Karuizawa: Stick to the back roads

©tatsushi- Fotolia

Tokyo is a truly staggering city, world class in every respect, but the daily grind in the epicenter of Japanese culture and commerce can leave you feeling drained. An hour-long Shinkansen ride away in Nagano prefecture quietly waits Karuizawa. To Japanese, a mention of the town evokes “ooo’s” and “ahh’s” as it’s become completely synonymous with Japanese words like shinrinyoku (taking in the forest’s energy), nonbiri (taking it easy), and tanoshimi (fun!).

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Shinrinyoku: Going Green

©norikazu- Fotolia

To Japanese, it’s all about the climate in Karuizawa. The town was founded specifically as a get-away from the blazing hot summers around Japan. In the summer months, the temperature hovers in the high teens; the air is clean and cool, and the forests are lively green. Mt. Asama dominates the skyline on your approach to Karuizawa; a very active volcano (it’s most recent eruption in 2015), pumice from past eruptions litters the area.

Mineral rich soil, heavy tree cover, and forest floors covered in moss make for some seriously therapeutic negative ion-laden mountain air. There are numerous walking along a mountain paths, or a forested back roads to take in the area. An absolute don’t-miss is Shitaito no Taki, the ‘waterfall of white threads’, a 70 meter horseshoe shaped, groundwater-fed spectacle. Early mornings are an excellent time to take in this place before droves of tourists arrive.

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Nonbiri: Taking it easy

Have a good time and enjoying the good things in life make sense in a tranquil place like Karuizawa. Good food can be found at every turn walking up the Ginza-dori into the historic cen-ter of town, but there are a few spots in particular that stand head and shoulders above the rest. In the morning, drop by Asanoya; a french boulangerie with a knack for baguette. Remember, quality water is an absolute necessity for quality bread, and Karuizawa’s ground water is some of the best tasting in Japan.

A bit closer to the station along the main road there is a bistro called Kasanie on the second floor above a bicycle shop. They boast a seasonal menu that consistently highlights the best of the regions produce and poultry. They also have a staple item on their menu, one of the hell of a roast chicken. Great tasting ground water means excellent soba, and it can be found at numer-ous shops throughout the town. Ya-Ho Brewing Company lies at the foot of Mt. Asama, boasting a lineup of some of the most recognized Japanese craft beers including Yona Yona Pale Ale and their Tokyo Black Porter. For beer lovers, their tavern is an absolute must-visit as their interna-tionally-recognized beer is at the forefront of the Japanese craft beer scene.

浅野屋 軽井沢旧道店, Foursquare.com

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Tanoshimi: Having a good time

In the summer months, Karuizawa is a mecca for hikers and bikers from around Japan. These activities are accessible to everyone with easy access to trails published in guidebooks, and bi-cycle rentals around every corner in town. The hiking is relatively easy, but a pair of study shoes and a bell are recommended gear (there are occasionally bears in the area, and a bell warns them you’re coming). In the cold winter months, it’s all about skiing and snowboarding in Karuizawa. Much of the old town is seasonal and shutters during these months, so the majority of the action is in the area surrounding the Shinkansen station.

A trip to Karuizawa would not be complete, however, without a stop (or stay) at Hoshinoya, a hotel at the foot of Mt. Asama that boasts some of the most well-respected onsen (hot springs) in Japan. In the last couple of years they’ve opened a new rotenburo, outdoor hot springs, per-fect for a winter soak in the naturally heated mineral-rich water as the snow falls on your head. This is one of the more iconic, sublime experiences Japan has to offer.

With the advent of the Prince Hotel Shopping Plaza sprawl that’s slowly enveloping the area sur-rounding the Shinkansen train station, it’s becoming more and more… dare I say, Tokyo-like? Thousands of shoppers hop off the bullet train, pack into the hundreds of outlet stores for some crazed shopping, wait in queues for some food court fair, then speed home to Tokyo. There is a sense that the entire purpose of the town has been missed, that one must get away from the shopping, and get closer to understanding what the place really is all about; slowing life down.

Prince Shopping Plaza, by bizmac, CC BY

Charlie Nielsen

Charlie Nielsen

Lived in Aichi and Nagano prefectures from a young age, returned to Japan for work post-university. Fosters a deep love for the mountains, matcha, matsuri, and tonkotsu ramen.