If any one nation excels at skilfully enhancing an area of natural beauty to make it even more beautiful, it must surely be Japan?
Certainly, we couldn’t have asked for a more beautiful setting than HOSHINOYA Karuizawa, located in an area known colloquially as the Japanese Alps.
Karuizawa is not only one of the flagships of the Hoshino Resorts portfolio, it is also where the family business started over 100 years ago. As I mentioned in my post about an incredible dinner we enjoyed at Hoshinoya Kyoto, this family hospitality business was founded over a 100 years ago. After first setting up a forestry business in the area, Kuniji Hoshino decided to take advantage of the area’s increased popularity as a holiday resort by opening a ryokan and hot spring on his property in 1914. Today, fourth-generation family member Yoshiharu Hoshino is CEO of the company and has lead the business through two decades of transformation and expansion, modernising existing properties and purchasing several new ones.
Karuizawa has been hugely updated since Kuniji’s era. In 2005 the resort was completely rebuilt with all-new accommodation, absolutely stunning landscaping and a new meditation bath and spa building to match.
The residential area of the resort is laid out in a series of low rise buildings arranged around a lake and streams fed by the Yukawa River. The water twists and turns its way through the resort grounds – in slow languid loops paddled by contented ducks, racing over weirs in a bubbling rush, or tumbling delicately over a series of mini terraces in graceful waterfalls.
A few of the residences, like our Mizunami villa, house just one large guest suite but most rooms are grouped together in larger villas – these rooms can be booked individually or by groups of families, friends or colleagues. Many of the rooms have a view of the lake or streams. Some, slightly higher up the hillside enjoy views towards the mountains and a few have garden spaces that back onto the bird-rich forest below.
Our room (below) was airy and open with high ceilings, pretty pale green walls, and muted fabrics. Utterly gorgeous! The natural wood and stones are a nod to the more traditional Japanese inns but the design is very much a modern aesthetic. We loved the sense of space and calm, not to mention luxurious comfort – underfloor heating in the bathroom!
Every evening, shortly before dusk falls, two staff take a row boat out onto the lake and light, one by one, the tethered candles floating on the surface.
We watched them from our balcony, whilst enjoying hot tea and a delicious local delicacy – walnut-flavoured gyuhu mochi, a softer style of mochi sweets made by a local wagashi specialist to a traditional local recipe – served to us in our room shortly after we arrived by Mei, one of the Hoshino guest services team.
Looking out onto the lake as darkness fell and the candles twinkled and bobbed on the waters is one of the most peaceful and magical of memories.
But sitting looking out at the view was not our only way to relax.
Within the resort area is a modern spa building which is open all night, closed for just a few hours in the middle of the day. At its heart are the gender-separated Meditation Baths. Each features a deeper-than-usual hot bath that opens out from a waterfall entrance area into Hikari – a bright high-ceilinged space where you can soak within the warm water and light. Hikari is connected by a passage way to Yami – a dark, low ceilinged bathing area, recommended for quiet meditation.
What we really appreciated was being able to use these whenever we wanted – early morning, afternoon, before dinner, after dinner… Dressed in our in-room yukata (robes) and outer jackets, with clog-like geta on our feet, we clip-clopped along paths lit with nightlights and across the modern suspension bridge to arrive at the spa building.
There are also a range of treatments available, from traditional health and beauty treatments to more unusual options such as facial acupressure, warming eye care and moxibustion workshops; never heard of moxibustion? No, neither had we but we spent a wonderful hour learning all about it, more of which below!
Also worth visiting is the original onsen (hot spring), Tombo-no-yu – a short walk from the residential area. Open to both residents and general visitors, but allowing exclusive access to Hoshino guests at certain times of the day, Tombo-no-yu offers a more traditional onsen experience with gender-separated bathing areas offering indoor and outdoor pools of the usual shallower proportions.
Another place we enjoyed is the Tsudoi building, overlooking a hillside landscaped into gentle terraces over which streams gently cascade. It houses the main reception, a small shop, a lounge library area and the Kasuke Japanese restaurant.
We watched in rapt delight as a male and female duck gingerly followed each other downwards over a couple of the little waterfalls, swimming along a length of stream before paddling out onto a patch of grass. Not long afterwards another young male tried to play the gooseberry and join the party but eventually realised he wasn’t welcome. He paddled away, playing it cool until he slipped accidentally over the lip of another waterfall, looking rather undignified as he landed clumsily before quickly swimming away!
The lounge is a lovely place to while away a little time, with a range of teas, coffee and chocolates available to help yourself. During the afternoon, guests are invited to try a more traditional confectionary served by Hoshino staff. Most of the books in the library are in Japanese, though we did enjoy a bilingual guide to Sushi that we spotted on one of the shelves.
At reception (or via phone from your room if you prefer), you can request one of the resorts cars to transfer you to any of the locations outside of the residential resort area. These include the restaurants of sister-hotel Bleston Court, local sites such as the Stone Church, the Kogen Church, the Picchio Visitors Centre (more on which later) or Hoshino’s Harunire Terrace (where you’ll find a range of restaurants and shops). Any of these will also call a car to collect you, when you are ready to head back to the resort.
Of course, you are welcome to walk if you like and there are also local walking paths in the area which Reception staff can tell you more about.
The Stone Church, also known as the Hoshino Chapel, was designed by American architect Kendrick Bangs Kellogg. Built in 1988 to commemorate Uchimura Kanzo (a Japanese journalist, author, Christian evangelist and leader of the Non-Church Movement) the church is strikingly modern in design yet integrates beautifully into the landscape. Built of stark concrete and grey stone, the church is surprisingly warm and beautiful, especially the inside chapel with a living wall of green plants and beautifully carved wooden pews beneath soaring curved arches and windows above. I wish we’d given ourselves more time to explore and enjoy the avant-garde architecture and serene vibe; it’s really an incredible and quite unexpected place.
Nearby is the much older Kogen Church and this too traces its roots back to Uchimura Kanzo. Originally, it was not a church but a lecture hall, designated as a place of learning and enjoyment by Kanzo in 1921. After the second world war, it was renamed as the Karuizawa Kogen Church and is today both a place of worship and a venue for concerts and events. In the summer, a candle light festival is hugely popular, with the entire approach and church itself lit by many hundreds of candles. What a sight that must be!
What I most loved about Kogen was the display next door of wedding photos of couples who have married here, hundreds and hundreds of them displayed in frames or tucked into albums. Staff told us that many couples come back to celebrate their anniversaries and to show their children where they were wed.
Guests at both Hoshinoya Karuizawa and Hotel Bleston Court have plenty of choice for dinner, both formal and casual.
Yukawatan, in Bleston Court, is a renowned French restaurant headed by Chef Noriyuki Hamada, the only Japanese chef to secure a coveted Bocuse d’Or medal. I would very much like to dine at Yukawatan on our next visit as Hamada’s cooking is reputed to be of an incredibly high level.
Nearby Harunire Terrace is the home to Il Sogno (Italian), Kisurin (Chinese), Kawakami-an (Soba noodle) and Cercle (French) restaurants plus a bakery, a gelateria and a traditional Japanese confectionery shop. There are other cafes and restaurants also in the vicinity.
Kasuke Japanese restaurant is a beautiful space, located in the Tsudoi building. The ceiling is high, high, high above the traditional foot-well tables that look out through floor to ceiling windows across the beautiful landscaped gardens. Breakfast can also be taken here but we visited for a traditional kaiseki dinner (images below), an excellent choice which we felt it was very reasonably priced at just 12,000 Yen per person (excluding tax and service), much less than meals of this calibre and style that we enjoyed elsewhere.
The feast of over ten courses – appetiser, soup, sashimi, a fried dish, charcoal-grilled vegetables, assorted small bites, a steak and salmon course, rice (with pickles and miso soup), fresh fruit, and finally tea and a Japanese sweet – were served by Mie. Mie was like a personal butler during our visit, she took us to our room on arrival, served us tea and wagashi to welcome us as she told us more about the resort and our itinerary and escorted us to many of our activities during our stay.
Highlights of the meal included many local woodland vegetables that we had not encountered before; the simple but utterly perfect grilled onion and udo (mountain asparagus) course served to our table by one of the chefs who carefully peeled the charred skins off the vegetables before portioning and serving them to us with a homemade sesame miso, salt and olive oil – their flesh was silky soft and sweet and with a hint of smokiness; the tokun strawberry (so named because it smells like a peach, and it really does!) and hyuganatsu citrus served for dessert alongside a Japanese version of affogato – kuromoji (a medicinal tea made from a native shrub) poured over a ball of fuki (giant butterbur) ice cream.
Another aspect that really wowed us was the matching drinks flight – a very clever mix of European red and white wines and traditional Japanese sakes, extremely well matched to the diverse ingredients, flavours and textures of all our courses – one of the best we’ve encountered.
Our only disappointments when it came to dining at the resort, were room-service dining, which we tried for both a breakfast and a dinner – really overpriced for what was served in both cases – and the breakfast we ate at Bleston Court’s No One’s Recipe – alternatively described as French and American, it wasn’t really either, offering a bizarre selection of no-choice galette plus a buffet of soups, lasagne, patés, salads and desserts. I would have preferred a typical French, American or traditional Japanese breakfast over this rather random and not very well-balanced offering.
Although we could happily have whiled away our time lazing in our room, soaking in the Meditation Baths and onsen hot springs, and exploring the resort and local area, we also took advantage of some of the activities on offer at Hoshinoya Karuizawa.
Knowing my interest in Japanese food, the resort suggeested a wonderful lesson in making Oyaki (sweet, bean-filled dumplings). One of the resort’s chefs, Chef Yamamoto Hidemasa was on hand to show us how these are made, though I let Pete do all the hard work!
Because of the time available, chef Yamamoto had already made the three different fillings for our dumplings – one of mashed roasted pumpkin, one of aubergine and miso and the last a simple azuki (red bean) paste – but gave me instructions on how to make these simple fillings at home.
Oyaki dough can be made with buckwheat or regular wheat flour, we used the latter. The first step was for Pete to make the dough, for which he combined flour, baking powder, cold water, sugar and a little salt and knead it well. Needing to sit and rise overnight, chef Yamamoto switched the dough for one he’d made the previous day and showed Pete how to form and fill the dumplings and the two of them went ahead and made a few with each of the three fillings.
After the lesson, we headed to Kasuke where Mie served hot tea and a few minutes later, chef Yamamoto served the freshly cooked dumplings Pete had helped to make. He had steamed them for ten minutes before briefly frying to give them little golden caps.
The soft steamed texture of the dough and delicious fillings were utterly delicious and this is definitely a recipe we’re going to try and recreate at home!
Another activity the resort arranged for us was a Moxibustion workshop.
Moxibustion is a traditional Chinese medicinal treatment that involves placing pieces of dried mugwort – an aromatic plant often used as a herb – on meridian points of the body and burning. Today, it is common for the mugwort to be processed into small stick-on moxa (named for the Japanese word for mugwort, mugosa) which can be easily attached to the skin and lit. A small padded disc protects the skin from any burn damage as the mugwort burns down.
The meridian points, also known as chi, are the same ones used for acupuncture and acupressure, so it may simply be the application of heat to those locations is what has an effect, rather than the properties of the mugwort itself.
Practitioners believe that moxibustion can improve blood circulation and metabolism, boost the immune system and reduce stress. As with acupuncture and acupressure, specific meridian points are also associated with different aspects of health.
Our tutor Mr Funada, with the aid of his colleague and a member of Hoshino’s staff to translate for us, introduced us to the treatment and applied several moxa to our wrist and feet meridians. He explained which points to use for stress relief and good sleep, for reduction of eyestrain and neck pain, for healing gastrointestinal and gynaelogical symptoms and more. I also asked for points specific to shoulder and back pain.
I used to be very cynical about alternative medicines, lumping ancient practices such as acupuncture and Ayurvedic remedies in with homeopathy and crystals (both of which I think are pure hokum). But I have come to realise through experience that many of the ancient Asian medicine techniques are effective and many are now being researched and recognised by Western medicine. Certainly acupuncture, applied by a professional physiotherapist, has relieved severe back and neck pain for me in the past and some of the (rather foul-tasting) Indian herb and spice remedies have also been helpful with joint pain.
Whether or not moxibustion works because of properties within the burning mugwort or via the application of heat to the body’s meridian points, I can’t tell but certainly the neck, shoulder and back pain I’d been suffering with for the previous few days eased following the workshop. Of course, that could also have been courtesy of the long soaks in the hot soothing waters of the Meditation Baths!
One of the things that excited us about visiting Karuizawa was the chance to see local wildlife. Pete and I have spent many happy holidays travelling to watch wildlife in its native habitat, from East and Southern African safaris where we thrilled at the sightings of lions, elephants, cheetahs and more to Galapagos Island bird and reptile viewing all the way down to Antarctica for penguins, seals and albatrosses.
The Japanese Giant Flying Squirrel, known in Japan as musasabi, may not sound like a very exciting wildlife encounter but for us, it was thrilling!
Our tour was provided by Picchio, an ecotourism organisation established by Hoshino in 1992. Picchio offers a variety of nature tours in the local area and is also active in local conservation activities including the protection of Asian Wild Bears, found in the region.
Before we left the visitors’ centre, located just opposite the Tombo-no-yu onsen buildings, our guide Motoi Inoue gave us an introductory presentation about the animal we were hoping to see. Luckily for us, Inoue spoke fluent English, so he kindly repeated everything in both Japanese and English, allowing us to fully appreciate these fascinating little creatures. His enthusiasm was infectious! We learned about their physiology (including size – much bigger than most of us guessed), what they naturally eat and the variation in the size of their territories depending on the density of their chosen food source in a given area.
Best of all, we learned that our chances of seeing them on the evening’s tour were extremely high. Giant flying squirrels sleep in nests during the day, coming out at night to feed. Two things make Picchio’s squirrel observation tours so successful. Firstly, research has found that musasabi come out of their nest approximately 30 minutes after sunset, sticking to a pretty tight + /- 15 minutes of that time. Secondly, Picchio have created 14 nest boxes for the local musasabi to use, each of which have a camera inside. Unlike many animals, musasabi switch from nest to nest, often on a nightly basis and also show no qualms about using a nest that a different squirrel used the previous night. The video cameras allow Picchio staff to check during the day which of the boxes are in use allowing the guides to direct enthusiastic visitors to one of the boxes shortly ahead of the approximate exit time, based on the time of sunset that evening. There are no absolute guarantees, but their success rate is very high.
Fortune was smiling on us in many ways that evening. The box Inoue had selected was easily accessible, within 10 minutes walk of the visitors’ centre and nailed to a tree within a tarmacked parking area that had just two or three cars in a distant corner. Better still, Inoue carried with him a laptop screen and cables which allowed him to plug into a socket at the base of the tree and show us on screen the camera feed from inside. We quickly discovered that our nest box contained several bundles of squirming fur which Inoue identified as a mother, two very young pups and an older sibling from a previous litter.
Standing a respectful distance away from the nest, each of us furnished with loan binoculars, we watched the nest eagerly, the exit lit by red torchlight that neither disturbs the animals nor damages their night vision or eyesight.
Inoue warned us that it was unlikely the mother would leave the nest as the pups were still very young; she had not left during the previous nights since their birth. However it was almost certain that the older sibling to the pups would come out for a night feed. As the time approached, we saw him peek his head out of the nest a few times, and then, suddenly, he came all the way out, looked around him at the nearby trees around the car park, and scampered up to the top of the tree. Moments later he launched, all four limbs akimbo to create the wings that allow him to glide swiftly to another tree. Once landed, he scampered up to the top once again.
Initially, the plan had been to walk quietly towards the landing tree in the hopes of seeing a second flight, but Inoue quickly asked us to stay still, noticing that the mother had poked her head out of the nest to have a look around – we didn’t want to risk disturbing her. To our enormous delight and surprise, the mother chose this night to leave her pups for the first time, and we watched her speed up the tree before launching and gliding across to another. Not only were we elated to see a second flight from a second animal, we were also able to get a clearer camera view of the pups now that they were alone inside the nest.
Just as we thought our tour complete, Inoue’s assistant alerted us to the distinctive call of another musasabi – an adult male in a tree nearby. Using the red torchlight, the newcomer was located atop one of the tallest trees in the vicinity. Giddy with excitement, we watched him glide to a tree very close to where we stood and then onwards again right over our heads to a tree deeper in the forest!
As you can probably tell, we were utterly captivated by this experience, even more so given its location within the heart of the resort.
For us, the charm of HOSHINOYA Karuizawa lies in its offering of natural beauty and wildlife skilfully enhanced by delightful landscaping, the chance to immerse oneself in cultural activities and to explore the local area and sights, the opportunities to relax and recuperate and of course, the absolute joy of eating well.
Prices start at around 30,000 Yen per person for a twin or double room (without meals) though there are significant savings available for booking more than three months in advance (with prices dropping to 18,000 Yen per person). Our kaiseki dinner at Kasune was 12,000 Yen per person plus tax and service; menus and prices for other dining options are available online. Activities such as the moxibustion workshop we attended, and beauty treatments such as facial acupressure and onsen body work are priced at 2,000 Yen per person. The oyaki making activity is 8,000 Yen per group.
Kavey Eats were guests of Hoshino Resorts.