Shiraito Falls

Photo:Ken Yamaguchi

Shiraito Falls & Onioshidashi Park: Beautiful Contrasts of Karuizawa

For many residents in the Kanto region, especially Tokyo, an easy escape from the chaos, noise and congested city life to a haven of fresh air, blue skies and green surroundings is usually plotted on three major popular destinations: Hakone, Nikko, and Karuizawa (among many others in line). Typically traditional Japanese villages make up the Mt. Fuji base of Hakone and the much-loved autumn forests of Nikko, but Karuizawa has something else particular to offer.

Perhaps, when in 1886 Canadian Anglican missionary Rev. Alexander Croft Shaw and Tokyo Imperial University English professor James Main Dixon settled in Karuizawa, leaving now frequently visited landmarks, Shaw Memorial Chapel and Shaw House behind, subsequent visiting professors from abroad were further encouraged to come for study programs and conferences. Groups of Germans living in Tokyo also relocated to Karuizawa after the US fire bombing in Tokyo in 1945.

The rich 100-hectare forests of pine, cypress, chestnut, oak and other trees and hundreds of abundant blossoms, such as primroses, anemones, and chrysosplenium easily attract city folks—among them, writers, artists, scholars and celebrities, including foreign dignitaries, who were known to visit the mountain region for leisure (especially golf, tennis and skiing), relaxation and quiet moments amidst the wooded forests.

A tall pine silhouetted against the blue sky
Photo ©Alma Reyes

The environment is ideal also for bird watching, hiking, cycling, camping, and boasts of natural hot springs, eventually giving the town its prestige as a favorite summer resort.

While there are numerous charming sights to see in Karuizawa, two spots worth a visit are the Onioshidashi Park by Mt. Asama and the Shiraito Waterfall.

Onioshidashi Park's Volcanic Origins

Black lava rocks and lingering snow at the base of Mt Asama
Photo ©Alma Reyes

Onioshidashi Park, located within the Jōshin'etsu-kōgen National Park, might be quickly missed as it sits across the prefectural border in Gunma Prefecture. The unique park, more than a moss carpet of green, is actually a settlement of natural rock formations from volcanic sediments resulting from the enormous eruption of Mt. Asama in 1783. Onioshidashi literally signifies a devil pushing rocks down from the mountain. It is as though a devil had pushed the rock boulders violently into a crater, which gave the park its auspicious name.

Whether approaching the gate by car or bus, a full-size glimpse of the 2,568 meter-high Mt. Asama along the road will not be missed, making this a perfect picture-taking position.

Stone lantern and a pine tree silhoetted against the sky and clouds
Photo ©Alma Reyes

From the entrance, one is readily greeted by a wide and open view of the huge black charcoal-colored rocks scattered randomly like gigantic spiders crawling below a towering temple in red above a hill, creating a splendid contrast between the darkness at the bottom and the stark red and blue skies above.

You can choose from four nature trails within the park. The winding path will lead to the red Kannon gate and the traditional wash stone basin for washing your hands before entering the temple. The pathway is itself truly scenic, flanked by sculptural black crystal-like rocks on the left and right sides, against the vast, open sky and proud Mt. Asama guarding the volcanic territory.

Paved path to the temple
Photo ©Alma Reyes

People strike the giant bell, which is said to echo a slightly haunting emotion, reflecting the deaths of thousands of victims from the eruption.

From this point, the striking red bridge over the rock garden suddenly turns horror into elegance, with a captivating shot of the temple behind, which was built in 1958 as a remembrance of the eruption and a dedication to the Kannon, the Buddhist goddess of mercy.

Foot bridge with red railing and lantern post
Photo ©Alma Reyes

By the time you climb up to the temple veranda, a sense of peace prevails. 

Temple with its vermilion veranda
Photo ©Alma Reyes
View from the temple veranda
Photo ©Alma Reyes

For public transportation to the park, there are Seibu buses departing from Karuizawa Station and Naka-Karuizawa Station that take about 35 minutes. Private vehicles can pass through the Usui-Karuizawa IC of Joshin-Etsu Expressway via Naka-Karuizawa and Onioshi Highway.

Open 8:00 to 17:00 (entry until 16:30)

Admission fee: 650 yen

Official Website

Shiraito Waterfall's Threads of White

Wide waterfall cascading down the rock into a clear pond
Photo ©Alma Reyes

Shiraito Waterfall (白糸の滝, Shiraito no Taki) is an easy 13-minute drive from Onioshidashi Park if you just head north along the Asama Shirane Kazan route and exit to the Shiraito Highland Way. The route is spectacular in autumn with the crimson reds, oranges, and yellows sparkling from the trees, or in winter even with rows of empty branches, the forest drive emanates an immensely calm sensation. Summer, however, is a favorite season to visit due to the thick and exuberant foliage.

Once you reach the entrance of the footpath to the falls, with little shops of dango, grilled fish, Japanese sweets and souvenirs outside, you are ready for a nice 150-meter stroll uphill surrounded by green nature everywhere. Along the left side of the trail, carved bamboo lanterns guide you until the falls.

Shiraito no Taki means “the waterfall of white threads,” pertaining to the appearance of streaks of water running down the rocks, like a curtain of pearl streams. The sight of the waterfall varies by season—stronger current like a thick curtain during the rainy season, and finer threads during the drier periods. The white flowing streaks of water hitting the vast green pond provide a beautiful contrast.

Photo ©Alma Reyes

A particular characteristic of the Shiraito Waterfall is the source of its water. Unlike many waterfalls that come from river water or a stream, the Shiraito falls flow through the volcanic stratum at the base of Mt. Asama. This groundwater flow is bounded along the curved rim of 70 meters wide despite its height being just three meters tall. The crystal-clear water is very impressive, reflecting the moss-covered rocks and lush trees and plants around.

Carved wooden squirrel sitting on a rock above the clear pond
Photo ©Alma Reyes

Towards the left side behind the pond is a hiking trail leading further up into the mountains. Currently, some wood-carved animals are displayed in front of the pond, which also attract many photo enthusiasts.

Carved wooden animals by Shiraito Falls
Photo ©Alma Reyes

Once you have been fully refreshed by the natural sceneries of both the Onioshidashi Park and Shiraito Waterfall, it would be a perfect moment to dip in one of the onsens in the town and delight in the special gastronomy that Karuizawa has to offer.

By public transportation, there are Kusakaru Kotsu buses running between Karuizawa Station and the Shiraito Waterfall (25 minutes). By car from the Usui-Karuizawa junction, it takes about 45 minutes.

Admission: Open all day, Free

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