Travel & Wellness

Karuizawa: Japan’s Ultra-Luxury Hideaway

Aymeric Mantoux

By Aymeric Mantoux12 septembre 2023

Boasting extraordinary luxury hotels, four golf courses, ski slopes, and internationally acclaimed museums designed by top Japanese starchitects, the discreet mountain retreat near Nagano, Te Karuizawa, is gaining popularity. Epitomizing the Japanese-style kaiken luxury, this highly sought-after destination is decidedly anti-bling.

The Hoshinoya Karuizawa resort is built like a village hidden from the world by forests and a river (Hoshinoya Karuizawa)

Just an hour away from Tokyo via the Shinkansen, Karuizawa resembles Japan's version of Megève. Nestled at an altitude of 1,000 meters, this forested, mid-mountain resort provides a perfect escape from the capital's stifling heat and dryness. Yoko, a Franco-Japanese who shuttles between Tokyo and Paris and works with top luxury houses, shares her insights: "It's a highly sought-after place. Many affluent Tokyoites own weekend homes or second residences here. Land prices have soared, making it increasingly difficult to build." The village center near the train station may not leave a significant impression on visitors. You'll spot plenty of Porsche Cayennes and trendy chocolatiers, indicative of the clientele, but the real charm lies beyond in the forested surroundings. Here, beneath magnificent moss-covered canopies, nestle private houses that are architectural marvels akin to the most exclusive hotels in the archipelago.

The streets and shops of Karuizawa village (Shutterstock)

Starting with Hoshinoya Karuizawa, the flagship jewel of an ultra-luxury hotel group boasting around sixty of the world's most exclusive establishments. It's where the founder of this family empire opened his first hotel over a century ago. The concept? Immerse guests in a different lyrical and poetic universe each time, inspired by the unique characteristics of each location, whether geographical, historical, or cultural. This approach crafts truly unparalleled experiences, highly coveted by a predominantly affluent and discerning Japanese clientele.

The Hoshinoya Karuizawa resort features streams cascading down a terraced hillside reminiscent of traditional Japanese houses (Hoshinoya Karuizawa)

Located just 20 minutes from downtown, Hoshinoya Karuizawa offers this within a dense mountain forest—a secluded realm, a verdant retreat in a renowned natural park where one can spot nearly 70 bird species, monkeys, flying squirrels, and even bears! The property is also renowned for its natural hot springs and two onsen (traditional Japanese baths) believed to have curative properties. Before indulging in one of the 77 ryokan-inspired rooms scattered throughout the estate, around a lake where ducks frolic, numerous hiking trails and activities await guests. Upon your return, you can luxuriate in your own cypress wood bathtub, arguably the most exquisite bathroom you'll ever encounter, with breathtaking views of treetops and the lush horizon.

The Hoshinoya estate is also renowned for its natural hot springs and two onsen (traditional Japanese baths), whose springs are said to have healing properties (Hoshinoya Karuizawa)

Like all Hoshinoya properties, Karuizawa's has its own ritual, designed to transport travelers to another space and time. Here, it entails walking to your room, donning traditional Japanese attire and wooden clogs, while listening to the gentle murmur of a nearby stream. This is not a caricature or parody; rather, it's a way to shed the burdens of the outside world and immerse oneself in the quintessence of Japanese spirit and aesthetics. While eco-lodges are trending worldwide, it's worth noting that here, the environmental approach has been integral to the project since its inception, rooted in the natural hot springs and the 1904 Hoshinoya Inn!

The surrounding parks are ideal for preserving endemic species of birds and mammals (Shutterstock)

The use of terraces, local volcanic stone, earth walls, and washi paper creates a unique atmosphere—a sense of comfort and relaxation that's challenging to artificially replicate. The bird sanctuary was established in 1974. Surrounding it are two national parks, Joshinetsu Kogen and Asama, which serve as wildlife protection reserves. Over 24 endemic bird and mammal species can be observed in their natural habitat here.

In terms of cuisine, Hoshinoya pioneered the "alpine kaiseki" genre—an inventive take on traditional gastronomy adapted to local resources such as freshwater fish, game, and seasonal vegetables. Each dish evokes a landscape, a scene from rural Japan, mirroring the architecture of the vast terrace dining hall that recalls the terraced rice fields of the archipelago. This spirit aligns with the founder's early endeavors in geothermal and hydroelectric power, inspired by the available resources in Karuizawa, initiatives evident in all the group's hotels.

Hotel Shishi Iwa House 2, nicknamed "Skywalker", is a 12-room hotel designed by star architect Shigeru Ban (2022)

Surrounding the property, some of the finest hotel brands have made their home in recent years, including no less than five 5-star hotels like the Prince Hotel and the Grand Karuizawa Hotel, and the latest addition, Shishi-Iwa House. This architectural marvel, designed by Shigeru Ban and Ryue Nishizawa of SANAA, the Pritzker Prize-winning firm known for works such as Dior stores in Tokyo, the Rolex Learning Center in Lausanne, and the Louvre-Lens Museum, houses the Shola restaurant serving contemporary Franco-Japanese cuisine crafted from seasonal ingredients sourced from local farms. Chef Masashi Okamoto's 9-course evening menu is accompanied by a superb selection of French and Japanese wines, including an exquisite Hokkaido Pinot Noir. During the day, guests lounge in their hotel's private hot springs or onsen, indulge in golf at one of the nearby courses (a favorite pastime of the Japanese), hit the slopes in winter, or diligently explore the myriad museums that dot this sprawling town, each a gem in its own right. We counted nearly twenty, including at least five of international renown.

Hiroshi Senju Museum was created by Ryue Nishizawa - SANAA ( Hiroshi Senju Museum)
One of the works in the Hiroshi Senju Museum (Hiroshi Senju Museum)

One notable surprise in this town of barely 20,000 inhabitants is a museum dedicated to the painter Léonard Foujita—the only one of its kind in the world, displaying 180 of the artist's works! Opened in 2022, it was funded by a couple of benefactors, the Andos. More remote is the Hiroshi Senju Museum, designed by Ryue Nishizawa (SANAA) at the request of a famous Japanese artist to showcase his works in a breathtaking setting of glass and concrete that harmonizes with the terrain, encapsulating trees and nature. "Senju asked me to create an open and bright space where people could view his works, relax, and spend time contemplating them, the architect explains. The museum gently follows the natural slope of the site, illuminated by deep eaves, silver screens, and UV-cut glass, while welcoming in the greenery. The open space was designed to unite the nature of Karuizawa and Senju's art. I wanted to make it as inviting as a private salon.”

The chapel was built by Kengo Kuma in glass, steel, and birch trunks (DR)

Other noteworthy museums include the Sezon Museum of Modern Art and the Museum of Contemporary Art, featuring top Japanese artists from Nara to Kusama, among international luminaries. The New Art Museum houses a monumental sculpture by Jean-Michel Othoniel and an artist's cross sheltered in a glass chapel designed by Tadao Ando (known for the Pinault Foundation in Paris and Venice). The venue hosts numerous upscale Japanese weddings, especially since Emperor and Princess Michiko met in Karuizawa in August 1957. The region's initial reputation can be attributed to the imperial family. Emperor Meiji embarked on a pilgrimage to the area in 1878. In 1923, the Emperor of Japan, drawn by Karuizawa's fame, chose it as his summer retreat, constructing imperial villas in 1933 where he played tennis. The imperial family lived there during World War II and has continued the tradition of summer visits.

The New Art Museum owns a monumental sculpture by Jean-Michel Othoniel (DR)

Other celebrities also contributed to the resort's reputation. Yoko Ono's parents owned a wooden chalet there, and John Lennon spent three summers from 1977 to 1979. More recently, Miyazaki and his renowned Studio Ghibli found inspiration in Karuizawa for their animated film "The Wind Rises" (2013). Numerous artists and authors have been captivated by this unique, unmistakably Japanese place unlike any other.

Karuizawa is a far cry from the usual playgrounds of the ultra-rich, particularly when one ventures deep into the forest descending from Mount Asama or strays from the main roads on foot or by bicycle to connect with the spirit of the place. It's by treading off the beaten path that you discover the soul of the country—by admiring the landscapes, the undergrowth, the gardens, the centuries-old trees. It's a place where the preservation of genuine experiences is paramount. Karuizawa is the epitome of the best Japan has to offer.

Hoshinoya Karuizawa, in the heart of a dense mountain forest, is a green retreat in the heart of a nature park where you can observe nearly 70 species of birds, monkeys, flying squirrels, and even bears (Hoshinoya Karuizawa)

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