Karuizawa is a mountain resort town in Nagano Prefecture. From Tokyo, it’s a 65 min one-way trip by Hakutaka Shinkansen or 75 mins if you take the slightly slower Asama Shinkansen (both are covered by the JR Pass). In winter, Karuizawa is a popular snow resort, but doesn’t get the same quality or quantity of snow other Nagano resorts like Hakuba, so it’s more popular with locals than overseas tourists.
If anything, Karuizawa is better known as a summer (June-August) holiday destination, particularly for wealthy Japanese that have holiday homes in the area.
Nature Tours at Picchio
I visited Karuizawa to learn about eco tourism. I headed straight to Picchio, an award-winning nature and eco tour operator based in the area. They are also active in wildlife conservation.
Picchio operate a variety of eco tours, from cycling to bird-watching. We started the tour at the Picchio Wild Bird Sanctuary Visitor Center, which also has a small cafe and gift shop. In winter, the pond out the back freezes over and becomes an ice-rink! It was the middle of October, so the autumn leaves had only just started to change colour. I was told they’d reach their peak in around two weeks.
I borrowed some hiking clothes and then went on a private afternoon nature tour my friendly English speaking guide, Yamazaki san.
Even though it was drizzling and a bit grey, it was a beautiful walk. The trail was an easy walk, even for beginners. We saw some frogs and then I saw some musasabi (Japanese giant flying squirrel) nest boxes that had been set up in the trees. Through a digital screen, Yamazaki san showed me which nest boxes had musasabi sleeping in them! It was so cool.
Musasabi Night Tour
In the evening, I went on a Musasabi Watching Night Tour. The tours are held between mid-March and late November and cost 3,300 yen for a 90 minute tour. The tour is split into two parts. The first is a fun and informative presentation about musasabi, a species of giant flying squirrel endemic to Japan. The guide was really animated and enthusiastic and although it was held in Japanese, they had English written on the presentation slides which made it easy to understand. If the group is made up of predominantly English speakers, they can arrange an English speaking guide upon request.
The second half was the actual musasabi watching experience. We were escorted to one of the nest boxes which were known to contain musasabi, thanks to their live camera feed. We were told that we had a 98% chance of seeing them, and we did! We only had to guess which direction they would glide.
30 mins after sunset we waited with great anticipation for the musasabi to appear from its nest box. It popped its head out and we all stood there with binoculars to eyes waiting for it to fully emerge and run up the tree. We waited and waited… and the musasabi continued to peer out of the box for the next 20 mins, frozen like a statue.
When it finally went up the tree it was fairly dark (and foggy), but we managed to watch it glide twice. I tried recording it with my iPhone 6 but it was far too dark. The best thing is to see it with your eyes! I don’t recommend it for people with poor eye-sight though as it’s quite small and dark.
After the tour, we all received ‘Musasabi Watcher’ certificates.
There are three waterfalls in the Karuizawa area; the most popular one being Sengataki. I visited the two lesser-known waterfalls in the area.
The first one was Ryugaeshi Falls. It’s probably the least crowded of the three waterfalls. It’s quite small but powerful. The walk there was quite pleasant and there is a small sheltered rest house close to the falls where we had tea. We only saw one group of tourists; some international students as we were leaving.
Shiraito Falls stretches across 70 metres and the water flows from a drop of 3 metres. The fine strands of water resemble white strings, hence the name ‘Shiraito’ which literally means ‘white strings’ or ‘white threads’ in Japanese. In winter, the waterfall freezes into delicate icicles. Interestingly, the falls are fed by ground water, rather than a river.
Bear conservation and management
I had no idea bear management was even a thing, but apparently it is in Japan! It’s especially important in places like Karuizawa, where residential homes back right into forest.
Compared to the brown bears of Hokkaido, the Asian black bears of Honshu are smaller in size, but can be just as dangerous if they come into contact with humans. One of Picchio’s overall goals is for bears to co-exist peacefully with humans, and have been working on some initiatives to make this future a possibility.
Garbage is a big problem as it attracts bears from the mountains, particularly in summer when the area sees a lot of visitors.
My guides at Picchio proudly showed me a bear-proof (garbage) dumpster they had designed. With traditional dumpsters, bears could open the lids and get into them. The new bear-proof dumpsters require two mechanisms to open them and are too complicated for bears to figure out. Several dumpsters have been placed around Karuizawa and have so far proved very effective in keeping bears out of the garbage. The idea is that if the bears are unable to get food out of the dumpsters, an easy but unnatural food source, they will stop coming into the town.
Capturing, tagging and releasing the bears
In order to understand the individual characteristics of each bear and to monitor their activity, bear-friendly traps have been set up near the town. Any bear captured gets radio-collared, weighed and measured. Hair and blood samples are also collected before release. The bear traps themselves are designed so they do not harm the bears that are captured. For example, they’re tube-shaped so the bears don’t hurt their claws or teeth by trying to break out. They’re also completely dark inside, and bears apparently feel quite calm even after capture.
When the bears are released, they use aversive conditioning methods. These include making a lot of noise, shooting them in the rump with air guns and having their bear dogs bark at them. Their aim is to make sure the bears associate contact with humans as frightening, so they will avoid humans as much as possible in the future. I thought it sounded really cruel at first, but it’s better to teach the bears to stay away, than have to put them down for getting too comfortable around humans and possibly attacking someone.
Radio-collared bears are then monitored using radio telemetry and their conflict levels recorded. Bears with high conflict levels, or problematic bears have to be put down.
I went bear tracking with two of the staff from Picchio using a radio telemeter. It was thrilling, but kind of terrifying. I didn’t have the right clothes or shoes for it, and we basically tracked a radio-collared bear deep into the mountains, bashing through the trees, sliding down muddy slopes and everything. Unfortunately – or fortunately? We didn’t come into contact with the bear, as it was on the move and could cover a lot more ground than we could. I kept wondering to myself how my guides would deal with a bear if it did appear…
Picchio have two Karelian bear dogs named Bullet and Luna, which they got from the USA. The non-lethal bear management method originated at a place called the Wind River Bear Institute, and Karuizawa wanted to trial the program in Japan.
I met Bullet and he was very friendly! The Karelian bear dogs were traditionally bred to hunt large animals. Now they stop the bears from coming into town by barking at them and chasing them back into the mountains. They’re also used to protect bear management staff and alert staff when bears are approaching.
Day trips from Karuizawa
Unno-juku in Tomi City is an ancient post-town dating back to 1625. It was a stop on the Hokkoku Kaido, an important road which connected the Nakasendo (Central Mountain Route from Tokyo to Kyoto) and the Hokurikudo (Northern Land Route). Gold from the mines of Sado Island was transported through here, and pilgrims headed to Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City stopped here too. The streets are lined with cherry and willow trees and a stone-walled water channel runs through the town. Unlike the more popular post towns of the Nakasendo like Tsumago and Magome, Unno doesn’t get many tourists, giving the town an authentic feel.
The town holds an annual festival called the Unno Fureai Festival on 23 November. The local townspeople dress up in period costume and parade the streets.
If going by public transport, Unno-juku is a 5 minute taxi ride from either Tanaka or Oya Stations on the Shinano Railway.
Komoro Kaikoen Castle Ruins
Komoro Kaikoen Park is the site of the former Komoro Castle. The castle was unique as it was built in a location lower than the surrounding town, giving it the nickname anajiro (hole castle). It can be reached easily from Komoro Station on foot in 3 minutes. Entry is 300 yen for a basic (strolling) ticket,
In spring, it’s considered one of Japan’s top 100 spots to view cherry blossoms and in autumn, the park sees some magnificent colours. The castle has a history of over 400 years and the original Otemon (main gate) and stone walls remain intact.
Karuizawa is an easy short trip from Tokyo and is the perfect getaway for those that love nature and being outdoors. There are several walking, hiking and cycling trails that would suit travellers of all ages and abilities. After a day of activity, there are hot springs to relax in and some excellent local restaurants too. There’s a great range of accommodation too, from luxury boutique hotels to business hotels. It’s still relatively off the radar for western tourists, so it’s not that touristy either.
For those that love a bit of retail therapy, there’s also a huge outlet mall by the main station called the Karuizawa Prince Shopping Plaza which houses both international and local brands.
Words and images by Stephanie Sng, JNTO Sydney Office staff.
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