5 reasons I want to visit Karuizawa
For people with a case of wanderlust, they usually have a wish list of places they would love to go. This is of no exception to people who love travelling to Japan such as myself, and even though I have been travelling there for over 10 years, there are still plenty of places I genuinely want to visit, especially by train. One of those places is Karuizawa (軽井沢) in Nagano Prefecture (長野県 Nagano-ken).
Karuizawa has been known as a upscale mountain resort for a long time, and an popular getaway for people from Tokyo (東京) because of its close proximity to the city. But there's more to the town than meets the eye, as there are many rules and regulations in place to carefully maintain the town's idyllic and serene environment.
For instance, to preserve the peaceful ambiance of the town, advertising signs are strictly regulated from their size to their placement. New homeowners must also ensure that their homes follow certain rules to complement the town, such as roof shape and wall colours. And of course, as a retreat for people to enjoy some peace and quiet, loud noises are prohibited at night and advanced notification is required if loudspeakers are going to be used for any occasion.
In this article, we will explore Karuizawa, a haven that features some of the most beautiful natural sceneries in the Chubu Region (中部地方). The town is a place that many Japanese people long for because of its exceptional living conditions, which is also why many expatriates live and buy summer homes here. Plus, with a location that is just 1 hour away from Tokyo by shinkansen (新幹線 bullet train), and thereby making commuting to the city hassle-free, the town makes for one of the most sought after locations in Japan.
I will explain the reasons why I want to go there someday, along with showcasing some of the destinations that are in my bucket list.
Reason #1: Convenient getaway
E7 on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. (Image credit: JR East/Nakazawa)
Karuizawa is located at the foot of Mount Asama (浅間山 Asama-yama) in Nagano Prefecture, and over the years, the town has proven to be immensely popular for visitors from Tokyo and neighbouring cities because of its close location. More importantly, getting to Karuizawa is made incredibly easy and convenient thanks to the Hokuriku Shinkansen (北陸新幹線), which connects directly from Tokyo to JR Karuizawa Station (JR軽井沢駅 Karuizawa-eki), when it was first opened in 1997 (as Nagano Shinkansen).
(Note: I also wrote about the Karuizawa Station in further detail, and other retro stations in a previous article. Check it out here.)
JR Karuizawa Station. (Image credit: JR East/Nakazawa)
I personally love travelling in Japan by train. There’s something charming about sitting in a train car, gazing at the view outside that transforms from the urban skyline to the rural countryside as the train makes its way to my destination. It’s also much more comfortable and convenient compared to other modes of travel, so for any destination I like to visit in Japan, it would be perfect if it’s accessible by rail. Karuizawa is one of those destinations, and since it’s close to Tokyo, that makes it all the more I want to visit it whenever I’m in the city.
Reason #2: The perfect summer/winter escape
Skiing in Karuizawa. (Image credit: photoAC)
Karuizawa has garnered reputation for being an upmarket mountain resort town known for its many resorts such as HOSHINOYA and several hotels by Prince Hotels. Historically, the town was heavily promoted by Western residents of Japan in the late 19th century as a mountain resort. The town is situated at the foot of Mount Asama, a 2,658m active volcano that spans across prefectures Nagano and Gunma (群馬県 Gunma-ken), so visitors can experience snowfall during winter. Depending on the weather, visitors can ski or take part in snow activities here as early as mid-October onwards.
Summer camping in Karuizawa. (Image credit: photoAC)
More interestingly, Karuizawa is particularly popular as a summer resort because, with an altitude of approximately 1,000m above sea level, the town’s cool climate makes it an attractive place to get away from the summer heat. Combine this with its convenient location, and Karuizawa becomes an instant hit for summer getaway especially for Tokyo-ites and nearby city dwellers. Karuizawa thus makes for the perfect summer getaway, where visitors can enjoy outdoor experiences such as camping, golfing and many more.
Summer is always exciting to visit in Japan for me, but the warmth and humidity of the season can be a turn-off. A place like Karuizawa, with its cooler climate, is a wholly welcoming change who would fancy a getaway from the city where the heat can be unbearable.
Reason #3: Beautiful seasons all year round
Karuizawa’s verdant greenery. (Image credit: photoAC)
Karuizawa may be famous as a summer and winter destination, but it’s not only known for the two seasons. The town is known for its pristine natural beauty throughout the year, and many visitors from other parts of Japan and all over the world would come and visit the town just to experience its natural beauty.
Mount Asama in the background. (Image credit: photoAC)
Spring is an underrated season in Karuizawa, but here visitors can see a view of two seasons: winter and spring. As the town is located at the foot of Mount Asama, visitors can stand to see the snow-capped mountain in the far distance in spring. This juxtaposing view of two seasons in one shot is something unique to the town, and visitors can witness this breathtaking view sometime in early May.
Green season in Karuizawa. (Image credit: photoAC)
Karuizawa’s summer, also known as the ‘green season’, normally stretches from late April to early June. During this time, the town is covered with fresh green leaves that sprout after spring, when the cherry blossom flowers have fallen. This is the time when the town hosts a range of outdoor sports and activities: half-marathons, cycling, golfing, bird watching, fishing and many more.
If there’s one thing I earnestly want to try out in Karuizawa in the summer, it’s forest bathing (森林浴 shinrin-yoku). I’ve yet to find the opportunity to engage in this therapeutic experience in Japan during summer where I get to cleanse myself psychologically and spiritually, and Karuizawa is the perfect place for me to try it out.
Karuizawa in the autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)
But if there’s one season that particularly stands out in Karuizawa, it would arguably be autumn. The town is famous for having some of the best autumn sceneries in Japan, usually from mid-October to early November, when the town is enveloped with fiery-red and brownish-gold foliage. Add this to the mountainous surroundings, and you would get a spectacular scenery with explosion of colours.
Winter activities in Karuizawa. (Image credit: photoAC)
And of course, as shown in its reputation, Karuizawa is famous as a destination for the winter. With Mount Asama in the background, it has the right setting for a winter wonderland where visitors can take part in skiing, snowboarding and other snow activities for the season. With many ski resorts with dedicated ski lifts and courses, visitors will be spoilt for choice.
As an evergreen place that can be visited regardless of the season, Karuizawa makes for a perfect travel destination for me, who would love to visit any place in different seasons so that I can catch a glimpse of the same place in different views.
Reason #4: Natural beauties galore
As mentioned before, Karuizawa is known for its splendid natural beauty throughout the seasons. When visitors arrive at the resort town, they would want to visit places that fully showcase the sheer beauty that the town has offer. The same applies for me: I always want to make time to enjoy some nature and greenery, which is a change of pace and a breath of fresh air from my usual daily lifestyle.
When in town, these are some of the places they would not want to miss:
Shiraito Waterfall (白糸の滝)
Shiraito Waterfall in the summer. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
Perhaps the most iconic natural attraction of Karuizawa, Shiraito Waterfall is a place that visitors come to see time after time for different seasons. Its name translates as ‘waterfall of white threads’ as spring water streams flowing down the 3m cliffs resemble dozens of white threads. Interestingly there is no river connected to it, unlike most other waterfalls, as the water originates from underground. Because of this, the water flow is generally constant and is rarely rapid throughout the year.
Shiraito Waterfall in the autumn. (Image credit: photoAC)
Shiraito Waterfall is often regarded as one of the most beautiful waterfalls in Japan, and many claim that summer is the best time to visit it. However, autumn is another favourite time for many people to visit, when the foliage transforms the surroundings from vibrant green to crimson red.
Kumobaike Pond (雲場池)
Kumobaike Pond in autumn (above) and winter (below). (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
Kumobaike Pond is another major natural attraction of Karuizawa alongside Shiraito Falls. It is also known as ‘Swan Lake’ (スワンレイク) but ironically there are no swans swimming on it. What’s outstanding about this pond is its mirroring effect with its surroundings: in the summer, the water reflects the vibrant greenery of the surrounding trees; in the autumn, it vividly mirrors the fiery-red and golden leaves of the foliage; and in winter, visitors can see it reflecting the white snow covering the surrounding trees, contrasted with the azure-coloured sky.
Kumobaike Pond in the summer. (Image credit: photoAC)
Onioshidashi Park (鬼押出し公園)
The landscape of Onioshidashi Park. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
Japan is a land with many mountains and volcanoes, and Mount Asama is one of them. In 1783, the volcano erupted violently and spewed molten lava and ash over the surrounding lands. As the lava cooled over time, a jagged rocky landscape was formed which later became to be known as Onioshidashi Park.
Temple in Onioshidashi Park. (Image credit: photoAC)
In the centre of the park, there is a temple built in dedication to Kannon, the Buddhist Goddess of Mercy. It was built in hopes that it would protect the locals from any future eruptions by Mount Asama. So far there hasn’t been any eruption for the last 200 years, and many people pray it stays that way.
Volcanoes are a foreign idea for Singaporeans like me when Singapore doesn’t have any of it. It’s a novel experience not just to see a volcano with my own eyes, but to see an aftermath of a volcano eruption, a spectacle that can be terrifying as much as it is breathtaking. Onioshidashi Park is that one place gifted by Mother Nature that I want to see for myself.
Usui Pass Observation Platform (碓氷峠見晴台)
View from Usui Pass Observation Platform. (Image credit: photoAC)
Less than 2km away from Karuizawa’s main street is the Usui Pass Observation Platform. The platform is close to the border between Nagano and Gunma, and here visitors can see Mount Asama and the mountain ranges of Gunma.
Usui 3rd Bridge in autumn. (Image credit: ググっとぐんま写真館)
For history buffs and railway fans, they might be interested to know that the platform is also named after the Usui Pass, a historical railway pass that used to connect from Karuizawa Station to Yokokawa Station (横川駅 Yokokawa-eki) in Gunma Prefecture. The pass has since been closed after Nagano Shinkansen (present-day Hokuriku Shinkansen) was built.
Reason #5: Rest & relaxation
Karuizawa is often seen as a destination of choice for rest and relaxation for people from the cities. Whether it’s for personal leisure or for a company retreat, the town is a favourite for many people simply because it has something for everyone. Personally for my travels, I would like to mix my itinerary up a little with some outdoor activities and R&R too.
For travellers seeking for something a little different from the outdoors, these are some places that remain a favourite among visitors.
Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢銀座通り)
Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street. (Image credit: JR East/Carissa Loh)
Want to have a trip down nostalgia lane? Then head on over to the Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street, an avenue that hearkens back to the olden times of the town. This historic shopping district is a stone’s throw away from JR Karuizawa Station, and it features many nifty shops, and chic cafés and restaurants. There’s even a replica of the Merlion somewhere along the street, so do check it out!
This district has been gradually garnering a lot of popularity since the last 19th century. As westerners living in Japan began opening villas in the area, more celebrities and dignitaries began to pay a visit here throughout the years, and with the emergence of the shinkansen, more people from other parts of Japan and world began to flock here.
Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza
Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture/JNTO)
Aching for some retail therapy? I know I sometimes do. Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza is a 26-hectare, sprawling fashion outlet located just minutes away from JR Karuizawa Station. First opened in 1995, the mall has been one of the main attractions of visitors to the town, and it features over 200 fashion labels.
Former Mikasa Hotel (旧三笠ホテル)
Former Mikasa Hotel. (Image credit: Nagano Prefecture/JNTO)
For those interested to learn more about Karuizawa’s past, they ought to pay a visit to the Former Mikasa Hotel, a relic of the town’s luxurious past. It was completed in 1905 and was open to the public from 1906 to 1970. The building is the perfect exemplification of Meiji-Era architecture, where the eclectic design combines American, British, and German influences. Furthermore, it was designated as an Important Cultural Property (重要文化財 jūyō-bunkazai) in 1980.
(Note: the museum is currently closed for restoration works, and is estimated to reopen in 2024.)
Karuizawa Taliesin (軽井沢タリアセン)
Lake Shiozawa near Karuizawa Taliesin. (Image credit: Karuizawa town/JNTO)
Another place that showcases Karuizawa’s Western-influenced past is Karuizawa Taliesin, a picturesque recreational area that features the placid Lake Shiozawa (塩沢湖 Shiozawa-ko). ‘Taliesin’ means ‘shining-brow’ in Welsh, and visitors to the area will feel like they’re in a foreign land, as the place is inspired by Western architectures and landscaping.
When in Karuizawa Taliesin, visitors must pay a visit to the Summer House, a rustic Peynet museum designed by Antonin Raymond, one of the pioneers of modern architecture in Japan. Another is the English Rose Garden, which features over 180 different varieties of roses.
Karuizawa Taliesin (軽井沢タリアセン)
Address: Shiozawa-217 Nagakura, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano 389-0111
Nearest station: Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅)
Opening hours: 9am–5pm (February–November), 10am–4pm (December–January) closed on New Year’s Day
Admission fee: ¥800
HARUNIRE Terrace (ハルニレテラス)
Harunire Terrace. (Image credit: JR East/Nakazawa)
Another chic spot in Karuizawa is Harunire Terrace, a classy outdoor terrace under Hoshino Resorts that first opened in 2009. The name 'Harunire' (春楡) means Japanese elm, and the place features an array of restaurants serving international cuisines using local ingredients, cafés and shops. Visitors here can unwind and soak in the soothing surroundings over coffee or tea, and enjoying strolling on the boardwalk by the water. Don't miss the Karuizawa Umbrella Sky, held every June during the rainy season, when the terrace is adorned with vivid-coloured umbrellas!
HARUNIRE Terrace (ハルニレテラス)
Address: 2148 Nagakura, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano 389-0111
Nearest station: Karuizawa Station (軽井沢駅)
Restaraunts: 11am–10pm (last order at 9pm)
Shops: 10am–6pm (may vary according to shop and season)
Admission fee: None
Although I have been to many places in Japan by rail, Karuizawa remains elusive in my bucket list. Easily accessible by train from Tokyo, and with splendid natural scenery throughout the seasons, it’s something I’ve been looking forward to for the longest time. I even dream that someday I can own a home in a place as exclusive as Karuizawa, where I can get to enjoy both the sheer beauty of the town's nature and quick access to the city. But for now, I only wish I can head there next, once leisure travel restarts again!
Getting to and around Karuizawa
Karuizawa is located in Nagano Prefecture. Visitors from Tokyo can take the Hokuriku Shinkansen from JR Tokyo Station (JR東京駅 Tōkyō-eki) to JR Karuizawa Station. The journey takes approximately 65 minutes, and the fare is ¥6,020.
Shiraito Waterfall: the waterfall is accessible from JR Karuizawa Station by bus. Take the bus from the train station and drop off at Shiraito no Taki (白糸の滝) bus stop, and walk for 5 minutes. The bus ride takes 30 minutes, and the fare is ¥720 per one way.
Kumobaike Pond: the pond is a short distance from JR Karuizawa Station. Visitors can simply walk from 30 minutes from the station to the pond. Alternatively, they can rent a bicycle from one of the many rental shops near the station and cycle there for approximately 10 minutes.
Onioshidashi Park: the park is accessible from Karuizawa Station by bus. The bus ride takes approximately 45 minutes, and fare is ¥1,230 per one way. Take note that the entrance fee is ¥600, and it is open from 8am to 5pm (last entry at 4:30pm). It is also closed every Wednesday, and during winter (December–March).
Usui Pass Observation Deck: the deck is a 30–40 uphill walk from JR Karuizawa Station. Alternatively, visitors can take a 10-minute taxi ride from the station to the deck. The taxi fare is approximately ¥2,000.
Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza Street: the district is located north of JR Karuizawa Station. Visitors can talk a 30-minute walk from the station to the district. Alternatively, they can also opt to take a 5-minute loop bus ride from the station to the district for ¥160 per one way.
Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza: the mall is located on the south exit of JR Karuizawa Station, and is directly connected to the station. Visitors can take a 1–2-minute walk to the mall.
Former Mikasa Hotel: the museum is located north of JR Karuizawa Station. Visitors can take a 10-minute bus ride from the station to the museum for ¥270 per one way.
Karuizawa Taliesin: the area is located southwestern of JR Karuizawa Station. Visitors can take a 20-minute bus ride from the station to the area for ¥200.
HARUNIRE Terrace: the terrace is located northwestern of JR Karuizawa Station. Visitors can take the local Seibu Kanko bus from the train station's North Exit to the terrace. The bus ride takes approximately 20 minutes, and the fare is ¥460 per one way.
JR TOKYO Wide Pass
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass, and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)
The JR TOKYO Wide Pass is an affordable pass offering unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid area for 3 consecutive days. At ¥10,180, you can use it to travel from Tokyo to Karuizawa, and many other places within the designated areas. You can also make seat reservations online for free, up to 1 month in advance, here. If you like to know more about the pass, you can have a look here.
Header image credit: Nagano Prefecture/JNTO