Best way to experience Karuizawa

The top places to eat and shop, and my review of my stay at Hoshinoya Karuizawa
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Karuizawa is a beautiful upmarket mountain resort located in the Nagano Prefecture. It’s definitely not a cheap place compared to some other countryside areas, and has developed as a popular place for many Japanese to visit especially during Summer, with many affluent ones owning a second home here. I aptly call it the Hamptons of Japan. The great part of Karuizawa is its accessibility to Tokyo via the Hokoriku Shinkansen in slightly over an hour, making it even possible as a day trip. And some fun facts if you didn’t know, this was John Lennon and Yoko Ono’s favourite place to spend their summers with their son John back in the 1970s. I would caution anyone coming here not to just spend a day here, it’s nice to stay at least 2 nights here, to visit all the quaint shops and restaurants especially! See the JR East site for the timetable. You can easily purchase tickets from their website up to 1 month ahead, otherwise you can buy physically at any of the stations in Tokyo.

Enjoying the Gran Class seat in Hokoriku Shinkansen bound for Karuizawa!

WHERE TO STAY

Initially, we wanted to look at beautiful traditional luxe ryokans to stay at in Karuizawa, but we realised there’s hardly any and the few we saw are pretty simple and basic in terms of interiors. It seemed that the majority of lodging here tend to be hotels, and some vacation homes for rent from the likes of AirBnB. We decided to splurge and stay at one of the iconic hotels Hoshinoya Karuizawa, part of the well established resort group –  Hoshino Resorts. All the rooms here are set up in a villa guest pavilion format, some facing the serene water that runs through the estate, while others are perched on the hill, surrounded by the lush forest. It’s easy to walk around and relax in the many spaces in their estate, which also includes 2 of their own onsens – one which is also open to the public. They have their own well-curated shops and restaurants in Harunire Terrace, which makes it a popular spot for many to visit when in Karuizawa. And for the nature lovers, they have a whole list of activities for one to do from bird watching to horse riding. It makes it so easy for one to just hang out in their resort the entire time, but of course typical me had too many things to see and do, so we had to take the chance over the 2 days we had to explore! Read on for my review of this hotel.

Hoshino Resort 〒389-0194 Nagano Prefecture, Kitasaku District, Karuizawa, 軽井沢町星野, Tel : 02 570-073-066 (Reservations early including reservations for meal times here is a must)

Chilling out by the stream after check in at Hoshinoya. One of my favourite spots here. 

One of the many views of the suites here.

View of our villa from across the stream. 

What I liked 

  • Check-in process was wonderful. The reception is a special building separate from where the main entrance to the guest pavilions lie. We were served a welcome drink while enjoying a live music performance from the yagura. And there’s a nice outdoor seating facing the Yugawa River, which the reception overlooks. We had great fun taking some pictures here to commemorate the start of our stay.
  • The common areas like the garden and river stream and terrace, and library lounge area: One can sit outside in the terrace outside Kasuke restaurant at selected hours. During summer in the late afternoon, they serve light refreshments out there including a little ice cream van. A pity we never got home in time to enjoy it. And the library lounge area overlooking Kasuke restaurant is a great spot to enjoy drinks and chill before and after dinner.
  • The hot spring experience in the meditation bath. This is a more contemporary version between an onsen and a modern spa facility one might find in Europe, and it’s also exclusive only to hotel guests. Y and I enjoyed it thoroughly as they set the water around 39-40℃–ideal for long soaks. And the main space is lit with soft illumination which is really therapeutic. They had a complete dark room that one can enter from here to soak in, but we were little bit nervous going in, because it felt rather claustrophobic and maybe scary? We never got to try the traditional one called Tombo-no-yu which is also open to the public, as it required us to get a shuttle to go there, walking seemed too far.
  • Shopping and dining experience in Harunire Terrace. It has a lovely relaxed vibe and really ties in with the entire philosophy of what I guess Hoshino Resorts is trying to provide for its guests, showcasing the best of Karuizawa local products and produce.
  • Walking around the property in the summer 2-piece yukata set they provided in the room.
  • Secret bar overlooking the KERA-IKE Ice Rink. It seems they don’t tell many people about it, but we discovered it, when the GM offered us complimentary drinks here, after the staff made us wait too long at Harunire Terrace for the shuttle bus pick up.

Music performance on Yagura upon check-in.

Another favourite spot of mine, outside Kasuke restaurant.

Enjoying a whisky nightcap at the bar in Hoshinoya.

Some interesting artifacts here in the “secret bar”.

Chilling out in my room and I had western breakfast in room the first day.

What I didn’t like so much

  • The food at the restaurant Kasuke. Don’t get me wrong, it’s not bad, but it’s just typical decent Japanese food, that I can eat in a good family style Japanese restaurant in Singapore. So it depends on what you are looking for.
  • It surprised me that very few staff knew how to speak English here which resulted in some miscommunication when we had to wait for our shuttle bus pick up at Harunire Terrace. I probably only remembered the GM on duty, 2 staff we met when we arrived at the hotel for check-in spoke English. Okay, but brownie points for the bar discovery as mentioned earlier.
  • Room: We booked the Mizunami room facing the river, which was recommended as the more popular rooms. Perhaps this is really personal, but it felt too much like a beach resort villa in Bali or Thailand once we entered inside. I wished there was a little more of a Japanese aesthetics in it, other than the platform bed. That said, maybe their target clientele is still largely the Japanese market, so the interiors still very much appeal to them.
  • The high price. We paid an average of 69,750 yen per night per person, and doesn’t include breakfast and dinner. At this rate, I felt it rather pricey as compared to some of the luxury Japanese ryokans I have stayed at. This was definitely quite a premium, which I can’t say would justify my return.

Kasuke restaurant – I like how it’s levelled up on steps. 

Japanese breakfast in Kasuke restaurant.

Walking around the grounds of Hoshinoya as much as possible to maximise my experience here! 

MY HIT LIST OF KARUIZAWA

If you are visiting Karuizawa for the first time, pay careful attention to my list below of what not to miss out on, and things that erm you could possibly just skip.

1. French dinner at Yukawatan Bleston Court (Website for reservations2144 Nagakura, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano Prefecture 389-0111, Japan, Tel: +81 50-5282-2267)

Yukawatan serves beautifully crafted French food with a fine Japanese sensibility from the choice of their local ingredients to the flavours of the food, and was a truly memorable dining experience. Located in Bleston Court which is the sister hotel of Hoshino Resort, it was easy coming here via the complimentary shuttle car. Upon arrival, we were ushered to the outdoor area, where we were served some delicious amuse bouche, including my favourite ayu fish (available only in summer). The surroundings was so idyllic and charming. After about 45 mins, we adjourned into the indoor restaurant area to have our main degustation meal – a wonderful seven course journey. I liked that the dishes were well-paced and thoughtful in terms of flavours, variety and even just portions. I honestly have no capacity these days for stuffy French food who overlay their food with too much butter.

We managed to enjoy some of the best of what the summer season in Shinshu region had to offer, from the fresh trout fish, to a pigeon breast with risotto, and an amazing vegetable course – with 50 types of vegetables (each one cooked in different ways to bring out the best of their flavour)! When we thought that it couldn’t get better than this, they wowed us with their amazing cheese trolley (all locally farmed cheeses from Karuizawa, even the blue cheese had a less pungent but delicate flavour to it). The grand finale to the dinner had to be their petit fours display which was housed in a beautiful hand made tree house, which opened up to display the various petit fours. We were too full by this time, so we had to try some and get the rest as takeaways. It’s a truly remarkable experience that I would encourage you to go for, and worth the splurge. The course menu is 18,000 yen per person, which is fantastic value as compared to some of the fine-dining restaurants in Singapore, which is really overpriced.

Cheers! Enjoying a rosé  in the alfresco area of Yukawatan.

Delicious amuse bouche in the great outdoors. 

One of the most memorable vegetarian dishes ever at Yukawatan!

Is this the most beautiful petit fours display you’ve ever seen?

One of the best French meals I’ve had is here at Yukawatan.

2. Coffee flavoured soft serve ice cream with coffee at Mikado Coffee

This is pure bliss for coffee and soft ice cream lovers like me! It’s got the best of both worlds, double happiness in 1 glorious cup. Mikado Coffee was founded in 1948, but the Karuizawa branch was opened in 1952. It’s more reminiscent of those old school Japanese coffee houses done up in a more modern way in terms of interiors, rather than one of those 3rd wave hipster coffee places one sees a lot of in Japan now as well. It was such a great last drink to down at their location in Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza just opposite the Karuizawa station (Japan, 〒389-0102 Nagano-ken, Kitasaku-gun, Karuizawa-machi, Karuizawa, 1178-798 軽井沢味の街, Tel: +81 267-42-0549), before we hopped on the train back to Tokyo. You can visit this location or their original branch in Old Karuizawa Town (

Coffee soft serve with ice coffee at Mikado Coffee. Try this signature dessert cum drink! 

3. Checking out Karuizawa Old Town

Also known as Kyu Karuizawa, this used to be a post town along the Nakasendo Route, one of two major road connections that connected the imperial capital Kyoto with the shogun capital which is present day Tokyo during the Edo Period, which makes it one of the most frequently visited areas in Karuizawa. There’s many restaurants and souvenir shops flanking the main street here, but it can feel a tad touristy. It’s a great stop for buying some of the local food products from jam to honey, but after a while I feel it’s a bit repetitive. The following places are the key ones I think worth stopping by.

Suju Dark Eyes Gallery (1-7 Karuizawa, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano-ken 389-0102, Japan, Tel: +81 267-41-2828) This homeware shop sells some interesting Japanese cutlery, pottery, and homeware stuff. Not to be missed is their shop next door which sells all their homemade miso and sauces. Really yummy miso, I regret not buying more as I am down to my last bottle! They also have a restaurant across the street called Suju Masayuki, which I am sure has pretty delicious food, as I frequent their Singapore branch located in Mandarin Hotel Gallery quite often.

Kawamian Soba (6-10 Karuizawa, 軽井沢町 Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano-ken 389-0102, Japan, Tel:  +81 267-42-0009, located behind Suju Masayuki restaurant) Flagship location of Kawami-an, with the other located in Harunire Terrace. It may not feel as artisanal as those mom and pop shops I have been to in other parts of Japan for soba but it’s definitely a decent place to have lunch. It’s kid friendly as well.

Atelier De Fromage (2-1 Karuizawa, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano-ken 389-0103, Japan, Tel: +81 267-41-4033) Great selection of locally made cheeses, and it’s a wonderful shop to stop by for any cheese lovers to takeaway some Karuizawa cheeses to savour. It seems they are closed from 29 Oct 2018 to end of March 2019 next year, so do check their website for updates if you plan to visit.

L’ibisco Karuizawa (〒389-0102 Nagano-ken, Kitasaku-gun, Karuizawa-machi, Karuizawa, 北佐久郡軽井沢町軽井沢(大字)746-4, Tel:+81 267-42-9113) This seems to be THE place to savour ice cream and is a welcome respite especially during the crazy summer heat. The ice cream here is made fresh daily and apparently is additives and egg free as well, so it feels almost healthier!

Mikado Coffee (Kyukaruizawa-786-2 Karuizawa, 軽井沢町 Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano-ken 389-0102, Japan, Tel: +81 267-42-2453) As mentioned earlier, the original shop is here and you can enjoy the yummy coffee soft serve in coffee at this location too.

You would have realised while walking along this main road (dori) that there are just so many dessert shops flanking it, that it may be bit too overkill for those who don’t have a sweet tooth, so my next recommendation for a savoury snack is…

Karuizawa Nokorokkeyasan  軽井沢ころっけやさん (Japan, 〒389-0102 Nagano-ken, Kitasaku-gun, Karuizawa-machi, Karuizawa, 長野県北佐久郡軽井沢町軽井沢旧軽井沢634, Tel: +81 267-42-7667) This simple no frills counter shop, sells a pretty awesome croquette. You can choose to just have it on its own, or sandwiched in a burger.

Croquette shop – nice break while walking here.

Super delicious croquette! Oiishi!

Suju Gallery shop.

All the yummy miso for purchase in Suju Gallery.

Kawakamian Soba for lunch.

Not the best kakigori, but still required in this heat.

4. Harunire Terrace (2148 Nagakura, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano-ken 389-0111, Japan, Tel: +81 267-45-5853) Even if you don’t stay at Hoshinoya, it’s worth stopping by here to walk around the restaurants, check out the shops selling local produce. It’s designed really well, almost like a little village located next to the river stream. The restaurants are of a decent standard, whether it’s soba from Kawamian, enjoying a simple pasta from Il Sogno, or gelato at Harvest Nagai Farm cafe. If you are driving here and not staying at Hoshinoya or Bleston Court Hotel which offers drop offs, parking can be challenging, as there’s limited lots here, so avoid coming at peak periods like lunch time.

Getting my coffee fix and some sweet fix at Maruyama Coffee.

Gelato – a nice welcome at Harvest Nagai Farm shop.

5. Visiting the Stone Church (Japan, 〒389-0103 Nagano Prefecture, Kitasaku District, Karuizawa, 軽井沢町星野, Tel: +81 267-45-2288)

Even for the most non-religious person, or free thinker, I am asking you to visit this church which is absolutely charming. The Church was designed by famed American architect Kendrick Kellogg, who’s also very well-known for the Desert House he designed in Joshua Tree. The church has been designed to integrate with its surroundings naturally, using a natural material – stone. It is unique with multiple stone arches and rows of windows allowing plenty of natural light in the stone building. Apparently, Kellogg’s concept was that the repetition of stone and glass arches would symbolize male and female, bride and groom. The structure looks ancient, and yet also looks somewhat futuristic and timeless. The feeling I got when I entered the church from outside is hard to describe, I was taken aback and surprised at the interiors. A pity we weren’t allowed to take pictures of the inside, but the interiors are always etched in my memory. We paused to admire the chapel inside, and a ‘mock wedding’ that was held for visitors. It’s really a perfect church to have a wedding in.

Ooh, I would love to get married at this Stone Church!

MISSES..

And for the misses on my two days out venturing in Karuizawa.. Shirato Falls (Kose Nagakura, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano Prefecture 389-0111, Japan). It appears in a lot of guidebooks as one of the key spots to visit, but was so underwhelming, I regretted driving here with Y and GS to see it. For those that have seen the likes of Niagara Falls or even those in Iceland, this is quite a disappointment. I would say don’t waste your time coming here!

Yeah, I am not too impressed. Left to right that’s the entire Shirato Falls.

I would definitely come back to Karuizawa again if I had the chance to. It’s got a really nice vibe, and I can totally understand why the city dwellers like to come here during their break. However, I would love to check it out in a different climate such as autumn or winter even! Till next time!

With Y in our favourite spot in Hoshinoya. 

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