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A day out in Karuizawa

Karuizawa in Nagano Prefecture is a popular resort area, a place where locals from the nearby prefectures like Tokyo and Saitama go for a short break to enjoy highlands, shopping and dining. Karuizawa is where some of the wealthy and well-connected have their summer holiday homes, and also where the Emperor Emeritus Akihito and Empress Emerita Michiko famously met while playing tennis.

With such an illustrious history, it is no wonder Karuizawa has a reputation as playground for the well-heeled. However, not everything costs a pretty penny in the town, and there're lots to see and experience for a variety of budgets making it a premier Chotto Zeitaku location.

Today was about having a carefree and relaxed experience in Karuizawa. I started my day bright and early, and the plan was to rent a bicycle and cycle around the Kyu-Karuizawa district visiting some monuments and a museum, return the bicycle, and take the bus to Naka-Karuizawa.

I headed for the north exit at Karuizawa Station and went to one of the numerous rental shops in the area. There are normal bicycles as well as electric-assist ones available, and I went for the electric-assist ones as my total cycling route was going to be around 15-20 kilometers. With my rental bicycle in tow, I was ready to do some exploring in the Kyu-Karuizawa area.

My first stop for the day was the Hiroshi Senju Museum about 30 minutes away by bicycle southwest of Karuizawa Station. The museum space was a collaboration between the artist Senju Hiroshi and one half of the architecture Pritzer Prize award winner SANAA, Nishimura Ryue. Featuring a sloping ground with glass atriums filled with plants, the interior of the museum offers visitors a very calming atmosphere.

Inside, Hiroshi Senju's art that mainly feature waterfalls added to the serenity of the place. I found myself taking time to absorb the views and for a moment imagined myself to be in an alternate world, where the plants at the museum observe me and the other everchanging visitors through the looking glass.

From there, I made my way through some quiet streets, looking at the holiday homes in the area as well as a nearby golf course. Maruyama Coffee was next on my itinerary, and it was a great place to take a short break. There'll definitely be a cuppa for all coffee drinkers as the shop offers a large selection of beans from the coffee producing regions in the world.

Next, I headed towards the popular Kumobaike Pond. The pond is a popular spot to see autumn colours when the leaves that surround the pond turn an amazing shade of red. Things were pretty green at this time of the year, and I found fewer tourists than usual. Despite the lack of autumn colors, it was still attractive to walk around the pond and take in the lush greenery.

I got back on my bicycle and headed for the Former Mikasa Hotel. I enjoyed this leg of the cycle as my route took me through more villa-lined roads, and the main road to the hotel was also lined with tall cedar trees. The pleasant cycle took about 20 minutes, and I arrived in no time.

Commissioned by a business tycoon and opened in 1906, the former hotel was built in a European style by Japanese craftsmen using local wood. The hotel was one of the top and premier luxury accommodations during its operation, and an overnight stay would've been too costly for the average person then. Hotel operations ended in 1970, and the place was designated Important Cultural Heritage in 1980.

Today, visitors can enter the original wooden structure and see designs from over 100 years ago. It felt almost like stepping into a time capsule where everything stood still, and the creaking floorboards prevented me from disappearing into the past.

My final stop before returning the bicycle was the Kyu-Karuizawa Ginza shopping street. The street used to be where the locals would purchase their daily goods, but these days has become more of a tourist attraction offering more souvenirs and local products. There are also a large number of cafes and restaurants for weary visitors to rest and get a bite.

With the cycling leg of the trip done, I went to Harunire Terrace in Naka Karuizawa by bus. Developed by the Hoshino Resort company, the stylish terrace area contains restaurants and craft shops, and a wedding venue nearby. It is also in the vicinity of Hoshinoya Karuizawa, an upscale Japanese ryokan nestled in the nearby forest.

In addition to shopping and dining, there are short walking trails within the Hoshino Resort area. Getting on those trails was a great way to take in lots of greenery and breathe in some fresh air. An easy walking trail is the one that connects the Harunire Terrace area and Picchio which marks the entrance of the bird sanctuary. It was nice to take a short walk to stretch my legs and burn some calories before relaxing at the shops.

As a fun detour, I also went to the Hotel Bleston Court, a hotel and wedding venue that overlooks Harunire Terrace. Of interest to me were the two wedding venues: the Uchimura Kanzo Stone Church and the Karuizawa Kogen Church. I found both places to be architecturally appealing, and it was also quite interesting to see wedding locations. It isn't everyday that you get to enter real wedding venues as a visitor!

Finally, it was time to bid farewell to a beautiful day in the highlands. I briefly contemplated popping over to the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza, an outlet mall on the south side of the station before my shinkansen train ride, but decided against it. I felt that I had only scratched the surface of this summer haven, and there was so much more to explore through even in the different seasons. But for now, I was happy and contented, and my head brimming with ideas for my next visit which would hopefully be sooner than later.

Getting There and Around

Karuizawa is about 70 minutes away from Tokyo on the Hokuriku Shinkansen. The one way journey costs about 5500 yen, and is covered by the Japan Rail Pass as well as the Tokyo Wide Pass.

Cycling is the most convenient way to explore the Kyu-Karuizawa area, and there are a number of rental bicycle shops in the immediate vicinity of the northern exit of Karuizawa Station. Typical rates for rental bicycles start from 500 yen for an hour or about 1500 yen for the whole day. An electric-assist bicycle makes cycling longer distances and small inclines easier, and typically costs around 2500 yen per day.

Hourly Seibu buses departing from the northern exit of Karuizawa Station provide access to the Hoshino Resort area in Naka-Karuizawa. The one way journey costs 460 yen and takes about 20 minutes. Alternatively, the resort area can be reached in about a 20 minute walk from Naka Karuizawa Station (5 minutes, 230 yen one way from Karuizawa Station, 1-2 departures per hour)

The Chotto Zeitaku Japan series by japan-guide.com is a continuing project to seek out places that allow us to enjoy the better things in life. Not exactly a sightseeing guide, but one that transports the visitor into a different space to relax and get away from it all.