Sunday, October 5, 2014

Karuizawa a.k.a. Heaven

A couple of weekends ago John and I went to Karuizawa with Raku and Leo for a little weekend escape. Karuizawa is a small mountain town in Nagano prefecture, popular for escaping the Tokyo heat in summer and skiing in the winter. Only a little more than an hour away from Tokyo by bullet train, it feels like a completely different world. John and I were surprised by how much it reminded us of the town we grew up in, in North Carolina and Leo said the same about his New England hometown. I think we must all be starved for nature.

I had high hopes for the trip, and I was worried they were so high I would end up being disappointed, but instead they were far exceeded! Karuizawa is lush and green with fresh smelling mountain air, full of adorable shops and delicious restaurants.  Our first morning there it was so cold we could see our breath as we wandered up and down the main shopping street, and there were already a few leaves turning colors!

During the days we walked up and down Ginza Dori, the main shopping street, munching on snacks, stopping for hot drinks, and picking up souvenirs. Just past the end of Ginza Dori is the Shaw Memorial Church built in the 1800's by a missionary. From there we had planned to rent bikes and go to Shiraito Falls, but then we discovered it was nearly 20 kilometers away, so we changed our plans. Instead we went to Kumoba Lake which is a about a twenty minute walk from the main street, mostly down gravel roads. The lake is small, but there is beautiful foliage,  ducks swimming, and a pleasant path to stroll around. As a note, the path is much too narrow for bicycles. It was so refreshing to walk past giant trees and enjoy the stillness of the forest! 

There is also a huge outlet mall in Karuizawa right across from the train station, and about a 20 minute walk from Kyu-Karuizawa, the heart of the town. We found some surprisingly good deals there, bought some warmer clothes since the weather was so cool, and had the best soft-serve ice cream of our lives at the Godiva outlet.

In fact, all the food we ate that weekend was delicious too. Raku and I went up early on Friday with the luggage and John and Leo joined us after work, eating dinner on the train. On our first night Raku and I went to Kastanie Rotisserie, which is not far from the station and the outlets, and shared a ton of delicious food including a salad with mustard vinaigrette, roast chicken, and chocolate and apple tarts. For dinner on Saturday night we made reservations for dinner at the Mampei Hotel, the fanciest hotel in town where John Lennon and Yoko Ono used to stay. The meal was a splurge, but we had the multi-course set menu and enjoyed it immensely. The dining room is enormous with very high ceilings, and an old-school glamour that reminded me of summer camp for very rich adults (and maybe Dirty Dancing.)

In the mornings we stopped at Asanoya, a bakery on Ginza Dori for wonderful treats. I particularly recommend their bacon bread, but you probably can't go wrong no matter what you order. On Saturday we had lunch at Wakadori, a yakitori place just off of Ginza dori. Their yakitori don (grilled chicken on a bowl of rice) was fantastic, and their chicken katsudon (fried chicken cutlet on rice) was also good. For our final meal before leaving we ate at Kawakami-an, a modern soba restaurant. The tempura soba comes with the biggest shrimp I have ever seen (heads and tails still on!), the hot and cold soba were both delicious, and Leo ordered soba with a walnut dipping sauce that was unusual but delicious as well - sort of like a very mild peanut sauce. I would wholeheartedly recommend each of these restaurants to anyone visiting Karuizawa.

We stayed at the Art Hotel Folon in Kyu-Karuizawa, which was a convenient three minute walk from Ginza dori. By "art hotel" they seem to mean interesting wall paper and tiled kitchens, but we found the rooms to be clean and very acceptable, and the owner was quite friendly. Some rooms allow pets, and there are vending machines that dispense water, tea, and also alcohol! The rooms include kitchens (mini-fridge, microwave, stove, sink) but only coffee cups are provided, so if you intend to use them you would need to bring dishes. There is also a 5% discount for paying in cash. If you find yourself needing an ATM, there is a post office on Ginza Dori that is open even on Saturdays and Sundays.

The whole trip was magical, and I can't say enough good things about Karuizawa. If you need an escape from city living this is the perfect place for fresh air, lots of trees, beautiful mountains, good shopping, and delicious food!  Now brace yourself for way too many pictures.

Mountain Sunset
Shaw Memorial Church

Kumoba Lake

First Fall Leaves
Ginza Dori
Yummy Eats!

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