Karuizawa: Chasing Autumn
13 Jan 2019
When I stepped off the Shinkansen from Tokyo in late November, where the temperature was still a surprisingly high 16 degrees, a blast of cold air hit me as I walked out into Karuizawa. It was so cold that I had to scurry back inside the station to put on merino gear and headwear for my bald head.
I had heard a lot about Karuizawa and how picturesque it is, and so I took the opportunity to spend a couple of days here after a work assignment in Tokyo.
It’s an easy, hour-long ride on the train from Tokyo, and I picked up the JR TOKYO pass for 10,000 yen, which also covers a ride to both Haneda and Narita airports. The pass gives you 3-days unlimited access to Tokyo and the Kanto area, and is worth it for the price of the bullet train alone.
I was staying at Naka-Karuizawa, one station away from the main Karuizawa station but on a different train line entirely, so that meant I had to buy a ticket if I wanted to go back to Karuizawa. My BNB was Kutsukake Stay Nakakaruizawa, a former residence turned dormitory. It was very well appointed, tastefully decorated and even had a very decent looking restaurant.
There were a number of hotels down the main Karuizawa street, but they were a lot more pricey and the whole area is far more touristy. At my BNB, there were just two or three restaurants open at night, and about the same number of streetlights as well! It was dark, and quiet. Perfect for a getaway from the hot mess of Tokyo.
The next morning, I decided to take a train to Karuizawa and walk about. My first stop, though was breakfast at a small bakery at Naka-Karuizawa called Haluta. It was ok, but honestly a little underwhelming and expensive given the hype online about it and the long queues. Maybe it was more a reflection of the lack of choices in the area. Lawsons, anyone?
On the main drag of Karuizawa, I popped into the rather quirky Karuizawa New Art Museum, with a rather diverse offering of art in different mediums.
Next, I stopped off for an obligatory soft serve ice cream before plotting a path that took me through tourist hell with the usual slew of cliched souvenirs and selfied tourists. Ducking down a side street, I found a quiet little cafe for lunch. It was right next to the very pretty St Paul’s Catholic Church. I then wandered around for a while before making my way to Kumoba Pond.
Walking and bicycle trails routes are easily found at Karuizawa’s train station, and, coupled with your GPS, will ensure that you’ll be able to hit most of the sights in a couple of days. Kumoba Pond is supposed to have a very famous view, and the leaves are ablaze in autumn, but when I got there it was the mid-season blues and landscaping had altered the view.
It was neither gorgeous nor colourful. But it was still full of tourists. I think it was probably the most disappointing part of Karuizawa. Nevertheless, I continued walking, down quiet lanes full of huge summer homes. Karuizawa is nearly always temperate year round, so it is a popular respite for Tokyo’s old money. I had hopes of walking up to Hanareyama, which looked like a hill-park on the map. But in reality, it was a long, winding road full of private homes. I assumed there would be a mansion of some sort at the very top. And as I trudged up, I grew increasingly leaden-footed, weighed down by a kind of jealousy at the size of the houses.
It was a futile climb towards something that I could never attain. Literally. And so at some point I decided to look for colour instead, and found what could have been the last patch of autumn in Karuizawa. That made me happy.
The next day, I decided to give my feet a rest and rented a bicycle for four hours. I cycled around Naka-Karuizawa and zoomed down tiny country lanes, exploring random streams, fields of wildflowers and found a large supermarket which ticked all my boxes for lunch (bento box + highball!)
In the evening, on the recommendation of mrbrown, I visited Kevin’s Bar, just north of the Karuizawa train station. It’s a small, homely place with 500 yen highballs and an eclectic clientele. That night, a New Zealand painter, newly separated, was on the prowl, and I watched him chat up a couple of enthusiastic, older Japanese women, who arrived pretty sloshed, with an intriguing mix of Kiwi-accented Japanese, hand gestures and a smattering of universal English. The bartender, Kevin, proved to be a fount of local knowledge and proudly boasted about a blog he had started that listed the best French toast in Karuizawa.
He urged me to wake up early the next morning to check it out. But I had other plans. I was on the hunt for a whisky highball glass, specifically, the Suntory kind that you see everywhere in bars. But they were absolutely nowhere to be found in shops. But Kevin told me about a couple of used stores close to Miyota station, just a couple of stops from Karuizawa. So off I went. It was a twenty minute walk from the train station, made utterly pleasurable by the accidental discovery of a top-class bakery, Cocorado, (with free coffee and true al-fresco dining!) along the way.
The Nagano recycle centre proved to be a massive store for everything but glassware, although another place close by catered specifically to closed-down restaurants and the like. I found a bunch of things there…
Other than the giant 10,000 Yen soft serve ice cream replica, I found a whole lot of highball glasses, just not the Suntory ones. Despite that, I decided to get a Nikka and a Kirin glass, just because I had gone all the way there and simply could not leave empty-handed! They were only about 1 SGD each. But I really felt the weight all the way back to Tokyo!
Karuizawa is also a ski and onsen haven, and if I had more days there, I would have surely tried my hand at skiing or sledding. Nevertheless, it is a sleepy town (except for certain stretches) and should be on the list of any traveller who’s on the JR TOKYO Pass. Here are a few more quirky street photographs to whet your appetite. And if you do plan to go in autumn, be warned, its a really short stretch of about two weeks when all the trees are aflame. Blink and you’ll miss it!