It’s been a while.
Since I had a vacation, I mean.
I had grand plans a couple of weeks ago to take an international trip somewhere. I had arranged for some time off of work, had been looking into flights, and had been perusing accommodations for a few days of much-needed relaxation. I was serious. “I’m really going to do it,” I would say to myself, promising that yes, indeed, I would actually give myself some honest enjoyment, even for just a little while.
Of course, as luck would have it, as soon as my body sensed upcoming relief from my responsibilities, my immune system decided that it too would take some time off from defending me from all the plagues I had encountered over the year. On my last day of work before my intended vacation, I lost my voice quite suddenly. Two days later I developed a terrific bout of congestion. Shortly after that came an extraordinarily irritating cough (and thus, an inability to sleep well).
Vacation plans off.
I, however, having still arranged time off, was bound and determined to do SOMETHING for myself. If not an international trip, then what? I’d wanted to get outside Tokyo. I’d wanted the sensation of really traveling; of going somewhere new and doing something out of the ordinary (for me, anyway). I’d wanted to put myself in an environment where I knew close to nothing; where I’d get to be all nooby and touristy again. If I couldn’t do something international, then I was going to take the bullet train somewhere, GOD DAMNIT.
Enter Karuizawa. Admittedly, Karuizawa only fulfills a few of those highly ambitious vacation requirements I listed in that last paragraph, but it was worth a shot.
Karuizawa is a small resort town located in Nagano prefecture. It’s about a 90 minute shinkansen trip from Tokyo, and it has a reputation for being a bit swanky. I’d heard nothing but pleasant things about the place, and I thought it might be good to finally check it out.
So, I did. Sniffles and cough and face mask and all. I picked out a nice looking place (thanks, credit card miles) and booked a hotel room two days before I left. The morning of my departure, I threw a few things into an overnight bag and headed out.
When I arrived at Karuizawa station at around 3:15, it was…brisk. I couldn’t smell anything because my nasal passages were out of commission, but I just knew that the air was probably great and I was MISSING IT. I walked to my hotel, about 10 minutes from the north side of the station, marveling (as I always do when I leave The Big T) at how much SPACE there is in the world.
I checked in, paid a whopping 150 yen fee to use the onsen, went to my room, and excitedly opened the curtains to reveal a patio area that looked out onto a courtyard full of trees in varying shades of beautiful autumn colors.
I took a little time to review my very tentative itinerary for my time there (I did actually have some semblance of a game plan, believe it or not). The first order of business, of course, was food. The hotel had a very nice dinner buffet, but I was more interested in exploring.
Karuizawa has lots of restaurants that are kinda Westerny-fluffy fluffy. I wasn’t really into that; I wanted to eat something local-ish…something I might not otherwise be able to find back at home. I also wanted to eat something extraordinarily unhealthy.
There was only one answer, and it was ramen. I found a place via Tabelog. I set out from my hotel and took a stroll through the quickly darkening area north of the station, poking around into a few of the shops as I headed toward my dinner spot.
I found a place doing desserts and cheeses and beers within about a five minute walk of my hotel. Excellent. The place had a lot of delicious-looking cheese, and I resolved to pick some up before leaving town. I learned there are also a couple of breweries making beer in the area. One, Karuizawa Kogen, is produced by Yoho Brewing, a larger brewery, which is a subsidiary of a resort company. The other is Karuizawa Asama Kogen.
My ramen shop was south of the station. I passed through the station building itself and emerged on the south side. When I did, I had a few moments of joy followed quickly by a moment of “meh.”
You see, in that moment, I realized that the south side of Karuizawa station is a shopper-friendly sort of place. I am not the type of person who thinks to shop when she travels. In general, I typically hate buying anything that is not consumable, especially when traveling, because it means I have to carry that shit around with me.
When I emerged on the south side of the station, then, my initial moment of joy was caused by the shinyshiny Christmas lights I saw set up over a huge, open lawn. This initial joy was replaced by my “meh” feeling when I saw that the lawn was actually just a giant open space in the middle of an enormous outlet mall. That’s right. Stretched out before me in the midst of all the brisk mountain air and lovely autumn colors were Ralph Lauren and adidas and Coach. But my ramen was in there somewhere, so on I went, accidentally taking the longest possible route to my destination.
It was your typical vending machine-operated ramen shop. It’s advertised as a place that uses local ingredients, and it had good reviews online. It was suspiciously chain shoppy, but by this time, I was hungry, and I was happy to get warm and enjoy something delicious with a beer. I chose not to question its authenticity, submitting myself to the simple pleasure of a deeply unhealthy and deeply satisfying bowl of pork and noodles.
Thoroughly underwhelmed with the shopping surroundings, after dinner I headed back to my hotel (stopping at aforementioned cheesebeershop for tiramisu and a couple of local beers) for some quality onsen time. Glorious. But alas, my traveling and congestion and ramen and bath had worn me out. I was fighting to stay awake at around 9 PM. Dessert and a beer, then bed it was.
When I woke in the morning, I enjoyed a cup of green tea on my terrace, headed to the hotel buffet for breakfast, and solidified my game plan for the day. I am well-accustomed to walking EVERYWHERE, so I plotted a route I felt I could manage before heading back to Tokyo that afternoon, and set out (leaving my bag with the hotel reception desk).
I started off at the Karuizawa New Art Museum. It has a free ground level exhibit (rotating) and also has a paid exhibit on the second floor (1000 yen entry). I opted for the full experience; the artwork on feature in the paid exhibition at the time was surrealist.
Following the art museum, I took another 10 minute walk to nearby Kumoba Pond, which had been described as a good sightseeing spot. When I arrived, I was greeted with some nice trees and…yes, a pond. I spent only a few minutes here before deciding to try for my next location, a historic church, about a 20 minute walk away.
The forest walks were the best part of this experience. Beautiful golden leaves had fallen everywhere, creating a blanket of autumn colors over everything. There was open space and there were mountain roads; I found myself oddly reminded of Oregon. The houses in this part of Karuizawa are huge. People with money build summer homes here and hide from Tokyo’s muggy-sweaty season in comparatively cool Nagano. It was fascinating to see these massive dwellings amidst the beautiful trees; I found myself thinking, “wow, this is really something you don’t see at home, is it?”
Perspective is kinda funny.
I arrived at the church indicated on my sightseeing map (St. Paul’s Catholic Church). Hilariously, directly opposite the church is ANOTHER shopping center (very creatively named Church Street). The sign in front of the church noted that it was for serious churchgoers only (and presumably not a photoshoot location), so I dusted off my Catholicness and went inside, sitting down in the warmth and quiet for a few minutes, alone with my thoughts.
A quick look into the history of Karuizawa shows that the place was popularized by a Canadian missionary in the late 1800s. Many of the sightseeing locations in the area are church/wedding-related, so perhaps this is the reason why. This particular location was small. I sat on a pew, getting warm for a few minutes, and tried to think back to the last time I had voluntarily entered a church.
This stop on my itinerary signaled the end of my morning; it was time for lunch. A quick search pulled up a list of restaurants all concentrated in one area on the opposite side of the intriguing Church Street, so off I went.
There I found Karuizawa Ginza, an old-timey shopping area with lots of local goods, antiques, and some food from the area. My place for lunch was a restaurant that was making a very curious dish; polenta karaage. Not bad.
Unfortunately, at this point, it had gotten quite cold and had also started to rain, which was not meshing well with my already less-than-optimal body condition. I, however, not wanting to conclude my trip to Karuizawa without getting at least ONE more spot in, high tailed it up the hill at the end of the shopping street to get a look at one more church (Shaw Chapel) before making my way back down to my hotel. By then, it was raining properly. I was ready to be done. There were a few other things I had hoped to be able to see, but given the weather, I made the executive decision to throw in the towel. Just then, as if on cue, my phone started notifying me that work indeed still existed.
Alas. Me time over.
By the time I got back to my hotel, the rain had really started to come down, and I was feeling pretty low. A taxi took me to the station, where I spaced out for a bit before picking up some souvenir snacks for friends (as well as a few souvenir beers for yours truly). I got on my train and headed home, glad that if nothing else, I had at least spent 23 hours doing something solely for myself.
My takeaway from Karuizawa is that it is a lovely spot, particularly if you are the shoppy-shoppy-travel type. I am not, but was perfectly happy with my experience because I got what I wanted out of it: a shinkansen ride, some good food, an onsen, to see something beautiful, to see something new, and to go to a place I had never been. The trip, in some ways, did what it needed to do. Am I gonna go back? Eh, maybe. It’s not high on my list, but if I’m in need of a little mountain getaway, sure. Thinking about it now, though, I suppose I have to go back at some point.
I totally forgot to buy cheese.