when temperatures dip and the leaves begin to fall, tokyoites pack their weekend bags for karuizawa, to feast on the colours and pleasures of autumn.
soft morning sunlight peeks through uneven gaps in the canopy of rich yellow and amber leaves. reflected onto the still waters below, they form a postcard-perfect showcase of autumn’s richest colours. it doesn’t stop there. encircling komuba pond are more maple and larch trees bursting with dark pink, rich red and fiery orange foliage while below them, the damp ground is carpeted by fallen leaves in the same hues.
you can cover the periphery of the pond in just 20 minutes on foot, but most visitors will take at least twice as long, stopping often to admire the vistas. some spend hours here: families with young ones enjoying the crisp air and serene surrounds, couples walking their pet pooches, and artists attempting to capture the scenic beauty in watercolour.
it would take serious talent to do justice to the breathtaking landscape at this natural pond, one of karuizawa’s most popular attractions. this resort town in the nagano prefecture is just over an hour from tokyo on the bullet train, and draws city folks as well as tourists year round but mid-october to early november are the best times to visit if you want to experience the best of fall.
affluent influences traditionally, the japanese enjoyed summering in karuizawa as its altitude – it sits at an elevation of about 1,000 metres – delivers temperatures that are at least 10 degrees lower than in the city. it was also considered a status symbol, like the hamptons is to new yorkers, with many prominent figures owning holiday homes here. karuizawa’s most famous guests have included reigning emperor akihito, who first met empress michiko at a tennis court in this town over 50 years ago.
karuizawa’s esteem had, however, been cemented long before that. the founding of this town is credited to canadian missionary alexander croft shaw, who arrived in 1886 and finding many comforting reminders of his scottish hometown, built his summer villa – the town’s first – two years later. he introduced karuizawa to people in tokyo and before long, the town’s reputation was established.
shaw’s villa is preserved as the shaw memorial house and next to it is the town’s first chapel that he built and where he delivered his sermons. both sit in a tranquil forested area in kyu-karuizawa, a part of the town known as karuizawa ginza as many of the famous tokyo shopping street’s high-end stores had outlets here, though it’s more fondly referred to as old town due to its nostalgic aura.
the main street is lined with specialty stores, restaurants, galleries and cafes housed in low wooden buildings that boast traditional japanese architecture. venture into the small lanes and you will come across shinto shrines and century-old cathedrals. occasionally, you might spot a traditional jinrikisha, or rickshaw, ferrying tourists on sightseeing rides. cycling is also a popular way to explore the town and you can pick up a rental for less than 1,000 yen a day.
this version of ginza may not have the glitz and international brand names of its tokyo counterpart – those can be shopped at the sprawling karuizawa prince shopping plaza outlet mall near the train station – but there is a good variety of japanese goods worth dropping some yen on. gorgeous furoshiki cloths that can be used as gift wrappers or tied into simple carrywear make interesting gifts for those back home; pick up a few pairs of japanese chopsticks, carved from wood and daintily decorated.
epicurean enjoyment it’s a good idea to shop on an empty stomach, so you can leave room for food sampling at the gourmet produce stores that are a galore of local seasonal specialties. handmade fruit jams are among the town’s best offerings, said to be a legacy of christian missionaries who spent their summers here teaching farmers the art of preserving fruits. sawaya is the most famous name for jams, particularly popular for their strawberry variant.
hankering for some good pure, natural honey? sample hachihige ojisan’s many floral varieties and other honey products at their standalone shop. founded in 1936, they harvest the nectar from their apiaries in the foothills of nagano where more than 1,000 hives are home to some 40,000 bees each.
when you’re ready for a proper meal, karuizawa presents you with countless options. to dine like locals do, start with the zarusoba, cold soba noodles made from locally-grown buckwheat. at the train station, you can pick up a kamameshi, rice with vegetables and meat cooked and sold in small earthenware pots.
you can also find a good array of international cuisines and light bites, from russian piroshki to hotdogs sandwiching plump german sausages, or do like john lennon and savour flaky pastries at the french bakery. the late ex-beatles and yoko ono were frequent visitors to karuizawa, usually staying at the historical mampei hotel and often breakfasted at the bakery, where a photograph of lennon still decks the wall.
finish off on a sweet note at mikado coffee, where there’s always a line for their velvety mocha soft ice-cream made from specially selected beans. lesser known but perhaps more charming is akaneya kouhiiten, which sits at the end of the main street in an all-black boxy building. their menu, like their signboard, is written in white kanji on a block of wood and lists just seven items, including drip coffee, black tea, grape juice and cheesecake. everything is priced at 735 yen and hot beverages are served in one of the many teacup sets that adorn the wall behind the counter. the more prized among their collection, including fine china pieces by wedgewood, are for the eyes only.
natural relaxation japan’s volcanic landscape has blessed the country with many natural hot springs and if you ask the locals, any time is a good time for a soak in the onsen. in autumn, after a day out and about in chilly climes, there is nothing more comforting than to surrender to the molten heat and let it warm you up while you wind down.
head to hoshinoya, a secluded resort that houses guests in stunning water and hillside villas luxuriously appointed in japanese decor. just 20 minutes via free shuttle buses from the train station, it is part of a forested area that’s known for wildlife diversity, with its most famous natural residents being the flying squirrels that soar silently among the trees at dusk.
at the resort, a special light and dark bath experience awaits staying guests while day visitors can pay to access the communal onsen. autumn is the season for the shinshu apple, a nagano specialty that’s loved for its crispness, juiciness and sweetness.
the indoor bath will be filled with these soft pink orbs, their natural fragrance scenting the air. as you breathe in the soothing aroma and your tired limbs loosen up in 42c water, you can imagine the appeal of this mountainous town that first drew europeans and the japanese elite. now, as it was then, karuizawa is a place to retreat, relax and revel in a leisurely lifestyle.
getting there from tokyo, you can get to karuizawa on the jr nagano shinkansen within 80 minutes. buses depart from tokyo’s ikebukuro station and take almost twice as long.