Reminders of Silence in Karuizawa

Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at PhotobucketA Weekend Escape

Last Saturday was Culture Day in Japan when schools all over Japan organize festivals. Since it was a rare day for me to take a day off, T’s parents took us to Karuizawa, a small resort town north of Tokyo. If you ask most Japanese about Karuizawa, the first thing they say is that many rich people have second homes there. Yoko Ono’s family, for example, had a home there, and she and John Lennon spent many summers in the village.

It’s a popular getaway for Tokyoites in the summer to escape the unbearable humidity of Tokyo. When we visited in the summer, the outlet mall was teeming with people. It looked like we never left Tokyo. But it was easy to get away from the mall and into the beautiful relaxing environs. Actually, the mall was great since it drew the crowds away from everywhere else and concentrated them in one place.

In the fall, however, it’s nearly completely empty of people. Even the mall was sparsely peopled. And the autumn colors were in full bloom. In contrast, Tokyo’s leaves haven’t even begun turning. Last year, in October, I vainly spent all my free time going to parks and forests to look for fall colors. I didn’t know that the leaves don’t change colors here until late November, and this year, maybe not until early December. But being further up north, Karuizawa’s hills were splashed with oranges and reds. It was perfect for a round of miniature golf, soaking in the outdoor hot springs, and relaxing in cafes.

We stayed at the Prince Hotel, which is an old school swanky hotel chain. The one in Karuizawa was built in a grand mountain lodge style. You can stay in a traditional hotel, but we opted for the cabins. They were awesome. At night, there was no noise at all. I’ve gotten so accustomed to the constant hum of Tokyo that I forgot what silence sounded like.Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

A Hippie Town?

Up in the mountains, it’s got a Boulder, Colorado feel to it, with a charming village-like downtown, and indeed many discreetly wealthy people dressed in expensive clothes designed to simulate a rugged outdoorsy or rural look. In fact, it reminded me of many of my favorite cities in the US, particularly Ashland, Oregon. I affectionately call these cities Hippie Towns. They’re small or medium size municipalities with a college or university, a vibrant alternative community, and they mostly are found along Interstate 5, the freeway that runs up and down the west coast of the US.

And some of them, like Ashland or Boulder, have become overrun with malls, golf courses, and mega vacation homes, built by people attracted to the charming bucolic community of artists and students, who are eventually priced out of living there. Ironically, this development erodes the very ambiance that they are attracted to. But that’s another blog entry altogether.

As far as I know though, Karuizawa doesn’t have a university. And it’s been developed as a tourist destination for quite a while. In fact, it hosted the equestrian events way back during the ’64 Summer Olympics, and curling during the ’98 Winter Olympics. I’m pretty sure it’s the only city in the world to have hosted both the Winter and Summer Olympics, as well as the two events that I really don’t consider sports. In one, the horse does all the work, and in the other, the people sweeping the ice sweat more than the curler.

Must Dos
So if you find yourself in Karuizawa I recommend you do four things:Photo Sharing and Video Hosting at Photobucket

  • Play miniature golf at the Prince Hotel. You’re surrounded by ponds, lush hills and hopefully sunny weather. What’s not to love.
  • Wander Ginza Street in the old downtown. It’s charming and lovely and there are many cafes. No need to be at the outlet mall.
  • Soak in the hot springs of the Prince Hotel’s spa. What can I say, the Prince owns this town.
  • Eat at the lunch buffet at Miscela D’Oro Trattoria. Okay, this restaurant is actually in the mall but trust me on this. There were so many original creations that we were all genuinely excited to try each one. The coffee is truly Italian, rich and earthy. And if you know me you know I’m a tiramisu freak. Theirs was so simply made, down to the very essentials of what tiramisu is, that it was a revelation.

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