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Delightful day trips in Nagano: Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort & Karuizawa

Delightful day trips in Nagano: Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort & Karuizawa

Mention Nagano Prefecture, and a plethora of images would come to mind for people: splendorous mountains and numerous venues for exciting outdoor activities during the green season, scrumptious foods and cuisine, imposing castles and historical towns, and even a destination for an anime pilgrimage. It is a prefecture that has lots to offer for all travellers, and with direct shinkansen access from Tokyo, travelling there from the capital city is also a breeze.

 

I have been to Nagano several times, but I personally find the prefecture to be the kind of region that I can visit many times. There are just so many things to look forward to, whether it’s food, sightseeing, outdoor activities, or simply just all of the above! Plus, there were still other places that I had been meaning to go to, so imagine how glad I was to be finally able to visit these places in person.

 

Hakuba and Karuizawa on the map. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

For this article, I will share with you my experiences on visiting two places in Nagano that I highly recommend as day-trip destinations if you are based in Nagano. One of them is a place that I have been to before; the other is a place that I badly wanted to go to, and my wish was finally granted last September.

 

Want to know more about these places? Then read on!

 

A resort high up in the mountains

Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort’s location on the map. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

Do you like views of majestic mountains right before your very eyes? If you are based in Nagano, then you are in for luck! Hakuba (白馬) is a valley that is located in the northern part of Nagano Prefecture, and is famous for its high-quality powdery snow. The area especially gained its reputation as a winter destination after it was selected as one of the venues for the Winter Olympic Games in 1998.

 

Hakuba Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One of the popular locations in Hakuba is Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort, a place that I visited a few years ago during the winter. I remembered how magnificent the snow-capped mountains were, and I would relish the day that I would go back there again. Well, my wish was granted soon enough when I got to visit the resort again last September after alighting at Hakuba Station (白馬駅 Hakuba-eki) and taking a taxi there.

 

A misty gondola ride

Arriving at Iwatake Gondola Lift. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

To reach the resort, visitors can make their way to Iwatake Gondola Lift’s base station where they can take the Noah gondola up the mountain. As they take the gondola up the mountain, they can enjoy wondrous views around them, from fresh white snow in winter to vivid greenery in the summer.

 

When I arrived at Iwatake Gondola Lift, I was overcome by sheer nostalgia, as I remembered going there in winter and gazing at all the snow around me as I prepared to make my ascent up the mountain. A tip for everyone visiting there: make some time to check out the souvenir shop at the base station. Not only does it have winter gear for sale, but it also has local specialty goods, including snacks and souvenirs made from locally grown ingredients.

 

Making my way up to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

To be honest, I had some mixed feelings while making my way up to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort. Although it was exciting to visit the resort again for the second time, I was also worried because the weather hadn’t been very kind since it was raining heavily the whole day. Nevertheless, I tried to stay positive and hoped for the best as I made my ascent to the resort.

 

View from the Noah gondola completely covered in mist. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

If Mother Nature knew that I was trying to stay positive while on my way to the resort, I guessed she was also trying to test it. While riding the Noah gondola up the mountain to the resort, the weather suddenly got misty, and I couldn’t see anything outside the window of my gondola. By then, my worry had escalated but I was still determined to make something out of my experience!

 

A very wet arrival at the Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Even after arriving at the summit station and finally at the Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort, the heavy rain didn’t let up, and the entire resort was shrouded in thick mist. It was relatively quiet when I reached there, but there were still a few visitors who, like me, were trying to make the most out of their time there.

 

Many of the attractions were closed due to bad weather, which dampened my mood a little. But if there was anything I was looking forward to the most, it was the HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR.

 

A return to HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR

Arriving at HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Just a 3-minute walk away from the gondola’s summit station is HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR, an outdoor terrace that offers an amazing panoramic view of the Northern Alps. Completed in 2018, the terrace is one of the highlights of the resort and is a must for every visitor to drop by for a glorious mountain view.

 

The Northern Alps, almost completely shrouded in clouds. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR was my main goal of visiting the resort, as I wanted to see the mountains again after my last visit to the terrace in early 2020. Unfortunately, the bad weather rendered the mountains almost unseeable, making me feel crestfallen.

 

But just when I thought that my trip to the terrace was a letdown, the clouds suddenly drifted away, the sky began to open up a bit, and the mountains came into view…

 

The Northern Alps finally appeared. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Just a few minutes after arriving at HAKUBA MOUNTAIN HARBOR, the weather changed for the better, and the Northern Alps finally came into view. It was a huge relief that the clouds began to move away from the mountains, and everyone on the terrace got a chance to see and enjoy the spectacular view.

 

Seeing the mountains not only made my day, but it also overwhelmed me with the sheer nostalgia of spotting the same peaks that I saw two years back. After enjoying the mountain views, I could finally make my way back down and return to Nagano with a sense of contentment.

 

Getting to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort

Going back to Nagano via ALPICO Hakuba express bus. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Visitors can make their way to Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort via Hakuba Station or Nagano Station. From Hakuba Station, they can take a 7-minute taxi ride to Hakuba Iwatake Snow Field (白馬岩岳スノーフィールド Hakuba Iwatake Sunō-Fīrudo).

 

Alternatively, they can take a 2-hour ride on the ALPICO Hakuba Express bus from Nagano Station’s East Exit directly to the resort. Take note that the bus departure timings are also subject to change for the new season, so visitors are encouraged to check the official website.

 

My first trip to Karuizawa at last

The places that I visited during my trip to Karuizawa. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When it comes to popular destinations in Nagano Prefecture, another popular choice would definitely be Karuizawa (軽井沢). Known by most people as an upscale mountain resort, the town has been a favourite choice for a short getaway not just for travellers based in Nagano, but also in Tokyo thanks to its direct access via the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線).

 

I wrote an article before on why I would love to visit Karuizawa, detailing all the popular attractions I would like to see if I get the chance to do so. And guess what: I got to visit Karuizawa last September too, so you can imagine how ecstatic I was at finally getting to strike this destination off my bucket list!

 

Lunch of the day: Toge no Kamameshi. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

I arrived at Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅 Karuizawa-eki) at around lunch time, and while checking out the train station to decide what to eat, I stumbled upon a shop that was selling Toge no Kamameshi (峠の釜めし Tо̄ge no Kamameshi). Although originally from Yokokawa in Gunma Prefecture, the ekiben (駅弁 railway lunchbox) was also sold at Karuizawa Station, and I was lucky enough to grab one of the last few boxes left for the day.

 

Needless to say, it was simply delicious and I wolfed down the entire bowl, down to the last morsel.

 

First stop: Shiraito Falls

Taking the bus to Shiraito Falls. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The first item on the agenda in Karuizawa is visiting Shiraito Falls (白糸の滝 Shiraito no taki), a beautiful waterfall that is a must-visit for visitors to the mountain resort. To get there, I took a 25-minute bus ride from the station’s north exit.

 

Walking up to Shiraito Falls. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After the bus ride, visitors can take a 5-minute walk to reach the waterfall. There are also some souvenir shops selling locally brewed craft beers and souvenirs along the way, and for anime fans, I also found small wooden statues of the characters Tanjiro and Nezuko from “Demon Slayer” (鬼滅の刃 Kimetsu no Yaiba) at the entrance.

 

Take note that visitors will have to walk up a gentle slope to reach the waterfall, which can be slippery during wet weather. Be careful and watch your step when going up the slope!

 

Lo and behold, Shiraito Falls. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a few minutes of walking, I finally reached Shiraito Falls and the sight simply blew me away. Its name translates to “waterfall of white threads”, and indeed, the water streaming down the cliffs resembled white threads. And unlike most other waterfalls, this one was fairly short, with its cliff only three metres high.

 

I had only seen the waterfall in pictures, but to see it in person was a completely different experience. The soothing sounds of the waterfall were rejuvenating, and it was very therapeutic to be in the heart of Karuizawa’s greenery at the same time.

 

Shiraito Falls (白糸の滝)
Address: Nagakura, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano 389-0111
Access: Take a 25-minute ride on the Kusakaru Kōtsū (草軽交通) bus bound for Kusatsu Onsen from Karuizawa Station, and get off at Shiraitonotaki (白糸の滝) bus stop.

 

Onward to Onioshidashi Park

Onioshidashi Park. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After my brief visit to Shiraito Fall, the next destination on my to-go list is Onioshidashi Park (鬼押出し園 Onioshidashi-en). I was particularly excited to visit this place, as it was one of the things I personally wanted to see while visiting Karuizawa.

 

Exploring the park’s landscape on foot. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

To say that Onioshidashi Park was an eye-opener is putting it mildly, as the landscape was unlike anything I had ever seen. The park was filled with dark volcanic rocks that were formed by lava after Mount Asama nearby erupted in 1783, and it gave the landscape a very unique scenery.

 

Visitors to the park can also climb the slopes and enjoy views of Mount Asama and nearby towns in the distance during clear weather. The heavy rain had just ended when I was there, but I got a particularly interesting view of the nearby town being shrouded by mists as a result of the rain.

 

Onioshidashi Park (鬼押出し園)
Address: 1053 Kanbara, Tsumagoi, Agatsuma-gun, Gunma 377-1593
Access: Take a 45-minute ride on the Seibu (西武) bus bound for Manza Bus Terminal from Karuizawa Station, and get off at Onioshidashien (鬼押出し園) bus stop.
Operating hours: 8am–5pm (last entry at 4:30pm)
Entrance fee: ¥650 per adult

 

Karuizawa’s “Swan Lake”

Kumobaike Pond. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After Onioshidashi Park, my next destination is Kumobaike Pond (雲場池), which is famous for its beautiful natural surroundings that reflects the colours of the seasons, whether it is the vivid shades of autumn, or the snow-white hues of winter. To get there, I took a 35-minute bus ride from Onioshidashi Park to the pond.

 

Beautiful sights around the pond. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

And indeed, when I reached the pond, I was captivated by its natural beauty. Since I paid a visit at the end of September, the pond was surrounded by vivid greenery of the summer, but I could also see some autumn foliage emerging, with faint shades of orange and yellow. There were also walking paths around the pond that were filled with vibrant-coloured flora, so I took a leisurely stroll on it and enjoyed the pure serenity of the area.

 

Interesting fact: the pond is often known as “Swan Lake” because swans tend to fly around here during winter. However, during my time there, the pond was filled with lively ducks swimming and enjoying the water.

 

Kumobaike Pond (雲場池)
Address: Karuizawa, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano 389-0102
Access: Take a 5-minute ride on the Seibu (西武) bus bound for Kusatsu Onsen from Karuizawa Station, and get off at Roppontsuji-Kumobaike (六本辻・雲場池) bus stop. The pond is a 5-minute walk from the bus stop. Alternatively, visitors can take a 25-minute walk from Karuizawa Station to the pond.

 

A relaxing stroll along Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street

Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a delightful stroll around Kumobaike Pond, I checked my to-go list for Karuizawa and there was only one more place that I personally wanted to visit: Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢銀座通り Kyū-karuizawa Ginza-dо̄ri) And thankfully, it was only a short 20-minute walk from the pond to the street, so I easily made my way there on foot.

 

Strolling along the avenue was a huge pleasure. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street is the kind of place that immediately won me over with its charms and classy atmosphere. Lined with chic stores, cafés, and bakeries, the street is a perfect place for visitors to go café-hopping, shopping, or having a leisurely stroll and simply enjoy the ambience.

 

While walking along the street, I also noticed how the surrounding greenery was gradually being replaced with emerging warm colours, a sign that autumn was just around the corner. I could only imagine how amazing the scenery would be when the season arrives, and I hope I would get another chance to visit the street again in the future.

 

Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢銀座通り)
Address: 541 Karuizawa, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano 389-0102
Access: Take a 4-minute ride on the Kusakaru Kōtsū (草軽交通) bus bound for Kusatsu Onsen from Karuizawa Station, and get off at Kyū-Karuizawa (旧軽井沢) bus stop. Alternatively, visitors can take a 25-minute walk from Karuizawa Station to the street.

 

Getting to Karuizawa

Karuizawa Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Visitors based in Nagano can take a 30-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Nagano Station (長野駅) to Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅). Alternatively, those who are based in Tokyo can take a 65-minute ride on the Hokuriku Shinkansen from Tōkyō Station (東京駅) to Karuizawa Station.

 

Closing

Hakuba Iwatake Mountain Resort and Karuizawa are two destinations that are often on my mind whenever I am based in Nagano. The former is a place that I have been to before, and the latter is one that I finally got the opportunity to visit, but both turned out to be splendid experiences in overall.

 

Would I want to visit them again in the future again? My answer is a resounding yes. I would love to visit them, especially in other seasons as well, as I can imagine that the scenery would be vastly different, making for yet another eye-opening experience. I know that it would only be a matter of time before I set foot on the resort high up in the mountains, and set foot along the classy street again, and I can’t wait for that time to come!

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you want to visit Hakuba and Karuizawa, then you can check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines in the valid area for 5 consecutive days. At ¥27,000, the pass is a great choice for travellers visiting multiple locations around the region.

 

The pass can be used at the automatic ticket gates, and you can also make seat reservations for bullet trains, some limited express trains, and Joyful Trains online for free, up to 1 month in advance, on the JR-EAST Train Reservation.

 

The JR-EAST Train Reservation. (Image credit: JR East)

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang, illustAC

 

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