Karuizawa is a popular escape from the heat and humidity of Tokyo in the summertime – an alpine town that could, at a glance, be in the centre of Europe rather than the centre of Japan. This is no accident – in the late 19th century, Western residents of Japan’s capital grew tired of the sweat and the stickiness and did what any one would do in that situation… they ran away to the cool mountain air of a quaint mountain resort, and put their own cultural stamp on it. Many wealthy city-folk still come here for a weekend away, a respite from the urban hustle.
There’s a lot on offer here – outdoor pursuits such as hiking or cycling are huge here, though there’s shopping and golf aplenty, if you that’s more your bag. The area shines during the autumn too – a great place to enjoy a hot drink, surrounded by the reds and oranges of fall, or maybe a stroll through the volcanic landscape of Onioshidashi Park, next to the towering, active Mt. Asama. Due to it’s altitude and geography, Karuizawa is also a wonderful spot for some winter sports too – skiing, of course, but also ice-skating (if you prefer things at a more gentle pace). Local cuisine features a lot of European influences: German sausages, Swiss fondue, and there are numerous French or Scandinavian-style bakeries and cafes scattered throughout town. The craft beer scene is better than most of Japan, and there’s something wholly satisfying about drinking a hipster-tipple while dipping bread into melted cheese. Despite all this, the town is still unmistakeably Japanese – oddities and curios fill the shops, green tea and soba noodles share the menu with escargot, and the service received everywhere is so faultless, that you couldn’t possibly be anywhere else in the world.
The real treasures of Karuizawa lie in the wilderness that surrounds it. The stunning Shiraito Waterfall – a curved wall of water just three metres high, but seventy metres wide – is a sight to behold in the lush greens of summer. Throughout the seasons, the Karuizawa National Wild Bird Sanctuary Forest is one of the best places in the country to spot charming endemic species, such as the Green Woodpecker and the Copper Pheasant. As well as its winged residents, the trees are also home to the Japanese Serow – a deer-like creature that is actually a close relative of cattle – and the elusive Momonga, or Japanese dwarf flying squirrel. Asian Black Bears also roam these parts, and it’s advisable to wear a bell if you go adventuring – it’s certainly not the best idea to surprise them! Organised nature and wildlife trips – both during the day time and after dark – can be arranged while in town, weather allowing. What better way to round out your stay in the mountain than by searching for nocturnal animals in the moonlight?