Old Karuizawa Ginza street

Photo:663highland via Wikimedia Commons

10 Things to Do in Karuizawa, a Unique Mountain Resort Town of Japan

Nestled in the mountains of Nagano prefecture, Karuizawa is the perfect summer getaway. This European style town has been a popular destination for Japanese royal and wealthy families as well as Western celebrities like John Lennon. Fortunately, this mountain resort is just as accessible for the average traveler, and with easy shinkansen access from Tokyo, it makes for a great day trip, particularly for those looking to beat the summer heat. There is much to do there, and Karuizawa’s most popular attractions are its beautiful churches and art museums. Here are the top ten things to try in Karuizawa.

1. Stone Church

Karuizawa Stone Church

The Stone Church is one of Karuizawa’s most popular attractions and wedding spots. The church was built by American architect Kendrick Kellogg to commemorate Uchimura Kanzo, an Evangelical Christian and founder of the non church movement.

The architecture is striking and unusual, and the interior, with its round stone arches, is breathtakingly gorgeous. Kellogg integrated many elements into the church, giving it a natural feel; of course you have the stones the church is built of but there are also green plants cascading down the walls, small streams of water on either side, beautifully carved wooden pews, and sunlight pouring in. The effect is a church that feels both ancient and modern, and it still manages to feel calming, even packed with tourists.

The church is free to enter, but be prepared to wait if there is a wedding ceremony.

2. Kogen Church

Karuizawa Kogen Church

Kogen church is located a short walk away from the Stone Church, and it was built in 1921, making it the older of the two churches. While its architecture is more traditional compared to the Stone Church, it is still a stunning place to visit — or hold a wedding. The church is fairly small by Western standards, but the wooden, triangular building blends in perfectly with the forest environment it is in. It is worth stepping inside as well as the large triangular window makes for a striking picture.

Like the stone church, it is free to enter unless a wedding is being held. If you visit Karuizawa in August or around Christmas, be sure to check out the church at night when it is lit up by countless candles.

3. Harunire Terrace

Karuizawa Harunire Terrace

If you are looking for a bite to eat, a place to shop, or a coffee to drink after visiting the two churches, look no further than Harunire Terrace. Harunire Terrace is an upscale, stylish shopping and dining area set on a wooden terrace. While it is pricy (most places were selling a cup of coffee for 600 yen), it makes for a pleasant walk even if you forgo shopping; the wooden building facades are lovely, and its forest surroundings make it especially scenic.

If you fancy a hike, there are trails through the woods starting right past the end of the terrace, and if you prefer a guided tour, you can find the Picchio Eco Tour office a few minutes up the road.

4. Forest of Muse

The Forest of Muse consists of two museums, the Picture Book Art museum and Erz Toy Museum. The two museums are across the street from each other, and you can buy combination tickets or individual tickets for 900 or 600 yen respectively.

As the title implies, the Picture Book Art Museum is dedicated to picture books, and the grounds and buildings themselves look like they are straight out of a fairy tale; the museum was originally a European style villa before it was converted to a museum. One of its permanent exhibits is a delightful collection of sketches and art from Beatrix Potter's books that instantly made me nostalgic. Of course, you can also read picture books as well, and there's space in each exhibit and in a separate library to curl up with Western and Japanese picture books, available in English and Japanese.

The other building holds the temporary exhibits, and the current exhibit is on Alice in Wonderland. Here you can find illustrations from the books, art based on the story and characters, and spectacular Alice in Wonderland illustrations by Salvador Dali. The exhibit runs through October 2nd 2017.

The grounds also include a small, pretty garden, a gift shop, and a library rest area.  The Toy Museum’s beautiful building is home to countless handmade German toys. There is a hands-on section that kids in particular will enjoy, but even adults will be delighted by these lovely toys. There is also a small cafe next door that has tasty cakes and make for a good place to rest while waiting for your bus.

5. Taliesin

Located a few minutes away from Forest of Muse, Taliesin is a collection of shops, restaurants, and museums set around lake Shiozawa. There is something for everyone here. Architecture fans will enjoy the Meiji era house and the villa set on the lake, and nature lovers can take a stroll through the English rose garden or go boating on Shiozawa lake. There are even kid-friendly attractions like miniature golf and go karts as well as archery and tennis courts.

In addition to the numerous old houses, there are also three museums on the grounds: the Literary Museum of Karuizawa, Musee Peynet, and Kouko Fukazawa Nonohana Flower Museum. With so much to see and do, it makes for a great place to spend a day.

The park is open from 9 to 5 and basic entrance fee is 800 yen (900 for entrance and Musee Peynet), with each museum an additional 700. If you wish to see all of the museums, there is a combo ticket for 1500 yen.

6. Hiroshi Senju Museum

Hiroshi Senju museum

As I knew nothing about the artist before visiting the museum, the museum's striking architecture by Ryue Nishizawa was the main appeal for me. Indeed, the stunning design did not disappoint. In the center of the building, there are a series of gardens enclosed by glass, giving you the sense that you're walking through a giant, futuristic terrarium. The museum is open and airy, with glass walls that further integrate the museum with nature.

While I had mainly wanted to marvel at the architecture, the work of Hiroshi Senju proved to be just as compelling. Most of the pieces contained in the museum are beautiful, slightly abstract nature scenes that fit in perfectly with the architecture. Don't miss the Fall Room, where a giant, stunning waterfall painting comes to life in a fascinating combination of film and painting.

Entrance is 1200 yen, and the museum is open from 9:30 until 5 every day except for Tuesday.

7. Kyu Karuizawa Ginza

European style buildings in Kyu Karuizawa Ginza

Kyu Karuizawa used to be a post town along the Nakasendo Route that ran between Kyoto and Edo. While it lacks the old Edo charm of other Nakasendo towns such as Magome, it's European resort feel does make you feel like you've been transported out of Japan. You can find plenty of shops, restaurants, and cafes for all budgets, but I mostly enjoyed walking through the area; there are plenty of beautiful European style buildings to admire that range from gorgeous traditional wooden structures to quirky and brightly colored shops.

It's possible to walk to Kyu Karuizawa Ginza from Karuizawa station in about 25 minutes but there are also buses to the area.

8. Karuizawa New Art Museum

Exhibit at Karuizawa New Art Museum

If you do walk to Kyu Karuizawa, the Karuizawa New Art Museum is a great stop along the way, and it is only about ten minutes from the station. The galleries contain modern and contemporary works by both Japanese and Western artists, including a large flower sculpture by Yayoi Kusama (and one of the quirkiest, coolest bathrooms I've ever seen).

The real highlight is the second floor temporary exhibits, and the fascinating and spectacular Art is Science exhibits runs through September 18th 2017. This exhibit ended up being one of the highlights of Karuizawa for me due to the clever integration between art and technology in the interactive displays and the bizarre, sci-fi jellyfish sculptures of Yoichiro Kawaguchi.

Tickets are 1000 yen, and you can find current exhibits listed on their website.

9. St. Paul’s Catholic Church

St. Paul's Catholic Church interior

If you’re looking for for another church, St. Paul's Catholic Church is nestled in the heart of Kyu Karuizawa. While the churches in Naka-Karuizawa are primarily for weddings and individual prayer or reflecting, here Catholic mass is held daily. Outside of mass, visitors are welcome to freely enter the church. The church was built in 1935, and the wooden, triangular church is similar to Kogen Church. While St. Paul's admittedly pales slightly in comparison from the outside, the stunning ceiling and wooden vaulting in the church's interior is well worth a look. It is also much less crowded if you are looking for a quiet place for contemplation.

10. Prince Shopping Plaza

If you're in the mood for upscale or luxury shopping, Prince Shopping Plaza is your best bet. Here you can find everything from Nike and Gap to high end shops like Gucci and Marc Jacobs. Given some of the more expensive shops, it's no surprise then that Prince Shopping Plaza is one of the most beautiful outlet malls I've ever seen; the stores wrap around an artificial lake, with many of the shops built with the same resort aesthetic as the rest of Karuizawa. Even if you're not in the mood to stop, the grounds make for a pleasant walk. Prince Shopping Plaza is located a few minutes walk from Karuizawa station, making it far more accessible than Kyu Karuizawa Ginza.

Karuizawa is located around an hour from Tokyo by shinkansen, costing 5500 yen one way. If you plan on doing some traveling around Kanto, the 3 day JR Tokyo wide pass (10,000 yen) is a great deal as it includes shinkansen, limited express, and regular JR trains in and around Tokyo, Nikko, Fuji, Karuizawa, and other areas in Kanto. It's also the only JR pass available to foreign residents of Japan.

For travelers on a budget, there is also a 3 hour highway bus from Ikebukuro, costing 2600 yen one way. From Nagano, Karuizawa is 35 minutes and 3500 yen by shinkansen or 90 minutes and 1640 yen by Shinano railway.

From Karuizawa station, there are two bus lines, but they only run once everyone 1-2 hours, with attractions like Taliesin and the Senju museum trickier to access. Rental bikes are one of the best transportation options and there are rental facilities near Karuizawa and Naka Karuizawa stations.  There is also a free shuttle bus to the Hoshino Resort area that includes the Stone Church and Harunire Terrace, but service does not start until 11 AM or so. You can find all the bus and shuttle time tables in the tourist information center in the station.

This is but a taste of what you can do in Karuizawa. There are many more museums as well as lakes, waterfalls, and hiking trails to explore as well as skiing in the winter. Karuizawa is a beautiful, unique town that feels markedly different from many of Japan’s other famous cities. With its easy access from Tokyo, there is no reason to miss out.

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