The cooler temperatures and scenic beauty of Karazuiwa has attracted "anyone who's anyone" from Tokyo for years. Yoko Ono knew the town from her childhood and she and John spent what were to be the last four summers of John’s life in Karuizawa. They would stay in Room 128 of the historic Mampei Hotel, and the terrace cafe there still serves what they call “Royal Milk Tea” prepared the way John would ask for it, along with his favourite apple pie.
You can take a photo next to a photo of him in the Karuizawa French Bakery (see below) and will find numerous references to him elsewhere.
Surrounded by forest there are plenty of opportunities to walk the trails around Karuizawa. Local beauty spots include Kumobaike Pond and the horseshoe-shaped Shiraito Falls, which makes up for its lack of height with its beauty.
Or walk a section of the historic Nakasendo Trail to Usui Pass, imagining yourself back in the Edo era when this was a key route from Kyoto to Tokyo and merchants plied the route.
Having attracted artists for years, it’s no surprise that Karuizawa has several museums dedicated to contemporary art and sculpture. The Hiroshi Senju Museum is home to work by Hiroshi Senju in a beautiful building which some say is more interesting than the art.
The Sezon Museum of Modern Art dates back to 1914 and contains works by artists such as Man Ray and Jackson Pollock. Located just a few minutes from the station, the Karuizawa New Art Museum is recognised as a preeminent piece of contemporary architecture. Some of this is due to the Birch Moss Chapel designed by Kengo Kuma, the architect of the new Olympics Stadium in Tokyo.
And don’t miss the Uchimura Kanzo Memorial Stone Church, an extraordinary stone and glass church commemorating a groundbreaking Christian philosopher.
The forests here are home to Asiatic black bears, wild boar and numerous bird species. The Picchio Wildlife Research Centre offers a range of short tours to support conservation work and help educate visitors.
Depending on the season, you can take a wildlife night drive, daytime nature walk, go out at dusk in search of flying squirrels, search for Asiatic black bears, or even, on a few dates in the autumn, go in search of the serow, an endemic goat-like animal. Pre-booking essential.
Karuizawa is relatively spread out so, unless you are there in winter, do what John and Yoko did and use a cycle to explore the area. It’s a popular way to get around, the roads are relatively quiet and bike friendly, and many places, including shops, have dedicated bicycle parking.
Arriving by train, there are several rental shops near the station, and some of the hotels have bikes for guests.
The main street in Karuizawa’s old town was once a stop-off for merchants travelling the Nakasendo. Today it is an attractive street full of cafes, restaurants and trendy shops.
John and Yoko used to be fans of the Karuizawa French Bakery, a patisserie dating back to 1951, and photos of John adorn the walls.
The Usui Pass Observation Platform offers far reaching views of the Yatsugatake Mountains, Akaishi Mountains and Mt. Asama. Apparently, John Lennon liked to come up here to see the spectacular sunsets.
Just a few minutes’ walk away is the Kumanokotai Shinto shrine, uniquely straddling the border of two prefectures, Nagano and Gunma. Each side has its own priest and own buildings. A large and ancient tree here is known to be a ‘power spot’ and visited by people looking for help with love and fertility.
This eerie landscape of black lava has an otherworldly feel, very different to Karuizawa just a 40-minute drive away. Formed when Mount Asama erupted in 1783, killing over a thousand people, it has views to the still-active volcano. At its heart is a Buddhist shrine dedicated to Kannon, the Goddess of Murphy, which attracts a steady stream of visitors making offerings.
There is a famous photo in circulation of John, Yoko and their son, Sean, taken in the park, which you may get to see.
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