Karuizawa: Activities for every season

by Abha Awasthi

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Karuizawa is one of Japan’s hidden natural treasures. Located in Japan’s Honshu island, in Nagano Prefecture, this little town is best known for winter sports, recreation activities, golf, whiskey, and hot springs. It is on the foot of Mount Asama and boasts scenic gorge with a feast of colors every season. Surrounded by forests and mountain peaks, Karuizawa offers tranquility and peace from the bustle of Tokyo (and other such big cities). Each of the four seasons of Karuizawa – whether Summer, Fall, Spring or Winter – promises activities that help you explore the best of Nagano Prefecture, and give a different lens into the country at large.

Activities for summer

Summer in Karuizawa typically lasts from July to mid-August, although it can begin earlier. This is Karuizawa’s warmest month with temperatures ranging from 12-35 degrees Celsius. Many Tokyo residents visit their summer homes of resorts in Karuizawa to escape from Tokyo’s hot summers.

Karuizawa’s Sports Arena

Summer is also one of the best seasons to go swimming in Karuizawa’s Kazakoshi Koen, an indoor sports and fitness arena located 8 minutes away from Karuizawa station. A single ticket cost is between 200-300 yen. The park also has a fully functioning gym, Tennis court, and football court, best used in these seasons. Don’t forget to buy an ice lolly (ranging from 200-300 yen) on the second floor of the arena beside the gym. Another vending machine downstairs sells chilled bottled milkshakes (400 yen onwards). If you are not a huge fan of swimming, an alternate way to cool off would be to visit the Sengataki or Hoshino onsen, where you can find a chilled equivalent of a jacuzzi. Imagine the crisp relief of jumping into a bath of cold water on a hot summer day!

Walks and Hikes

Nights are generally crisp and cool – perfect for a little outdoor walk. However, this is also the season when a majority of bugs and pests emerge! Be sure to use enough insect repellent and close your doors and windows. Karuizawa is a great location to go on hikes – it gives you a good workout, allows you to bond with friends and family, and is the best way to explore the scenic beauty of the mountains of Nagano. Karuizawa also has a vast number of peaks – the town itself is located at the foot of Asamayama, an active volcanic mountain, with an elevation of 2,568 meters. Shiraito waterfalls Kumoba pond offer some gentle, but slightly challenging trails. If you’re looking for a steep or tough trail, Kurofuyama or Yunomaru are great options – their peaks are also by the clouds where you get a gorgeous view of the mountains. While hiking in the summer, be sure to wear loose, comfortable cotton clothes, and carry along a bottle of water, sunscreen, and a camera. Bear and flying squirrel sightings are not uncommon in Karuizawa – however, animals are typically very shy, so be sure to tread softly to not scare them!

Other Activities

Some other popular outdoor activities for warm weather include biking, running and camping. A few rental bike stores near the JR Karuizawa station offer bikes for 1000-2000 yen per hour. Be sure to pick up a map and have some contact number in hand before starting your trail. Knowing Japanese is a huge help, but even if you don’t, having an idea of your route and knowing basic navigation words are important. Never be afraid to ask a Japanese person for help, they’re always very friendly.

Soft Cream at Komoro Castle

Activities for Fall

Fall lasts from September to mid-November. Temperatures can range from 5-25 degrees Celsius. Not only is the weather is slightly cooler, but you have the advantage of capturing the beautiful orange, brown and gold hues of dried leaves. Autumn is also the season of layers – mornings and evenings can get chilly, but afternoons are rather warm.

Exploring Karuizawa’s Wildlife

Autumn is a great season to sign up for an expert-led tour by Picchio, Hoshino’s local wildlife tour organization. Located in Harunire terrace, their tours include activities such as bird watching, flying squirrel tours, mountain biking and Japanese serow watching.  The base of the office also has a store that sells keychains, stuff toys and other small souvenirs for children.

Hikes and Camping

Fall lasts from September to mid-November. Not only is the weather is slightly cooler, but you have the advantage of capturing the beautiful orange, brown and gold hues of dried leaves. Autumn is also the season of layers – mornings and evenings can get chilly, but afternoons are rather warm. Make sure you have enough space in your backpack for clothes you’ll want to peel off as it gets hot. A great trail to take in autumn would be one leading up to Harunire terrace, a business park with quaint cafes and souvenir stores. This is a great place to buy luxury presents and sweets. Once you’re done, be sure to treat yourself to a cup of coffee and pound cake from Sawa Mura, a bakery with expensive yet delicious-looking goods.

Sunset Hike to Tengu onsen

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Activities for Winter

Winter lasts from December to March, with occasional snowfall expected in April. While the first snowfall is typically in November, it snows regularly from December to February, covering town in a soft blanket of powdery white snow. Freezing weather accompanies the postcard-worthy snowscape, with temperatures ranging from -9 to 3 degrees Celsius. A number of convenience stores sell mittens, gloves, hats, and scarves. The Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza also offers branded clothing from Gap, Banana Republic, and Gucci where you can buy more durable Jackets, winter boots, and sweaters. But be sure to pack enough clothing beforehand; these upscale outlet stores are expensive!

Skiing

Karuizawa has hosted Nagano’s 1998 winter Olympics. Skiing, ice skating, and curling are three of the most famous winter sports. A one day pass to ski at Prince hotel ski resort ranges from 4,000-5,300 yen, whereas a 3-day pass ranges from 9,000-11,000 yen. You have ten ski course options, ranging from the chestnut course/family course (380-600 meters) to advanced courses if you’re a pro at skiing, like the Asama course (800 meters). The slalom burn is the most advanced course, which offers a steep drop of up to 25 meters. You’ll need a minimum of one day whether you’re a beginner or an expert – and you definitely don’t want to miss out on the view of Karuizawa from the top as night falls. There are a variety of restaurants at the base which sell hot meals – including Japanese noodles (like Soba, Udon, and Ramen), curry rice, hot dogs, Panini and curry rice. Most of these restaurants are open for lunch – when you can grab a bite and ski for the rest of the evening. If you’re looking for a nice hot drink, you must browse through the outlet mall (a few meters away from the slopes) where you can get some coffee from Mikado cafe, or a nice hot chocolate from the Lindt outlet store. If you’re more interested in curling or ice skating, look no further than Kazakoshi Koen which offers rinks for both these activities.

Snowshoe Walks

If you’d like to explore a bit more of the woods in the winter, you could always opt for a snowshoe hike. One option is an easy but lengthy walk past Sengataki waterfall, finishing at Hoshino onsen. A great way to end this five-hour hike through the woods would be to take a dip at the Hoshino onsen (hot water bath) to soothe your tired legs and recover from the cold. A single ticket should cost between 300-500 yen. A more adventurous outdoor expedition would be to go snowshoeing or hiking up Yunomaru Yama, which is a 45-minute drive away from Karuizawa. You can go on a skiing or cross-country trail around Nagano. Another such winter trail (with camping availability) is on Togakushi, a highland Ninja village (a 2-hour drive away from Karuizawa). Skiers also have the option of spending half a day on the slopes and possible use the onsen below near the area’s main shrine.

Gorgeous views on an early morning hike up Kaosama Yama

Activities for Spring

As you feel the weather gradually get warm, with snow melting away, the number of outdoor activities

Local festivals and events

The Karuizawa half marathon held annually on 5th May is a great way to explore town through a long trail run. Spring is also the season of numerous festivals – keep an eye out for the Golden week (April 29 – May 5), a collection of national holidays that fall together. Onsens (Japanese hot springs) are more expensive, buses are packed and hotels are booked, so be sure to plan any outings and traveling in advance!

Cherry Blossom viewing

Hiking in spring offers you a fabulous opportunity to view Japan’s famous Sakura (cherry blossom flowers). The hike up Miyogisan provides fabulous views of rocky mountains and sharp peaks. A great time to try this trail would be from mid to late April (depending on how early spring arrives) to witness the flowers in full bloom. Another option for cherry blossom viewing would be to visit the Komoro castle (a 3o minute drive from Karuizawa) for half a day. There are a vast number of stores selling fresh handmade soba noodles, which you can top off with a ‘soft cream’ ice cream cone. The most common flavor is vanilla, but if you’re lucky, you may find a place selling cherry blossom flavored ice cream! Be sure to carry a light sweater in this weather, as it may still be a bit chilly. Either ways – no matter what season you visit Karuizawa in, you’re sure to be enamored with its clean air, hospitable residents, and picturesque landscapes. Make sure you’ve dressed appropriately and your camera is charged!

Sakura at full bloom at Komoro castle

by Abha Awasthi

by Abha Awasthi

Thursday, February 8, 2018

Abha has lived in India, Brazil, and Japan, and currently resides in Chennai (India). She is passionate about athletics, journalling, and understanding diverse cultures and communities. Through blogging, I aspire to share some of the hidden places I've encountered on my journeys.

Read more at abhaawasthi.com

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