In case you are wondering where do the rich Tokyoites went to hide when the unforgiving summer heat creep into the city or where the lovely Japanese ladies trade their kimono for an 18th Century styled dress, the answer is Karuizawa, Nagano.
Consider as an upper market mountain resort at the foot of Mount Asama, where a cup of coffee can go up to 1,000 Yen, Karuizawa in all its glory is unlike your typical Japanese town- no red lantern, no pachinko, no karaoke.
With a rich history dating back in 1886, when Canadian missionary Alexander Croft Shaw (Shaw Memorial Chapel) on one of his travel discover how the place reminded him of a summer retreat, Karuizawa has ever since not only maintained its natural beauty, but somehow kept the idea of a western-inspired, summer vacation town.
Walking along the beautiful bamboo path grove to see the Old Mikasa Hotel, I was mesmerized how serene the summer residences are- nested in a forest like area, surrounded by towering trees, with pathways half-covered in snow. I wonder if there is any tatami room on any of these houses.
I continued to check each and every residence. I feel like a kid sneaking into a neighbor fence-gate to admire how big and beautiful their house is and silently wish that one day I will be able to have one. While I continued to day dream, I was interrupted by an elderly couple who are the owner of the house that I was just admiring. After exchanging few pleasantries, the husband volunteered to take my picture with his home in the background and after which the lovely wife invited me for a cup of tea. Maybe I look trustworthy enough, maybe I resembled their long lost daughter or maybe they are just longing for a company, for whatever reason it is unlikely Japanese to welcome a complete stranger into their home, for this I am honored but sadly declined due to my limited one day plan.
Other than golfing, skiing, cycling, there is another reason why most urbanites go to Karuizawa- St. Paul Church and wedding. Established in 1935, there is nothing dramatic about the architecture of St. Paul Church, but its charming small size and the tranquility of the town offers a perfect setting for intimate wedding. For some reason, the church reminded me of Gun’s N Roses “November Rain” video.
To gauge how strong the Western influence is to see the ratio of churches against the temples. After hours of walking around town, I have seen only one temple, not even listed on a local guide map.
A resort for the wealthy will not be complete if there is no shopping district. Continuing to showcase the influence of the West though offering some traditional Japanese goods, Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza’s popular souvenir item of choice is bread jam. The favorite ramen shops are now replaced by several French bakeries and there are few notable shops that might peak your interests like Studio Ghibli souvenir store and the Illusion Art Museum. While not to far from the train station is Prince Shopping Plaza, an outlet mall of popular brands, a good place to shop for discounted Nike sneaker.
If you are planning to visit, don’t spent too much time at the outlet mall, since within 40 minutes bus ride away from the train station is a distinct 3m height by 70m wide, one of a kind- Shiraito Falls.
While a few minutes away walk for the Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza is Kumoba Pond or oftentimes called as “Swan Lake”, where visitors can encircle the lake in a matter of 20 minutes while bird watching. The fall and pond is the primary reason why I was inclined to visit this town in the first place.
Though rich in history and Western influences, for me the real beauty of Karuizawa lies on its location along Japan’s Romantic Road and the nature itself.