Morning. I look out the window over the empty intersection. Credits to Villa Fountaine for the comfortable and wide bed. Points off for strangely having the kettle in a cabinet all the way by the door instead of below/next to the desk like most considerate hotels would. The room is big enough, why put it so far away?
Complimentary breakfast at 7am. I’m not sure why they choose to call it complimentary, other hotels are happy enough to just call it what it is, free breakfast or breakfast included. Calling it complementary to make it sound like a gift? Something extra? Perhaps it’s an escape clause in the event they can’t provide it that day?
One can tell what guests a hotel targeted by how early its breakfast is. 7am was for people who were in business but not in a hurry to get where they were going.
Thankfully today I was also not in a hurry to get where I was going.
Kumobaike, a famous pond in Karuizawa was closed because of trail maintenance in the off-season (the word is going to show up alot). Without it there wasn’t much point in trying to arrive earlier than 10am when the shops begin to open. From Tokyo to Karuizawa takes about an hour so I only needed to head out after 8am. That’s plenty of time for transfer at Tokyo station.
The breakfast at Villa Fountaine was barebone. My theory is they are not initially setup to provide breakfast and had to begin offering to compete. Most items were simple to prepare. Yoghurt, cereal, salad, bread, soup. The hot dishes were scrambled eggs, wieners and fried rice. All dishes that could be done without a proper kitchen. There was no Japanese dish such as fish or pickles. Coffee and hot water for tea was served in pre-prewed coffee pots.
They were laid out on fold out tables put out in one side of the lobby, a temporary set up that was cleared out once breakfast was finished.
The food was okay. Above Smile Hotel, below Comfort. About 4 out of 10. The lack of variety really hurt it even if the quality was not bad.
口味還好。比Smile Hotel好，比Comfort Hotel差。大概給40分。主要缺點是沒有什麼菜色，雖然品質上不插。
The nearest metro station Jimbocho was poorly positioned to access Tokyo station. I head to Suidobashi, transfer by walking across the platform at Ochanomizu. There was still half an hour till I needed to get on the shinkansen. I wandered about Tokyo station, checking out the layout and the position of the breakfast place I planned to go to on Y’s first day.
Finally with a cup of Doutor coffee （it’s tradition) in hand it’s time to hop on the train.
The train was relatively full. I had to go to the second carriage from the end to find an empty row. Had thought it would be really empty, Karuizawa was not served by the super express bound for Kanazawa, people would only get on this train if they were headed for the smaller stations. Either the smaller stations saw a ridiculous number of people or the slower train would still get to Nagano and Kanazawa earlier than the next express.
There was a huge elevation change from Takasaki to Karuizawa, it was part of the reason the E7 series was made to tackle the steep gradient. One could feel the angle of the train and the changing pressure as it sped through the mountain tunnel.
First thing noticed as the train pulled into the station, it had snowed overnight. Karuizawa was covered in a sheet of thin snow. The next thing, the station was really small and basic.
For being one of the premier holiday location for Tokyolites, I had expected something more fashionable and architecturally designed. The main waiting area wasn’t closed off from the platforms and was not heated. There was no convenience store, only a small bento stall. The small tourist centre, generously described for such a small room, where I got a map of the town also doubled as a souvenir store.
Outside the station a young couple from Taiwan excitedly posed against the snow.
A big reason Japan is pushing heavily for foreign tourists is to balance out the huge differences between peak and off-peak seasons. Winter hits the tourism industry especially heavily in Japan and tourist numbers drop off a cliff. Foreign tourists are less affected by winter. People from warmer parts of asia are thrilled by the prospect of snow, some come to get a taste of skiing. Christmas and New Year is holiday season for westerners and Chinese New Year brings another tide of tourists.
The station is 1.5km from Old Karuizawa or Karuizawa Ginza where the main street is.
Most bloggers recommends renting a bike which I question the wisdom of during winter. For one it isn’t very far and the terrain flat. Secondly one have to find parking. Thirdly biking over snow or iced over grounds is an accident in waiting.
During my walk several bikes wobbled by. One ridden by a middled aged woman from Taiwan almost skidded off the sidewalk coming to a stop at an intersection.
The street was quote deserted. Outside of the few biking past there weren’t anyone else on the road. The buildings on either side were loosely positioned, most weren’t open due to the off-season. There was an art museum, a few fancy hotels and resort clubhouses.
An antique store’s shop sign caught my attention. Kino, it was called, written in yarn like font. It was a little shop with personality, the items were tightly arranged without feeling cluttered. I was most impressed by an old fashioned typewriter like calculator/register, and letters made from rusted together nails and wires.
Continuing on, I reached the intersection where the main shopping street begins. Much livelier.
The shops of Karuizawa was different from other tourist areas in that in had a good few fashion clothing stores, probably why the name Ginza. The clothing stores were advertising closing down sales if not closed already. Then there were antiques, wedding planners, crafts and the sweets shop.
Most numerous were the jam shops. Karuizawa is famous for its jams and spreads. This odd local specialty is deeply linked to the town’s history.
Karuizawa had been a small village on the Nakasendo, then in 1886 a missionary Alexander Shaw happened by and noting its cool climate and beauty, decided to build a summer villa here. Other westerners soon followed suit and Karuizawa grew to be vacation resort for foreigners and contributed to many Karuizawa’s western architectures. Locals learned from the westerners and began making jams and spreads for the the westerners and other Japanese who had adopted a western lifestyle.
These days there are many jam shops along the shopping strip selling jams and spreads of all kind made from local ingredients. Fruit jams, red bean spreads, honey spreads, garlic, herbs, savoury spreads.
I had actually forgotten about the jams till I wandered into the Church Street shopping arcade and was invited into the Fine jam shop by the staff working there. Every single flavour of their jam and spread was available for taste test. Open jars were laid out with trays of small biscuits. One after the other, scoop up a small spoon of jam and spread onto the biscuit, enjoy.
The other jam shops weren’t as generous, some only had a few flavours out for taste test, some didn’t even have any. It could be they were reluctant to open jars in the off-season for fear of the jams having to be thrown away, or business wasn’t good enough to afford it. Without the taste test people were going to be reluctant buying though, especially some of the more exotic flavors. Fine Karuizawa had an anchovy flavoured spread which I would not have bought were I not able to try it first.
The streets while not packed was by no means empty. Bus loads of tourists were dropped off at the carpark behind the shopping plaza and what shops that opened were filled with activities.
I’m not sure why more than 1/4 of the shops were already closed and another 1/4 had signs up saying this was their last week and they would soon close up until February. If one come in December or January, as I had considered originally, half the shops will no doubt be shut and the town lifeless.
There looks to be enough tourists around, is it really necessary to close up? With this many shops closed there is going to be a vicious cycle where people avoid Karuizawa during winter times thus even more shops close up. Rent still had to be paid right? I have a hard time imagining wages being so high and business so bad that it is better to close up entirely. Somewhere like Like Towada is understandable, the place has its road snowed 2 metres deep in winter, but Karuizawa has the shinkansen and is not far from the expressway, those will be open even in the coldest winters, and Karuizawa has many nearby skii fields and a shopping outlet that ensured a minimum amount of traffic.
Karuizawa is nice town, very well kept and interesting. I can imagine it being very nice to visit in spring or autumn when all the shops are open and the streets more lively.
The tourist centre at the shopping street had a section exhibiting the history of the old railway. Karuizawa and Takasaki used to be connected before the shinkansen was built and the line made defunct. The Usuitouge pass was so steep special rack rail locomotives had to be connected for trains to navigate the pass.
There also used to be a small railway from Karuizawa to Kusatsu, must have taken incredible effort to build a railway through such mountainous terrain. The old station of the Kusatsu-Karuizawa railway can still be found at the intersection at the entrance to the ginza strip. It’s a large souvenir shop nowadays.
It’s approaching noon and I head back to the station and the outlet right on the south side of it. I’m here not for the shopping but for its food court.
The outlet also has a skii field attached to it. The slopes didn’t look very big nor very steep but more than enough for first timers and beginners, with unmatched convenience. One can do some skiing, food and shopping all in one day, as a day trip from Tokyo no less.
I grabbed a chicken stock ramen from Ramen Nishiki, it was one of the higher rated places to eat at the foodcourt. The taste was good but nothing of particular note, other than being chicken instead of pork stock.
The foodcourt also provided disposable teatowels and drinking water. I suppose this is a standard feature of foodcourts in Japan.
After lunch I walked around the outlet. The place is big, broken up into 5 or 6 sections, each having a score of stores. Except a section focused on souvenirs the stores appeared to be grouped in no particular category or commonality.
The place is meant for someone who can recognize more brands than just Gucci and La Creuset.
As it was, after a quick walkthrough I headed for the Hoshino resort area. The Shinano railway was co-located next to the shinkansen in the same station. One stop away was Naka-Karuizawa station where a shuttle bus service to Hoshino was available.
The Hoshino resort area was…. peculiar. I still have not figured how it intends its guests to use its facilities. It’s a loose collection of close but not too closely located facilities. An onsen, a wilderness tour office whose outside pond doubles as a skating ring in winter, an upmarket eatery/restaurant, a shopping village selling very expensive bread, sweets and afternoon teas, massage service and handicrafts. A hotel (that’s too far away from aforementioned facilities) with two churches on its grounds, a villa village that’s still some hundred metres to the onsen and restaurants. If the facilities are meant to provide service to the guests, then the guests must walk there themselves, navigate the lack of signage and paths connecting the areas.
The main attraction here is the two churches. The stone church is particularly well known for its design of stone arches whose exterior blended into the landscape and awe inspiring on the inside with its spiral lines and filtered lights. Alas, the place was hosting a wedding and was off-limits to visitors.
The area is actually quite small and I had seen everything by 3:30pm. Should I leave early? Or should I stay to see the christmas decorations.
Well, I had come this far already…might as well stay a while longer to see everything, I decided.
The sun was falling beneath the treetops, the temperature plunged. I had to take shelter in the cafe at Harunire Terrace shopping village. My glasses fogged up and it was a while before I could follow the server to a seat. The cafe was most definitely upmarket, there were over two pages of different blends of coffee. I picked the basic seasonal special blend and it came in a french press. The cafe had books on its shelves for guests to read, none interested me however and I just read stuff on my phone to kill time till 5pm.
I was starting to understand how the resort was meant to work. It was truly aimed as a resort for relaxation. There seemed to be little to do because the guests wasn’t meant to be kept busy. Grab a coffee, sit down and read a book, gaze out at the forest and creek, chill out for the afternoon.
The lights came on. I lingered for a while longer still, seduced by the cafe’s warmth. Finally I gathered my weary focus and said farewell to the empty coffee cup.
The light was much less impressive than their promotional photos. The area was very poorly lit and the christmas lights lacked vibrancy to overcome the cold. People moved about quickly, in no mood to look at the decorations. And neither was I.
I took my photos of the Terrace and the tree outside the onsen. A group of Taiwanese passed by, talking of going to the onsen before finishing the day’s trip.
My mind was frozen by this point and could barely think. The first shuttle that went all the way back to Karuizawa station was still not due for another 40 minutes. I could either try to hang around for that long or I could take the next shuttle to Naka-Karuizawa and go from there.
I decided there was no point staying and took the shuttle to Naka-Karuizawa, then back to Karuizawa via the Shinano railway.
At Naka-Karuizawa there was a 10minutes transfer time and I huddled inside the small waiting room with a handful of other tourists, similarly waiting to go back to Karuizawa. We waited until the train approaching announcement came on before going through the gate, none brave enough to spend any more seconds than had to in the freezing wind on the platform.
There was just enough time for me to grab a rice ball from the 7-11 at the outlet before the next train back to Tokyo.
Between the station and the outlet there were again several groups of Taiwanese. Karuizawa might be unusually popular amongst Taiwanese, similar to Takayama which if I recall sees twice as many foreign tourists from Taiwanese than the next highest country (either HK or China).
By the time I’m walking down the street of Suidobashi it was past 8pm. I’ve only had that riceball I ate on the train as a stop-gap and I looked for a place to have dinner.
Two buildings before Villa Fountaine was a soba/udon shop, they promoted that they made their own noodles and looked decent enough. I was far too tired to go look elsewhere and just stepped inside.
I punched for the oyakodon set at the meal ticket machine and gave it to the cook at the counter. He asked something and I paused for a second. No, it wasn’t parsing to any question I was expecting, I could not break out the key nouns or verbs. I asked him to please repeat the question again.
The man gave a nod as if he suddenly understood something. He fished out a printed sheet from the cupboard. It was a common English question and answer sheet. He pointed to the one that asked if I wanted it hot or cold.
Doh, of course!
Hot, I replied. I’d be crazy to ask for it cold after almost getting frozen up in the highlands.
Being next Villa Fountaine must meant they got a lot of foreign customers, thus the english sheet.
The meal portion was very generous for less than 600Y, and it was quite delicious. A good hearty meal.
After a long and exhausting day there was still tasks ahead. It was time to wash my clothes. I planned to sleep early tomorrow so despite having clothing for another day I wanted to get some of the washing done.
What I initially felt about Villa Fountaine manifested when I went to use the coin laundry.
The machine was old and more expensive than other places and required an extra 50Y for detergents, something which I had never had to pay for. The Matsue City Hotel had a sign saying one needed to pay but the front desk just gave them to me free, every other hotel had the machine add them automatically.
Annoyed, but what had to be done had to be done.
I threw the more needed change of clothes into the laundry and settled into the eating area of the lobby to research what to do the next day.