Karuizawa doesn’t exactly conjure images of cheapo abundance. For a small town in central Japan, it’s about as posh as you can get. Made famous as a summer escape for Meiji period European traders and diplomats, the town still relies on this historic cachet to attract the wannabe elites from Tokyo. And in summer at least, it is a genuine relief from the stifling heat of Tokyo.
What to Do in Karuizawa
Despite the foreign (primarily French it would seem) influence, this aspect of Karuizawa would be of only passing interest to international visitors. The town itself is quaint, with bakeries and small shops. It’s seems almost a requirement for the shop name to end with the mildly pretentious ‘kobo‘ – meaning workshop. The real appeal, however, is the abundant nature of the surrounding area
About 10 minutes drive along Shiraito Highlandway toll road (300yen toll) to the north of Karuizawa is Shiraito Falls. Shiraito literally means ‘white threads’. While not spectacularly high or voluminous, the falls are 70 metres wide. An interesting feature of the falls is that the water comes right out of the rock – there are no overground streams feeding the falls. The falls are a 5 minute walk from the road and admission (and parking) is free. If you don’t have a car, there is a bus that leaves from Karuizawa Station once or twice an hour. The cost of the bus is 710yen each way and the trip takes about 25 minutes. The bus stop is ‘Shiraito no Taki’ although it should be quite obvious.
Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza
If you ever feel like going somewhere that doesn’t really feel like Japan, then this is it. Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza is a giant (and growing) outlet mall built around an artificial lake directly to the south of Karuizawa Station. While it says “outlet”, the prices are generally pretty standard. However, if you go during sale season, then you might get some good deals.
If you’re going from Tokyo for a few days, an excellent option is the JR Tokyo Wide Pass. This provides unlimited rail travel in the Kanto area for three consecutive days for 10,000yen. Kids cost 5,000yen. The pass includes the Shinkansen, and is available to anyone with a non-Japanese passport – not just foreign tourists.
Bus is also a viable option for transport from Tokyo at least, as the journey only takes about 2 hours and 50 minutes. Seibu Kosoku Bus (link in Japanese) has 7 buses a day running from the east exit of Ikebukuro Station (on the northwest of the Yamanote Line) and Karuizawa Station. The cost is 2,600yen for a one way ticket and 4,600yen for a return.
The best way to get around once you’re there is to hire a car. Nikoniko Rentacar is an excellent option. It’s about a 10 minute walk through suburban streets to the north of Karuizawa Station. Rates are very reasonable (for two days with sat nav I paid 10,000yen for the car and about 1,200yen for fuel.) One thing to consider with driving is that Karuizawa is surrounded by toll roads. Sometimes it seems like it’s only 5 minutes between toll booths – so have a few thousand yen in cash just in case.
If you intend to look around the middle of Karuizawa first, you should delay picking up the car and grab a bicycle instead – parking costs about the same in Karuizawa as it does in Tokyo! On the main road to the north of the station there are numerous shops with rental bikes in front. The rates vary, but are generally around 1,000yen for a 1 day hire. For pottering around in the center of the village, bikes are an excellent option.
Where to Stay
Although nowhere near the center (it’s in Kitakaruizawa which is about a 20 minute drive to the north of Karuizawa) Blueberry Youth Guesthouse has reasonably priced rooms. They do have a “joining fee” of 3,500yen+tax, but single rooms are available from 4,500yen at off peak times. You should be aware that if you venture outside the township, you’ll have real trouble finding anywhere to get meals aside from the occasional convenience store or supermarket.
Another option is AirBnB with private rooms from around 3,300yen.