Karuizawa: Tokyo's 'Shire' escape

Karuizawa: Tokyo's 'Shire' escape

This classy hideaway with a great international flavor is just an hour from Japan's capital

KaruizawaUnlike most heavily sold tourist spots in Japan, Karuizawa genuinely offers a hefty helping of nature.

As the sticky Japanese summer heat stretches into July, Tokyoites long to escape to cooler climes.

True, there are few if any Hobbits inhabiting the area, but a world-class weekend refuge just about an hour away from Tokyo in the mountains of Nagano Prefecture is no fantasy.

Overheated urbanites

Located on the eastern edge of the prefecture, Karuizawa was once a busy post station on the Nakasendo, a highway linking Tokyo and Kyoto. After the Meiji Restoration, however, that traffic was diverted and the town began to fall into decline.

It was “rescued” in 1886 by the arrival of missionary Alexander Croft Shaw, who was, supposedly, reminded of his ancestral home in Scotland and built a summer residence there.

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Many other Tokyoites keen to get out of town followed his example, and when a rail link was established at the turn of the century, Karuizawa blossomed into a resort town with international flair.

Japan Prime Minister Naoto Kan relaxes at his summer house in Karuizawa.A leisurely day at Karuizawa.

Many of Tokyo's well-to-do still spend their summers here, including former prime minister Yukio Hatoyama, whose sprawling family house sits on Hatoyama Street.

Get sporty

At an altitude of about 1,000 meters, the daytime temperature in Karuizawa is usually at least 10 degrees cooler than the capital in the summer months, so the name of the game for many visitors is outdoor sports.

Karuizawa has hosted events for both the summer and winter Olympics, and sporting venues abound. You'll find three riding clubs, eight golf courses, plenty of tennis courts and even an archery range.

Karuizawa mossThat old Karuizawa moss gets everywhere -- forest floors, lawns, walls; you name it.

Of course, if organized sports aren't your thing, there's always hiking. Walking in the woods around Karuizawa is a bit like being wrapped in a cool, green blanket -- the forest floor and the trunks of the trees are covered with a soft, plush moss.

It's the predominant feature even in the residential areas, where it takes the place of a lawn at many a house and covers the rock walls demarcating property lines.

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The most popular hiking trail runs between town and Shiraito Falls, a 70-meter-high waterfall. The route leads past the Mikasa Hotel, one of Japan's first Western-style hotels, as well as the lovely Ryugaeshi Falls.

Of course, if you'd like to see all that without breaking a sweat, there's a bus as well.

Eat, drink and all the rest

True to the town's international roots, the food on offer is diverse, but its specialty is the humble zarusoba -- cold soba noodles from locally grown buckwheat.

Flatbreadz, a sandwich chain where everything is offered up on fresh-baked, whole wheat bread, is a perfect lunch choice and the turkey and basil sandwich is excellent.

Tip -- if you can't make it to Karuizawa just yet, there's a Flatbreadz branch in Tachikawa, west Tokyo.

Many different varieties of fruit are grown in the surrounding area and the souvenir of choice is handmade jam. The omiyage stores have a wide selection on display for you to taste, so you may want to skip dessert.

Looking to liquid refreshments, St. Cousair Winery can be found in nearby Iizuna, and Yoho Karuizawa Beer, maker of the popular craft beer Yona Yona Ale, is also local.

Many restaurants and bars feature al-fresco dining, so you can even enjoy your meal in the crisp mountain air.

Something for the shoppers

Karuizawa is worth a stop not just for the food, history or nature, but also for its bargain-hunting opportunities.

On the Kyukaruizawa Shopping Street, also known as The Ginza, you can find charming boutiques, art galleries, knickknack shops and souvenirs.

KaruizawaIf you can't make it to Karuizawa this summer, there's always fall to look forward to.

To find the brand names that abound on that other Ginza, you have to cross to the other side of the station to the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza. The massive open-air outlet mall features over 120 shops, split into three separate areas.

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One section focuses on high-end designer fashion, another on sporting goods and outdoor brands and the third on home and kitchen stuff, including the wines and foods from the region.

Getting there: Karuizawa lies an hour by Shinkansen bullet train from Tokyo Station. A one-way ticket costs ¥5,950. Express buses run from Shinjuku, Ikebukuro and Yokohama. Single fares are about ¥3,000 but the journey takes around three hours.

First published in August 2011, republished July 2012.