The first time I stepped foot into Karuizawa, I could find no words to describe this beautiful and unique spot. That was back in 2009, it was also my first trip to Tokyo and I had lined up some back to back meetings with production companies.
I had heard that Karuizawa is like the Hamptons of Japan where many people have a second home. Yet it is also a quaint little town, along the Romantic Road in Japan and also known to be a popular tourist spot in the summer.
I was fortunate enough to be invited to Karuizawa for a break that trip, and had no idea where in the world I was exactly but I fell in love with Karuizawa immediately. I look so happy in my photographs from Karuizawa 2009. I was there in late spring early summer and it was still pretty cold, also it was not crowded yet, tourist season had yet to invade the town.
I spent a lot of my time at ikes house, resting and regrouping. Sometimes the simplest things in life make the biggest impacts, for me, in Karuizawa, it was going back to the most basic need for life – breathing. Having a house surrounded by the larch trees is amazing. I am still very much impressed and in love with the scent of the air and the crisp, clean consumption of it. It makes breathing enjoyable, if that makes any sense. Then of course it there are the running streams and the onsen water that is piped to the house. Why would anyone leave?
But leave I did to see one of the 100 most famous mountains in Japan, Mount Asama.
Asama overlooks Karuizawa, so Ikes dad drove us. He has climbed Asama and Fuji.. and many mountains in Japan. The last eruption of Asama as of today (Oct 2012) was in February 2009. I was there June 2009, months after the eruption. I have heard that the crater pit is very active and spans 350m across and simply had to see it. I borrowed a sweater from ike’s dad and we were off.
Not really. I mean. I went to see it… but I didnt climb Mt Asama (2568 meters / 8425 ft above sea level) … Nope, I hiked up Ko-Asama-Yama (1655meters / 5428ft) instead. Ko Asama’s kanji characters literally mean ‘little Asama’…. it wasnt that little to me when I was climbing it!
Note the trail behind me… pretty dry, non slippery climb up. This was the first Japanese mountain I ever attempted to hike. Yes both ike and ikes dad were way ahead of me.
Presenting the beautiful view of Mt. Asama in the not too far away distance. The crater was still smoking quite a bit that day, showing clear signs of activity after the eruption 4 months ago. I have never been so close to the crater of a live volcano before and I was thrilled, even if the photo seems to suggest I was preoccupied with nursing whatever was going on with my foot.
Much happier walking down (although I will learn, in later posts, that climbing down steep mountains in Japan can be way more challenging than climbing up, but lets leave that to 2012 posts)
At the foot of the mountain coming down, I noticed a volcano observation station run by Tokyo University. When I went back to google Asama, I realized why it is an important geological site. It was and might still be on level 3 alert (meaning there is a danger zone within 4km of the crater) so if I hiked it anytime soon, I might not be able to see the crater anyway.
They told me if I passed the Ko-Asama test, that they will take me to hike Asama for the ‘real thing’ some day.
Going up, I really didnt care if I was going to pass this test… after I happily and breezily skipped down, I soon forgot about how I huffed and puffed my way up.
“When can we climb big Asama?”
I take the silence in the car and the smirks to be a sign that they were thinking about it 😀
If one is visiting with a car, one can drive from Karuizawa (which is in Nagano) to Gumna. Nagano and Gunma have some of the best onsen (hotspring) spots in Japan as well. There are a good number of great hotspring spots in Japan, but some are way more unique and spectacular for different reasons, than others. Gunma is one of the outstanding ones, and I will blog about the sites there later.
Driving through Karuizawa is quite enthralling for a girl who grew up in the city. The roads are narrower but people drive at safe paces while taking in the scent and sight of these wonderful trees along the road.
Back to my first visit to Karuizawa, Uncle K, a friend of Ikes, took us on a drive one morning to show his token visitor (me) around. He was really sweet though, and quite a character. He said he was going to take me to the Gumna/Nagano border. At that time, my geographical knowledge of Japan was still way way lacking, I had no idea where I was but I enjoyed the drive anyway. After spending more time in Japan, I wish I could have gone on that drive armed with the knowledge I have now.
I learnt that there is a lot Nagano has to offer, aside from Karuizawa. The 1998 winter olympics were held here and there are many ski resorts all around. Uncle K said I have to be back when it is winter. Someday!