A Romantic, Long-Lived Summertime Retreat
Karuizawa has long been a resort town and seasonal getaway for Japan's more eminent members of society, and a stroll through some of the wooded back streets of the town will still take you past dozens of summer homes, built on spacious, shady lots. Japan's Emperor Emeritus Akihito even met his wife, Empress Emerita Michiko, on a sunny Karuizawa tennis court in the 1950s, and John Lennon frequently visited Karuizawa in the '70s. Sat at a fairly high elevation in Nagano Prefecture, the area actually has a lower average annual temperature than Hokkaido's Sapporo, and the cool, foggy weather and storied history have given Karuizawa a unique romance, and an international appeal. Looking to experience a little bit of everything Karuizawa has to offer, we put together this little 2-day tour!
Even the buildings in Karuizawa look a little different from what you'd normally find in Japan, with a bit of European flair.
It's a place with distinct seasons. Red leaves reign over the town each fall, while summer brings verdant green to Karuizawa, and winter means snow!
While Karuizawa is a town of summer houses, each of the seasons brings new charms, and the refreshingly cool months of autumn and winter have their own distinct beauty. That's why we were excited to see the leaves changing color all over Karuizawa during our tour! And of course, as the home of the KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA, we had to set aside plenty of time for shopping as well.
Check out our video for a quick preview of the trip! ⇩
Day 1: Cycling Through the City, Then Shopping Till We Dropped!
- On the way to Kumoba Pond, we happened upon this road lined with ginkgo trees, all a golden yellow thanks to the fall weather!
Kumoba Pond (雲場池/Kumobaike)
As soon as we got to Karuizawa, we dropped off our luggage and grabbed some rental bikes, so we could make the most out of the compact city and the sunny, breezy day. Our first destination was the nearby Kumoba Pond, called Kumobaike in Japanese but sometimes nicknamed "Swan Lake" in English, a not-to-be-missed koyo (紅葉, fall foliage)
spot in Karuizawa. Local legend has it that the pond was formed after rainwater flooded the footprint of a giant passing through from nearby Mount Asama. In reality, Kumoba Pond is actually a man-made body of water! But that doesn't diminish its beauty in the least. Follow the path around the pond for a leisurely 20-minute walk that lets you admire the reflective water, which mirrors the green foliage in the warmer months, and bursts into fiery orange and red when the surrounding trees change colors each fall.
Kumoba Pond (雲場池)
Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano
(Beware of the google maps directions - the proper entrance to the pond area is from the south, not the west!)
- Autumn is definitely the most colorful time of year to see the lake, and we think most beautiful as well.
- Unsurprisingly, it's also pretty crowded with visitors of all kinds! Locals bring their dogs to enjoy the fresh air together, international travelers come from all over the world, and some couples even visit Kumoba Pond for engagement pictures!
Old Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢銀座通り)
Long before Karuizawa became the holiday resort town it is now, it was a stop on the Edo era Nakasendo Road, an old route that the samurai and everyday folk used to travel throughout the country and between Japan's major cities, hundreds of years ago. The remnants of that time, when Karuizawa was an inn-town and something of an old fashioned rest stop, can still be found along the Old Karuizawa Ginza Street. What was once a small portion of a major travel road is now a pleasantly quaint stretch of small restaurants, cafes, and shops selling local culinary or craft specialties. Try some high-end curry and fancy flan-like Japanese pudding before choosing a jar of the area's famous jam to take home with you.
Old Karuizawa Ginza Street (旧軽井沢銀座通り)
10-2 Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano
KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA (軽井沢・プリンスショッピングプラザ)
This outlet mall is famous around Japan, but for the people of Tokyo, KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA is a no brainer, since it's just a convenient bullet train trip out of the city. Get on the Hokuriku Shinkansen at either Tokyo or Ueno Station, enjoy the fun of a short bullet train excursion, and you'll find yourself at Karuizawa Station in just an hour! Walk out of the station's south exit, and the shopping plaza is literally right in front of your eyes. We decided to take our time and see lots of Karuizawa this time around, but day trips from Tokyo just to go shopping and spend a little time enjoying Karuizawa's resort-town atmosphere are quite common and very easy.
Foreign travelers can even take advantage of train passes to make the trip extra-reasonable. If you've already got a JR Pass, the shinkansen fee is included! For travelers who aren't planning on getting one of the country-wide train passes, there's also the convenient JR Tokyo Wide Pass
. This Tokyo pass gets you three days of unlimited travel on any JR train in the Tokyo area, including shinkansen, limited express trains, and even the pricey trains to and from Tokyo's Narita and Haneda airports. (It pays for itself with just one trip to Karuizawa, making everything else a great deal.)
JR Tokyo Wide Pass
Price: Adults 10,180 yen / Children (up to 11) 5,090 yen
(Available for foreign visitors only; foreign passports must be presented at purchase.)
Official Website (en)
- Seen from the air, the KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA is the M-shaped building nestled amongst the trees, just past the train tracks.
KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA
Karuizawa, Nagano | Official Website (en)
The KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA is a pretty spacious compound, split easily into east and west areas, with a large parking lot right in the center. (If you're renting a car, driving there instead of taking the train is also quite easy!) If you take a look at the map, though, you'll see it's actually divided into 10 different sections! They've got detailed paper maps in English at the plaza itself, but we wanted to do a little advance planning, so we took advantage of the English floor map on the official website
. This is a quick and simple summary of what they've got.
From Karuizawa Station's south exit, turn left for these areas:
EAST (E): Sports & Outdoor
NEW EAST (NE): Stylish & Select Shops
GARDEN MALL (GM): Luxury & Select Shops
From Karuizawa Station's south exit, turn right for these areas:
WEST (W): Kids & Miscellaneous
NEW WEST (NW): Traditional & Urban Fashion
TREE MALL (TM): Luxury & Select Shops
CENTER MALL (CM): Everyday & Beauty
SOUVENIR COURT (SC): Souvenirs
FOOD COURT (FC): 600-Seat Dining & Rest Area
AJINOMACHI (AJ): Food Street
We spent hours combing the mall and doing all kinds of shopping, and had a great time getting to explore so many different shops selling goods of all kinds. With so many choices, every visitor to KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA probably has different favorites, but if you're not sure where to start, read on for a few of our recommendations!
Time to get shopping!
KUZE FUKU UMAMI DINING
Location: NEW WEST | Official Website
Kuze Fuku's mission is to bring together delicious things from all over Japan, and a look at the menu shows their commitment, with items featuring famous ingredients nationwide. For a taste of local flavor, they've got plenty of foods made with local Nagano produce, but it's also a fun opportunity to sample ingredients from a place in Japan you've never been yet! With such a focus on the ingredients, of course many of their menu items change with the seasons.
- When it's nice and sunny, you can spread out onto the restaurant's terrace seats.
- The warm flavors of our seasonal hamburger steak and grilled fish plates were perfect for the cool fall weather!
- The meals also come with access to a buffet of salad and side dishes, so nobody will leave hungry. If you're like us and you still can't get enough of the flavors in each meal, you're in luck. Right inside the restaurant is a Kuze Fuku store that sells gourmet items, many of which are original products used right in the restaurant's dishes, and others made by small-scale manufacturers around Japan. Bring home some of their local Nagano miso, Shizuoka dashi broth, or little snacks from around the country. (They also recommend their gourmet soy sauce, which has a nice savory aroma.)
Shopping Recommendation 1
Location: NEW EAST | Official Website
The right hat can add just the right touch of style to an outfit, and sometimes even make or break the day's look. Walking into hat store CA4LA, there's no doubting that they get it. For more than 20 years the brand has been producing their own made-in-Japan hats, with the goal of bringing the best possible hat to customers in Japan and around the world.
- Their shop is full of hats of all shapes and sizes for people of all kinds, and they offer everything from kawaii-cute hats decorated with flowers and lace, to simple brimless caps, which have recently been a big trend in Japan. CA4LA also has a few lines featuring artists of all kinds - when we visited we saw hats with art from Andy Warhol and Keith Harring, and an intriguing zippered hat made in collaboration with Japanese idol group BiSH. Even with the huge variety of products offered, they all have consistent style and quality, which is probably why a few CA4LA hats have been spotted on the heads of models and internet celebrities in recent years.
- We spent a while trying on what felt like hundreds of different hats and seeing what they looked like with all the shop's cute hat accessories, like hatpins and chains to keep them from flying off. We found maybe a few too many favorites. Walking out of the store, our pockets felt a little empty, but our hearts were full of excitement for the days of style we had ahead of us.
Shopping Recommendation 2
: THE NORTH FACE/HELLY HANSEN
Location: EAST | THE NORTH FACE
, HELLY HANSEN
Whether you're a big fan of the great outdoors or not, chances are you've heard of THE NORTH FACE at some point in your time on this earth. Climbing a mountain or just heading to the grocery store, their jackets have long been a staple of cold-weather wear, and we couldn't help but start a shopping list for our next trip to the summit of Mount Fuji. While we were there, though, also noticed the HELLY HANSEN products being sold right in the same shop. The Norwegian brand might be a little lesser-known internationally, but it's a good choice for anyone who spends time in inclement weather.
- The backpacks made by THE NORTH FACE are a huge hit in Japan, where you see the smaller styles on the backs of students and commuters daily. Their more spacious backpacks, however, are good for both the kind of backpacker that goes camping in the woods, and the kind that travels through rural towns and cities alike!
- Did you know that THE NORTH FACE makes a pretty wide selection of sports and exercise-wear these days, as well? Morning joggers might want to take a look!
Shopping Recommendation 3
: KARUIZAWA Farmers’ Gift
Location: NEW WEST | Official Website
The name of this shop gives you a pretty good idea of what you'll find inside. The products at Farmers' Gift are a selection of gourmet items made with fresh ingredients from Karuizawa, and Nagano Prefecture in general. Karuizawa jam is a popular souvenir, so of course they've got dozens of jars filled with fruity sweet jams made with different ingredients, and even a wide variety of more savory spreads and toppings. Nagano is famous for delicious apples, so the apple jam is an obvious choice to bring back with you as souvenirs, while the Karuizawa Zeppin Apple Pies (sold whole in boxes) are a pretty luxurious way to sample the local produce.
- You're likely to see the term Shinshu (信州) thrown around a lot while looking through products around Nagano, and that's because it's the old-fashioned name of the region. If you see Shinshu meat or Shinshu vegetables, it means they're local ingredients from the Nagano area. Now if only that could help us choose what to buy at Farmers' Gift. Too many good things to choose from!
- For a savory treat to try while you're staying in Japan, they have a few different fresh and pickled preparations of Nagano's famous nozawana greens (野沢菜). On the other hand, friends back home might enjoy one of the jarred sauces, or for a smaller gift to hand out to a crowd, their bags of soup mix packets are a big hit. They're all good, but a mug of the Shinshu shitake mushroom soup is delicious and perfect for warming chilly hands.
Shopping Recommendation 4
: LEGO® STORE
Location: NEW EAST | Official Website
LEGO® might be a fond childhood memory for many, but the fun building blocks are thriving, with an audience that still ranges from ages 4 to 99. A visit to the LEGO® STORE doesn't only afford you the chance to buy some simple, colorful bricks any more - in Karuizawa we were greeted by a LEGO® sculpture with changing facial expressions; there were products featuring media symbols and characters from genres of all kinds; and the wall of the store featured a custom, localized LEGO® mural!
- The custom Karuizawa LEGO® mural featured a family relaxing and taking pictures in front of the lovely mountainous landscape.
- And perhaps the most impressive tech in the store? For a certain number of products , when we showed them to the designated screen, an AR animation started showing us the possibilities of the box's contents.
Shopping Recommendation 5
: LE CREUSET
Location: NEW WEST | Official Website
This French cookware maker is famous worldwide for extremely high-quality enamel cast-iron pots, and colorful ceramic tableware. Getting to see displays of all the colorful products lined up together was lots of fun, and all too tempting.
- With all the products being sold at an outlet mall, everything's a pretty great deal, and they offer a few products made in limited-edition Japanese colors. You might just end up having to make room in your suitcase for some sturdy iron cookware. Might we suggest one of the shallow Japanese pots made for local hotpot dishes?
- The excellent heat retention of the pots means that even simple dishes like Japanese white rice turn out especially delicious!
Dinner: The FOOD COURT
We wanted some more varied options for dinner, so the shopping plaza's FOOD COURT was just the place. Spacious seating made it a comfortable place to sit down for a meal, and even if you're in a big group with some pretty differing palates, there's something for everyone. Udon and ramen sat side by side with Chinese food, hamburgers, and grilled steaks.
- We'd spent a long afternoon exploring every part of KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA.
- (It was nice to sit down in the bright, clean food court at the end of the day!)
Full, happy, and very tired from our long day, we headed back to rest at the hotel (and snack on a few things we'd grabbed at KARUIZAWA Farmers' Gift before we went to sleep)! When we mentioned that the Karuizawa weather was foggy, earlier, it wasn't a lie. Waking up the next morning, the thick fog went on far in every direction, and it didn't dissipate until the sun had been out for a few hours.
While KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA was right next to the station, we decided to follow the fog and visit some of the farther attractions of Karuizawa the second day, so we rented a car just to make that a breeze.
Day 2: A Mini-Road Trip Through the Autumnal Mountains
- The fall foliage was a glorious gradient of green, yellow, orange, and deep red when we drove through the mountains of Karuizawa.
Shiraito Falls (白糸の滝)
Many waterfalls are famous for intense crashing waters and the booming sounds emanating from the rocks below. Shiraito Falls is not one of those waterfalls! Just 3 meters (10 ft) high, the water falling down the extremely broad 70 meter-wide (230 ft) rock face comes from rainfall along the mountainside of Mount Asama. It's a surprisingly consistent water source, but it actually takes the water about 6 years to get from the top of the mountain all the way to Shiraito Falls!
Shiraito Falls (白糸の滝)
Kose, Nagakura, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano
- Once it arrives at the waterfall, the volcanically-warmed water flows in delicate silky rivulets like lace curtains, giving the falls their name, Shiraito (白糸, literally "white thread").
- We sat down on a nearby log bench, only to find we had some cute carved companions!
We've already mentioned that Nagano produces some famous apples and nozawana greens, but when it comes to cuisine, Nagano soba is a must! So we headed to eat some for lunch. This tea house and soba spot
actually sits directly over the border between Nagano and Gunma prefectures, but their soba has all the Nagano goodness you might want. They make a few different soba dishes, including soba served with grated yam (which makes for a satisfyingly slippery bite), and soba with chestnut dipping sauce (a sugary sweet and salty concoction that compliments the simple buckwheat noodles with aplomb)!
2 Togemachi, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano
Hours: Weekdays 10:00 - 16:00 / Weekends & Holidays 10:00 - 16:30
- The star of the show might be their soba with wild mountain greens and "chikara mochi." The greens add a satisfying bitter crunch, but the mochi is a particularly unique specialty! The soft chikara mochi rice cakes seem to melt right into the broth, while still maintaining a nice chewy bite. If you'd rather not eat them in your soba, you can also order them on their own with a few different toppings.
- Since Shigenoya is right on the border, we decided to split up - we were eating lunch in Nagano Prefecture and Gunma Prefecture, but still eating lunch together! You can see the border marked in red on the terrace.
Karuizawa Taliesin (軽井沢タリアセン)
Karuizawa has seen a little bit of extra interest from the younger Japanese crowd lately thanks to the j-drama Quartet, about four musicians who gather in the resort town to live together during the winter. The many Karuizawa spots featured in the show have become even bigger attractions for travelers, who enjoy the fun of the fandom at the same time as the beauty of Karuizawa, and Taliesin is just one of the places that have made their way into the show. Named after Frank Lloyd Wright's studio Taliesin (which was in turn named after a character in Welsh legend), Karuizawa Taliesin is a vast park area built around Shiozawa Lake with lovely bits of Western-style architecture and a number of museums and recreational facilities.
Karuizawa Taliesin (軽井沢タリアセン)
Shiozawa 217 Nagakura, Karuizawa, Kitasaku District, Nagano
Hours: 9:00 - 17:00 (Outside of the summer months, please check opening hours ahead of time.)
/ English Pamphlet
- If you're a fan of Quartet too, you'll recognize this iconic photo spot!
- Even aside from famous Quartet scenes and the many facilities, the park is full of scenic views.
Leaving Karuizawa with Great Memories, and Plans for Next Time!
While so many people make Karuizawa just a day trip, after seeing the picturesque landscapes of the town, and the all-too-lovely KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA, we can't help but think that even our overnight trip was far too short! As a resort town, Karuizawa seems like just the place to kick back and relax, so we're already thinking about when we can get back there soon. With all four of Japan's seasons so exquisitely represented, we know that whenever we visit next, our trip will show us a snapshot of gorgeous Karuizawa!
We might just have to get back to KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA asap for their Chinese New Year event and spring sale! Not only are there bound to be some great deals, but we really can't resist the adorable novelty zodiac dolls they're giving away.
・Jan. 17 ~ Feb. 2, 2020)
- (In the winter, even KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA starts to glitter, with lovely holiday lights!)
- (And we're already planning for next time!)