great fame amongst locals and tourists alike. Their French-style bread and baguettes are a staple, but they also sell other pastries and even jams.
Make sure you stop over at this lovely little bakery on Ginza Dori, for a bite and a quick snap with one of the many pictures of John Lennon.
Only in Karuizawa!
When exploring this retreat in the mountains of Nagano, you will come across a few sights that are very unique to Karuizawa and are part of what makes this town so charming and interesting!
Old Mikasa Hotel
This former hotel was built in 1905 and has been turned into a cultural museum and been declared a National Treasure.
This doesn't come as a surprise when you see the carefully preserved architecture with the particularly unique staircases and handrails. The whole building was designed and built by Japanese craftsmen, who took inspiration from Western-style designs and construction methods.
The Mikasa Hotel can be reached by Kusa-Karu bus, who departs from the North Exit of the Karuizawa Station (platform 2).
Admission for adults is 400 Yen, for children 200 Yen. Opening hours are 9am to 5pm.
This hotel has been a hotspot for many celebrities since its opening in 1894, with John Lennon and his wife Yoko Ono being probably the most famous guests that stayed here.