The day felt like somewhere between late winter and early spring as we dashed to Tokyo station and jumped on an early Shinkansen train to the mountain resort town of Karuizawa hoping for some retail therapy and much needed relaxation in hotspring baths at Hoshino Onsen. It was the perfect time to visit without the crowds of spring, summer and autumn. We’d heard about the infamous two-hour taxi ride through unreasonable seasonal traffic from Karuizawa station to the outer reaches of town, but had been reassured that it doesn’t happen this time of year.
Stepping off the train onto Karuizawa’s elevated railway platform one can gaze in every direction and see and feel shopping in the air. I was quickly reminded of the Frank R. Stockton story, “The Lady, or the Tiger.” In the tale, an unusual king metes out justice by deciding guilt and innocence by chance. A man accused of a crime is brought in front of two doors. Behind one is a beautiful woman and behind the other is a fierce tiger. If the man chooses the door with the woman, he is innocent and must marry her. If he chooses the door with the tiger, his guilty fate is death.
Drifting out through the ticket wicket in Karuizawa one can choose to turn left or turn right. To the right is the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Mall. To the left is the Kyu Karuizawa Ginza shopping street.
In the original tale of the woman or the tiger the writer never explains which is the correct choice and what happens to the man. Faced with the uncertainty of success or failure, we decided to try both, hoping there were no ladies nor tigers – only the best of choices.
The Karuizawa Prince Shopping Mall is an extension of the Prince Hotel complex offering both on-site skiing – with a snow machine that ensures adequate snow cover early in the season — and golf, plus unlimited shopping opportunities in the 200-plus outlet stores spread over 26 hectares abutting the train station. The area is divided into several blocks of stores selling mainly discounted famous brand fashion and the Aji No Machi food court. It was the close proximity of the complex and promise of food that motivated us to try the mall first.
There are many Japanese choices at Aji No Machi with several Western-style options as well, but we decided to go for Chinese cuisine. Restaurant Yuejihua seemed populated with visiting Chinese families chowing down plates piled high in the middle of tables – always a good sign. We used the display outside to choose what appealed to us and were pleased to see our choices confirmed by the popularity of those dishes with diners inside. “Ma-po tofu” and a plate of “yaki soba” fried noodles were both ample and cooked exactly as we’d hoped – pungent, well-spiced and loaded with fresh tasting ingredients.
The shopping area beckoned, although we weren’t aiming to purchase much. Our modest ambitions turned out to be a good thing. There are many leading brands such as Gucci, Prada and Armani, and many staples such as Godiva, Puma and the wildly popular Japanese brand A Bathing Ape. Disappointingly most stores had last season’s merchandise at higher prices or just about the same as one would expect at the seasonal bargain sales at regular stores in Tokyo. We weren’t in the market for handbags, but certainly a Tory Burch clutch should be much less expensive at an outlet.
The only standout store here is Wine Shop Enoteca, where we found a few good bargains on popular wines and stocked up on cheese and crackers for a snack later at our hotel.
We decided to head toward the “Ginza of Karuizawa” in search of a bit more authenticity. The walk is a bit of a hike, but the air was crisp and the day sunny. On the way we stopped at the Karuizawa New Museum of Art, which had a show of stunning paintings by Haruman Shimizu.
No discounts here but it still took much will power not to purchase one of her works that were for sale. That said, the museum gift shop had small gems that were much more affordable, including prints of works by Takashi Murakami.
We headed to the Whitestone Gallery, which was unfortunately closed, so we vowed to continue our art quest the next day at the Hiroshi Senju Museum and instead, headed to Karuizawa’s Ginza street.
Our mission was to find shops offering authenticity amongst the generic stores purveying local honey and trinkets. Our first stop was at Couture Karuizawa to pore over the lovely offerings of handmade clothing and embroidered pillows, carry bags and other goods. We couldn’t resist snagging an embroidered apron to give as a gift.
Nearby was Oshiro Lace, chock full of gorgeous table runners, doilies, sachet bags and crocheted things that transported us back to another era.
With that theme in mind, we stopped at Karuizawa Shashinkan photography studio where visitors have an opportunity to dress up and be photographed in Meiji period Western costumes and be part of another era. The sepia-toned finished product makes it seem as if you’ve traveled to Karuizawa in a completely different era. While we didn’t have time to sit for a photograph, we loved seeing the fun photographs of previous visitors.
Perhaps we were completely exhausted from the hike to the Ginza street and staving off our spending impulses, but our visit to Mikado Coffee felt like the highlight of the trip. I’m a huge fan of Japanese iced coffee and think this was perhaps the best I’ve ever tasted. It is served in a tall glass with an iceberg of deep tasting coffee ice cream buried within it.
After a delightful evening at a local hotel, the next morning we headed to the Hiroshi Senju Museum on the outskirts of town. Senju’s work is famously part of the Naoshima art site and for me, always the highlight of a visit there. He lives in New York and shows regularly at a Chelsea gallery where he is always happy to chat about his work, which has made me an even bigger fan.
A visit to his Karuizawa Museum is a window into his past and an opportunity to view work that is not often seen. The museum has some of his best work, a significant mural of a cascading waterfall and some lesser seen early work. If you are a fan, it is certainly an important visit.
Senju’s most iconic works are inspired by waterfalls and it put us in the mood for our last stop, Tombo-no-yu hotspring baths at Hoshino Onsen, where we could not only enjoy the scenic rotenburo, or outdoor bath, but indulge in some last moments of retail therapy before leaving.
We were greeted at the bath with the proverbial sign warning us about tattoos and were surprised that they really mean it when one of our party was taken to task for failing to cover up her tattoo with the flesh-colored stickers they thoughtfully sell.
The cool wooden structure is stylish and welcoming, the lockers and changing room are efficient, the water soothing and the service understated. We must have hit it at the perfect time because the bath was almost empty and we could fully appreciate the early spring cherry blossom buds and scenic mountain views.
Lunch afterwards at the local branch of Kawakami-an, a well-known soba noodle restaurant in Karuizawa and Tokyo, was a series of refreshingly light dishes including a cooked myoga (Japanese ginger) with shaved bonito, wild mushrooms cooked in dashi broth, a generous tofu salad, and braised sardines, followed by perfectly cooked seiro cold soba.
Blinking our way out into the daylight after a leisurely meal, we took in Harunire Terrace, where stylish cafes and shops including small boutiques and creative gift stores beckoned. My friend immediately ducked into Gallery ju-Kan to examine the useful and well-designed pottery and home items. She happily purchased an ingenious metal coil for flower arranging. I tried to use my last bit of willpower to resist the beautiful lifestyle objects at NATUR, but succumbed to an Arabia Ceramics teacup imported from Finland before heading back to Karuizawa Station, having successfully chosen turning right and then left and thoroughly enjoying both.
KARUIZAWA PRINCE SHOPPING PLAZA
Nagano prefecture 389-0102
Karuizawa, Nagano Pref.
Oaza Karuizawa-machi 709
Karuizawa, Nagano Pref.
641 Karuizawa Old Road
Kitasaku-gun, Nagano Pref.
MIKADO COFFEE OLD KARUIZAWA STREET
Kitasaku-gun, Nagano 389-0102,
HIROSHI SENJU MUSEUM KARUIZAWA
Kitasaku-gun, Nagano. 389-0111, Japan
Tombo no yu – Onsen
Hoshino, Karuizawa-machi, Kitasaku-gun, Nagano, 389-0194
& HARUNIRE TERRACE H WING
Kitasaku-gun, Nagano Pref. 389-0111