John Lennon, Yoko Ono and their son Sean.
One of our main destinations in our trek outside of Tokyo was the upscale resort town of Karuizawa, but unfortunately it rained most of the time we were there, so I didn’t get as many photos as I would have liked. We could tell that it is a lovely place to hang out, though, so I’m pretty sure it’s another place we’ll return to in due time.
It was lovely enough for John Lennon and Yoko Ono to visit, several summers in the 1970s, which is another reason to go back. The French bakery that Lennon loved is still there today, across from the tourist information center on Kyu-Karuizawa. You can also still find Rizanbo Cafe in the Shiozawa neighborhood, a place where the young family would bike to for coffee. Karuizawa must have really been a home away from home for the couple, since our posh Prince Hotel piped in music from both their albums in the common area. (Did you know that Yoko Ono had her own music, ummm career?)
On the train ride over, and upon arrival, we noticed that many places in this area look a lot like European towns. I’m going to guess it’s influenced by the Austrian exchange officers at the turn of the 20th century, since Theodor Edler Von Lurch held the first ski lessons in Japan in 1911. I’m sure it gets to be super cold in the winter, since it’s only mid-November here and there’s already enough snow on the slope for a little skiing.
The hotels in the immediate area near the train station are all owned by the Prince Hotels, as is the gigantic lifestyle shopping mall. If you make a reservation, double check on exactly which Prince Hotel you are staying at. They are all upscale, so the champagne greeting is a nice touch. (Except that it’s Japanese sparkling wine.)
The view from our room in the morning.
The property is so huge, you have to take a special shuttle to the various amenities, like the onsen. And this onsen is pretty specific with their rules — they don’t use the word “yakuza,” but they have signage that says that members of gangster organizations and people with tattoos are prohibited. Also, no photography is allowed.
For those of you with families: Part of the reason the property is so large is the rental cabins found throughout the place. Think of a modern, classy “Dirty Dancing” style campground for the high season.
One of the main reasons to go to Karuizawa is skiing. But another big reason is the shopping. The Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza is a sprawling, single-level lifestyle mall, full of outlet stores, designer shops, regular stores, souvenir stores, and restaurants. I can’t find any documentation that can tell me exactly how large the shopping area is, but let’s just say you will need very good walking shoes. The place is HUGE. And beautiful. I’m a mall management junkie, so I would go back just to explore this for a few days and bring ideas home. I can’t believe there are only about 200 stores, but they are all quite large so maybe that’s why they take up so much real estate.
I could only fit one nice photo to show the mall — it’s so huge that it is difficult to take a good shot unless it’s an aerial. Did I mention that it’s huge?
There are fast food spots and a food court, so you won’t go hungry. We tried croissant taiyaki — Japanese waffle sandwiches, but made with croissants — which are, in my opinion, just a little better than the original not just for the buttery goodness, but the little crunch on the outside.
We didn’t really plan for dining here, just went with our gut. The mall had a row of restaurants, all nice looking, but we chose Meijitei, a casual spot known for its katsu. We hadn’t had gyu-tan (tongue) in a while, so we tried theirs. Delicous! This was the first time I’d ever had it with Kewpie mayo and a house blend of yuzu kosho, a spicy seasoning.
Deb had the house specialty, pork katsu don. It was very tender, not greasy, and nicely balanced. The place also bottles its own katsu sauce, which is at the table so you can add more to taste.
I had the basashi don, another house specialty. They serve it with green onions, thinly sliced raw garlic, a bit of grated ginger, and a drizzle of shoyu. Super good.
For more down-to-earth shopping, you can head straight out of the train station to Kyu-Karuizawa, and beyond to Karuizawa Ginza. There are many local shops and restaurants here, too many to show in one photo.
One shop sells local honey, with an extensive tasting bar so you can try before you buy. One of their specialties is a honey elixir with the actual bee floating in it. (No, I don’t think this will get past customs.)
And for you collectors: Remember the photos from Nakano Broadway in Tokyo? We found this little shop on the main drag on Kyu-Karuizawa. It’s very well curated, with some items way older than I am (that’s pretty old). I’m not a collector, but even I could tell that the prices here were exceptionally better than the prices in Tokyo. I wish I could show you a better photo, but the shop owner wouldn’t allow it.
If you have time for a little history, visit the Old Mikasa Hotel (you’ll need to catch a bus or taxi). It was designed and built by Japanese architects and craftsmen in Western style, and operated between 1906 and 1970 as a hub for the rich and famous. The hotel is now the property of Karuizawa and has been run as a tourist attraction since 1983, much like our Mission Houses Museum here in Honolulu.
You can’t tell from this blog post, but there was a lot of ground to cover in Karuizawa and if it weren’t raining, you’d see many more photos. I mean, you know it had to be a great place if John Lennon loved it. I’ll be back one day, and will have more photos for you. Until then, click here for more photos from this trip.
Up next: A quick blog on Takasaki, then a bigger blog about Hitachinaka and the Hitachino brewery!