In Nagano Prefecture right at the foot of Mount Asama is a beautiful mountain resort called Karuizawa (軽井沢). Situated at about ½ mile (1,000 meters) in altitude, it’s just an hour away from Tokyo by train and provides a nice escape from the rush and crowds of Tokyo.
This place is ideal for those who enjoy beautiful views of mountains and nature. Karuizawa also has an unusual history compared to other areas of Japan with a host of opportunities for activities, sightseeing, and exploration.
To illustrate how wonderful this place is to outsiders, John Lennon of The Beatles, loved coming here.
Sitting practically in the center of Japan, Karuizawa is part of the Saku region. Its highland location is full of exquisite nature, gorgeous mountains, and lush vegetation.
While there are only 20,000 residents within the town’s limits, they get 8½ million tourists on an annual basis.
Mount Asama is the main attraction here and towers over the town with a total altitude of more than 1½ miles (2,568 meters).
It’s still an active volcano, so Karuizawa offers beauty with a bit of risk knowing it could go active at any time.
In the later parts of the 1800s, a Canadian, named Alexander Craft Shaw, residing in the area with his family, promoted it as a mountain resort.
It has beautiful architecture appearing more like a fairytale castle than a place of worship.
Villas and shops emerged shortly thereafter which soon developed into a bustling mountain resort town. Today, wealthy urbanites have second homes in the vicinity. It offers a wonderful cooling escape from the sweltering heat of the Tokyo summer.
Also, Karuizawa is intrinsic to the Imperial family and they have come here for decades. They use this place for rest, retreat, and often spend time in their villas.
The town is so proud and happy of their bond with the Emperor and his family, there is much pomp and circumstance when they come to visit.
Located along the “Romantic Road,” Karuizawa offers a beautiful view any time of year. But October and November are prime for viewing the gorgeous transformation into autumn.
However, it’s idyllic in the summertime and an elegant getaway in the winter. In fact, it’s the only place in Japan that hosted both the Summer and Winter Olympics.
The colder months have sports like snowboarding, sledding, ice skating, curling, skiing and so much more.
In the hotter months of the year, you can go horseback riding, hiking, camping, cycling, golfing, or play tennis. So, while many places around Japan are well known for their sports, Karuizawa is at the top.
The cooler climate allows for growing temperate agricultural produce such as cabbage. Also, many environmental efforts are underway to preserve nature contrasting the scenery of the Mount Asama backdrop.
The Areas within Karuizawa
Although this town is quite small, it comprises five areas:
Shinkarauizawa and Kyukaruizawa are the main hubs from where all other adventures begin. You can access any of the other four areas along with Kumobaike Pond (also known as “Swan Lake”) and visit the former Mikasa Hotel, with its classic architecture.
The section of Kyu-Karuizawa is a hip, chic and upscale area filled with various restaurants, bars, and cafés. Its crowning feature is French, Iranian, Nepalese, and traditional Japanese cuisines.
Ginza is a huge market where shopping can be a daylong event.
Ten minutes from the Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza is the Mampei Hotel. It was an inn during the 1700s but became a Western-style hotel as the 20th century came into full swing.
It was so famous that John Lennon and Yoko Ono would visit this small mountain resort regularly.
Plenty of nightlife with restaurants and bars, it’s less than a mile (1½ kilometers) away from the Kumobaike Pond. This place is particularly beautiful when the autumn leaves are changing.
During the Edo Period, Oiwake (or fork in the road) was the diverging point between Kitaguni-kaido Way and the Nakasendo Way. It was famous for the once-bustling Oikwakejuku Post and as a meeting spot for authors to interact.
The Nakasendo Way is the road that leads from Tokyo to Kyoto. At the point where the road forks with Kitaguni-kaido Way is where the adventure begins.
There are plenty of sightseeing spots with the Asama Shrine, the Tatsuo Museum of Literature, and many historic hotels.
The areas around Shiozawa and Hotchi have plenty of activities and things to see amid a myriad of restaurants. There is a sports park and botanical garden along with a few art galleries and literature museums.
The natural beauty along with a playground of cultural activities makes Shiozawa and Hotchi one of the best places for your soul.
By relaxing the senses and broadening the mind, you come back to a still center of stasis. Lake Shiozawa, Forest of the Muse, and the Karuizawa Botanical Gardens can assist with achieving such a balance.
For a fabulous view of Mount Asama, Minamikaruizawa is like looking at a painting from the past. There are a host of beautiful and charming gardens that are in the area.
Additionally, you can find plenty of activities such as horseback riding, golfing, skiing, snowboarding, and tons of shopping.
Yet another place burgeoning with art, culture, and nature, Nakakaruizawa offers near-endless opportunities.
Here you can find a wild bird sanctuary and gorgeous forest waters that include a waterfall. There are additional art galleries, the Stone Church, literary museums, and several hot springs.
This area is popular for cafés, shops, and restaurants at Harunire Terrace, situated right in the forest.
Some of the more notable cultural spots are the Karuizawa Picturebook Museum, which preserves over 6,000 children’s classic literature books and paintings like Peter Rabbit and Alice in Wonderland.
Other Places to Visit Nearby
Several places are half-day journeys that are also worth noting. Just 25 minutes away is the Shiraito Falls, which offers a beautiful view of a wide, encompassing waterfall.
Onioshidashi Park (鬼押出し園) is a wild landscape due to its creation by a 1783 eruption from Mount Asama. The sediments deposited by the volcano formed it into a rugged yet beautiful scene. The texture and colors are amazing.
In the center of the park is a temple dedicated to the goddess of compassion, Kannon. Looming behind the temple is Mount Asama.
The park sits just over the border of the prefecture in Gunma but is best accessed via Karuizawa.
For those curious about Mount Asama, there’s a museum a short distance away from the park. Here you can learn about the history of the volcano and its geography along with the animal and plant life of the local forest.
Komoro Castle Park is a choice historic site. The grounds are picturesque with its main gate built in the early 1600s.
There is also another temple dedicated to Kannon called the Nunobiki Kannon Temple. Its cliffside home gives a beautiful panoramic overlook of Karuizawa to Mount Asama.