Great Overnight Getaway from Tokyo: Karuizawa

The onsen in Karuizawa, an hour out of Tokyo

The mountain retreat of Karuizawa, just an hour by bullet train from Tokyo, offers a delightful overnight getaway from the frenetic metropolis. In winter, it has skiing, snow shoeing, and steaming onsen baths. In summer it offers a wonderful respite from Tokyo’s heat. And year-round it has great shopping, walking, restaurants and other adventures.

Karuizawa,  has long welcomed travellers. From the early 17th century, when Japan was ruled by the Edo (Tokyo)-based shogun, Karuizawa was a post town along the busy Nakasendo highway between Tokyo and Kyoto.

You can still explore the long narrow post-town street once lined with wooden restaurants and inns catering to samurai lords and merchants. These days the offerings lean more towards trinket-filled Japanese souvenir outlets, bakeries and sweets shops.

What distinguishes Karuizawa from other post towns is…surprisingly…how it became a getaway for Westerners in the late 19th century.  After first coming in 1886, Canadian-born missionary Alexander Croft Shaw recommended what he called Happy Valley to fellow missionaries and other foreigners as a wonderful place to escape Tokyo’s summer heat. Soon an entire community of western-style houses was built among the larch and fir trees.

A retreat for Japan’s elite

In the early 20th century, Karuizawa became the retreat of choice amongst the Japanese establishment, who also developed golf courses and tennis clubs. We drive past Karuizawa-kai Tennis Court, the oldest private tennis club in Japan, where the Emperor and Empress of Japan met in the 1920s.

The hotel in Karuizawa where John Lennon and Yoko Ono summered

I had never heard of Shaw so when I see his bust in front of the 1895 Shaw Memorial Chapel I marvel at how he spawned a fascination with Western culture…if not religion.  He would probably be horrified that Karuizawa is now nicknamed the Hamptons of Tokyo (minus the sea) because so many wealthy Japanese families have second homes in the woods surrounding town.

One of them was Yoko Ono’s prominent family. John Lennon and Yoko spent four summers here in the late 70s with their young son Sean. We visit the half-timbered Western-style Manpei Hotel where they used to stay and where John’s Royal milk tea is still served. Lennon fans can also check out John’s favourite France Bakery along the post-town road, as well as Café Rizanbo, which the family would cycle to along country lanes.

Heading out of town we visit the atmospheric 17th century Kitsukura Shuzo sake brewery, now owned by Hoshinoya. The master brewer gives us a guided tour and we taste the powerful Goose and Moon sake that they brew according to time-honoured traditions.

Hoshinoya ryokan

I book a room at Hoshinoya Karuizawa, which blends the aesthetics of a traditional ryokan with those a modern resort village, and offers an array of nature-based and cultural adventures.

Hoshinoya ryokan in KaruizawaI am escorted across rice-paddy-like terraces to my villa overlooking the partially dammed Yukawa River, as traditionally dressed boatmen set floating candles on the water. My spacious room in soothing muted colors is a seamless fusion of Japanese and Western sensibilities, much like the town of Karuizawa itself. There is a king-size thick bed-style futon mattress on a sleeping platform, comfortable couches in the living area, a deck with outdoor hot-tub overlooking the water, and in the bathroom a cedar bath, shower and, of course, Todo full-service Washlet toilet.

Dressed in a traditional yukata robe, I spend the evening soaking up Hoshinoya’s many delights: first a massage, then bathing in the private onsen before finally savouring their signature multi-course kaiseki dinner in the soaring modern main pavilion.hing muted colours is a seamless fusion of Japanese and Western sensibilities, much like the town of Karuizawa itself. There is a king-size thick bed-style futon mattress on a sleeping platform, comfortable couches in the living area, a deck with outdoor hot-tub overlooking the water, and in the bathroom a cedar bath, shower and, of course, Todo full-service Washlet toilet.

Bird Watching

I spend a couple of hours the next morning discovering wrens, woodpeckers and pheasants on a bird-watching walk through the Wild Bird Sanctuary with a guide from Picchio Wildlife Research Centre.

Snow shoeing in winter outside of KaruizawaAfterwards, in yet another surprise, I discover Maruyama Café at the nearby Hazuine Terrace shops. Kentaro Maruyama, pursuing that fine Japanese tradition of exceptional craftsmanship, has been roasting coffee here since the 1990s and his single-origin coffees are exceptional.

I peruse the shops at Hazuine Terrace, including Garandou, with its stunning cherry wood furniture, and Seringa, with beautiful fabrics, as well as sampling homemade gelato from a deli whose milk comes direct from a local farm. There are Chinese and Italian restaurants, too, but I opt for a ramen bowl from the casual Sonmin Shokudou restaurant, which I wash down with a local ale from Yo-Ho Brewing Company.

Other adventures

That afternoon I go horse riding in the woods and get some marvelous views of snow-capped Mount Asama.  I could have taken a hike to Sengataki waterfall, played golf, visited Karuizawa’s Prince Shopping Plaza with its dozens of luxury brand outlet shops, and in winter tried snow shoeing or gone skiing at any one of four nearby resorts. Hoshinoya even organizes day trips to see the snow monkeys in the Yokoyu River Valley.

Clearly, two days are not enough.  I content myself with soaking in the steaming outdoor pools at the serene Tombo-No-Yu onsen baths, gazing up at the forest much like travelers have done here for centuries.

Your say

I know there are many tucked away places off the tourist trail. I’d love to hear about any of your favorites.

Visiting the snow monkeys in their onsen outside of Karuizawa

Sue Gough Henly

Sue Gough Henly is award-winning travel writer and photographer whose bi-line has appeared in The New York Times, Travel & Leisure, The Guardian, The Toronto Star and all the major Australian publications. Her travel blog, Genuine Journeys, is full of insider tips on the best places for authentic experiences and luxury splurges. She is also the author of Australia’s Best Places travel app. When she doesn’t have sand between her toes or a pack on her back, she writes about food, wine and culture.

2 comments to Great Overnight Getaway from Tokyo: Karuizawa

  • Susan Fuller  says:

    Hi Sue,

    I am travelling to Japan for the first time with my parents, husband who is a keen photographer and 9 year old son and your blog is very helpful, a wonderful resource which I am using to plan our travel experiences. Thank you!
    Cheers,
    Susan F

    • Sue Gough Henly  says:

      Thanks so much for your kind comments, Susan. I’m so glad you find my blog useful in your travel planning!

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