July 30, 2009


A hospital without a roof, a summer retreat for the wealthy, the perfect spot for a wedding or simply a great place to take the family shopping. These are all perfectly accurate ways of describing Karuizawa, a town in Nagano prefecture set in the shadow of the volcano Mount Asama.

Just over an hour from the capital thanks to the Nagano Shinkansen, it's an ideal place to get away from the summer heat of the concrete island that is Tokyo, and last week that's exactly what I did for a couple of days, relaxing in the cooler mountain air.

Being a week day when I arrived, and not yet at the peak of the summer holiday season, the town was remarkably quiet in the daytime, though I imagine that at weekends it's an altogether different story.

There are a fair number of places to visit, some of which can be reached easily by bicycle, as there are numerous places renting them out for the day in the town itself. Some of the other points of interest are a little further afield and to get there you either need access to a car or to the not so frequent buses.First port of call was the Shiraito no taki (White Thread Falls), waterfalls that seemingly appear from the middle of a bed of rock, with the white threads of water cascading down into a pond below. The falls are not particularly high, but are 70 metres wide and the water itself is not so cold as rather than coming from a river or snow melt, it comes from inside the rock itself. For those interested, there are a number of hiking routes in the hills above the falls, and there are supposed to be some bears living wild in the area too.

From there it was a bus back into town and then on another bus out to an area called Hoshino which is a fairly recent development that includes an onsen, some classy but tasteful small shops and a hotel. A walk through the woods will also bring you to the modern architecture of the cocoon-shaped stone chapel which was built back in the boom times of the eighties, and just one of the many chapels in the area that make a lot of money from the popularity of western style chapel weddings. Some people may disagree with this sentiment when they hear that drill, but each to their own I guess. It's just a short walk from the stone chapel to the wooden chapel, which can be seen on posters in stations around Tokyo enticing people to the delights of Karuizawa.

After this it was back into town for a quick look around, though by this time the day trippers had gone home, and it was really like a ghost town, something exacerbated by the heavy mist that enveloped the town like a blanket. The following morning I decided to rent a bike for the day and cycle around the town. There are a number of cycling routes marked out on the map, none of them particularly long or punishing, so I opted to combine a couple of the routes in order to make a day of it. Close to my starting point, there was another wedding chapel. I use the phrase wedding chapel simply because their sole raison d'etre is for hosting weddings, and there is no notion of Christian worship involved whatsoever. In fact, one fairly lucrative line of work available for foreigners who speak Japanese is to work as a wedding priest (absolutely no theological qualifications needed), where you go through the motions of reading out the vows for the couple dressed in a cassock and dog collar. A lot of the roads lead through a tall canopy of green, with little sunlight getting through, thus keeping the local temperature that much lower than in the city. The Manpei Hotel is one of the older and pricier places to stay in town, and it is set deep in the woods away from the main road leading through the town. Apparently John Lennon used to like staying here when he was in Japan.
One name that can be seen a lot around town is that of A.C. Shaw, the British-Canadian missionary who "discovered" Karuizawa in the late nineteenth century and described as a hospital without a roof and introduced it to other expatriates as a great place to escape Tokyo's summer heat. It was from this time that the town developed into the resort it is today, with expatriates slowly being replaced by wealthy Japanese, including the Imperial family, who are said to spend time here quite often.

There is a (real) church in memory of Shaw, a street named after him and an annual festival which also carries his name ~ all in recognition of the way that his actions changed the economic fortunes of the area. There is another real church in the area, the Catholic Saint Paul's, which is close to the famous Ginza shopping street. Heading out of town on a two-lane tree-lined road you reach the old Mikasa Hotel, one of the old western-style hotels (though completely designed and built by the Japanese) that was open for business from 1906 until 1970. It now stands as a museum piece which you can look around for a small fee, and pages from the guestbook in the early 1920s shows that most of the guests were expats resident in either Tokyo, Yokohama or Kobe.

In the woods around the town, you can see lots of house built on very large plots of wooded land, many of which are second residences of the wealthier section of society, though some are also available for seasonal rental.

With it's heritage as a resort town owed to the expatriate community of years gone by, as well as the disproportionately large number of western style churches and chapels in the are, many of the eateries in town serve French or Italian food, or their is even the 'domestic sausage' shop selling locally produced German-style sausage and cured meats.
I opted for something Japanese in the evening, however, and, lured by the stylish decor and jazz being played with the volume cranked up high, I went to Kawakami An for my evening meal.

No doubt there are many other much cheaper places to get a bowl of soba noodles, but if this restaurant were in Tokyo, I think I'd be a regular, as it was rather special.

Along with all the wedding chapels in the area, there are, of course, wedding outfitters too, and this one has a name that seems to reflect the almost Disneyfied fairytale romantic vision that the Japanese have of western-style white dress weddings. Even the walk down the aisle is described in Japanese as the 'virgin road' ~ I kid you not.

For the last morning, I headed back to the Hoshino area to have a dip at the Tombo onsen, which is new and pretty stylish. The other choice would have been to visit the huge outlet mall, the far side of the station, but I decided to leave that to the bargain-hunting families with bored kids in tow.

No comments:

Post a Comment