Japan

Summertime in Karuizawa

Earlier in June this year, we had the opportunity to bring the kids along to Karuizawa as part of the Saturday Kids Unplugged Summer Camp. I was part of the organising team, and I wrote about my reflections following the trip on the Saturday Kids blog - you can read all about it here.

Karuizawa is a very idyllic mountain resort area 1-hour by bullet train from Tokyo, and traditionally known as a summer retreat for the imperial family. It does feel like a very wealthy town - the tree-lined streets were very manicured, there’s a lot of huge houses with some situated right in the forests presumably for the wealthy Japanese who can afford to make this their summer homes. I find it slightly ironic and a bit of a contrast that the first thing that we noticed the moment we stepped out from from the train station were: 1) the fresh smell of nature / trees, and 2) a giant illuminated Prada sign at the outlet mall situated right by the train station.

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Days in Karuizawa were filled with time spent in the outdoors, nature walks and whenever we could muster the energy, dining out with the kids at night. We returned with a lot of good memories and the kids speak very fondly of time spent catching butterflies, playing catching, dipping their feet at the chilly waterfalls, finding twigs in the forest, AND they absolutely loved sweeping the campsite (!). Read on to see a few recommendations on where to eat and what to do should you plan to visit in the future.

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…And a little guide

Here’s a sampling of the places that I like, there were others that we didn’t get to check out: Harvest Nagai Farm, Stone Church, Yo Ho Brewery, Bird Izakaya. Our team has put together a more comprehensive Saturday Kids Guide to Karuizawa, worth checking out if you’re planning to visit.


STAY

The place we stayed at was very modest and a little run-down so nothing to write about there, however, just take a look at this new gorgeous boutique property Shishiiwa House - the wood, the light, zen to the max. Read more about it here and here. If you ever stay there, please let me know how it is.

Eat

Sandaimekoko: One of the best ramen I have EVER had. Avoid lunch hour if possible. I’d go back just for this.

Suju Masayuki: Good quality Japanese food with a focus on miso-based dishes. Didn’t realise this is the original spot for one of my favourite Japanese restaurants (same name - Suju)

Sawamura Bakery and Restaurant: One of the bakeries that open earlier (8am+). Excellent pastries and bread.

Maruyama Coffee: Great coffee and space.


Do

Nature walks and onsen: The Japanese call this forest bathing, and it is very therapeutic and pleasant to walk in the forest, soaking in the fresh air. There’s an abundance of trails (just Google it). There’s a few in the Hoshino area which is near an onsen called Tombo No Yu and the surrounding shops/cafes make for a nice side trip altogether.

Karuizawa Bookstore: Situated right next to Delica (great supermarket!), this bookstore has a nice collection of books, wares and stationery. Doesn’t matter if you’re non-Japanese speaking, the kids’ books are equally interesting and fascinating in Japanese.

Karuizawa Station Children’s Play Area (Mori no Korisu Kids Station): This was a lucky find, so spare yourself (and your kids) at least 30 min - 1 hour prior to departure to play at this super play space, complete with replica of steam trains, cabins, and the whole works. It’s really all kinds of wonderful (and is free).

Saturday Kids Unplugged Summer Camp: If you’re planning to visit the area in June (and have kids 4-12 years old), then it might be an interesting way for you and them to spend part of the vacation where they go on a 4-day summer camp (without stayover). All the details here.

Sandaimekoko’s ramen.

Sandaimekoko’s ramen.

A walk in the woods

A walk in the woods

Not a real train, but an awesome replica! Plus great play space.

Not a real train, but an awesome replica! Plus great play space.

Get on this steam train kiddos

Get on this steam train kiddos

A day trip to Kurashiki

Kurashiki is most known for its beautiful canal area, and is just an easy hour-train ride from Onomichi. I’ve been a little wary about the Venice-like canal, which usually implies that it’ll be filled with tourists. BUT If you’re a fan of Japanese denim, this is the place to go to for your denim fix for Made in Japan denim, with nearby Kojima being the birthplace of the first Japanese jeans. Half a day was definitely too short, but here’s a look at what I saw, and a few recommendations at the bottom of this post.

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EAT/DRINK

Kurashiki Ramen Masuya: Good ramen and even better gyoza.

Abuto (Sushi): Good lunch sets, fresh sushi, decent garden views.

SHOP (DENIM)

Japan Blue Denim Laboratory (my fave)

Inobe

Denim Bar

Blue Sakura

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Slow Life in Onomichi

The funky yellow local train pulled up at Fukuyama station and arrived at Onomichi station 20 minutes later. After 4 hours on the Shinkansen from Tokyo, this ride was quite a welcome change as it chugged along and passed through a few small towns before stopping at Onomichi - a sleepy port town in Southern Japan, not far from Hiroshima.

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Stepping out of the station, the first thing that greets you is the waterfront promenade, and the smell of the sea. We had just wrapped up the very first Saturday Kids Unplugged Summer Camp (more to come on that - it was awesome and lots of fun for the kids, hit me up if you want first dibs for the 2020 edition), and I took the opportunity to extend the stay in Japan for a few days while Erwin brought the kids back home to Singapore first. I’m drawn towards the smaller cities and towns in Japan - I find them less overwhelming and more enjoyable to explore. Onomichi wasn’t on my radar till I started researching for a smallish town with a growing creative community, and where I can just spend my days leisurely exploring on foot.

Onomichi is a bit of a ferry and bicycle kind of town - and for all you cycling enthusiasts, you might have heard of it as it’s known as the starting point for Shimanami Kaido, a scenic 70+ km cycling route that connects Honshu to Shikoku, via 6 small islands on the way. Life takes on a slower pace here, and as a visitor, for the very fact that there’s not a gazillion sights to see makes the visit a lot more enjoyable and less-rushed. There wasn’t much on my agenda, just wanted to photograph, write and organise a whole year’s backlog of photos, and chomp away on Japanese food.

It was in the early evening when I arrived at this very relaxed town. People were sitting around at the benches enjoying the sea breeze and the view (albeit a little industrial with the big ships), people walking their dogs, students playing football, and of course, the cyclists.

I read about how there’s efforts to revive this town. At times, the town felt a little deserted, and there’s doesn’t seem to be much going on. The ‘shopping street’ which is over a kilometre long, consists of a mix of old school mom-and-pop shops selling sundries, socks, hats, some F&B and in the midst of it, a number of small coffee shops/roasters that provides an interesting mix of new and old. But for most parts of the day, it’s fairly quiet, except for the afternoons when students walk home / cycle home after school. Walking along the shopping street, you’ll be able to catch glimpses of the many flights of steps across the railway track leading up to the hill. Given that the temple walk (there’s 20 over temples of which Sentoki is the most famous), and the Onomichi City Museum of Art is located at the top of the hill, I was expecting to see some people on the way up, but on that afternoon, was pretty much the only one hiking up the meandering and narrow walkways (no wonder, the museum was closed that day!). Once up, you’ll be able to see a splendid view of the outlying islands especially on a clear day.

I left Onomichi after spending 4 days there, longer than I originally planned, mostly due to the comfortable stay at the Onomichi U2 Hotel. If you’re looking for a place with a vibrant nightlife, or lots of shopping, or one that’s bustling with activities, this probably isn’t it. But go to Onomichi if you want to experience a small town in Japan, eat good food, and even better, embark on that scenic cycling route across the Seto Island Sea. I think I’ll be back, I was very charmed by the city, but also because I went with no grand sightseeing plans.

I’ve put together a few of my favourite things and places below. Most of these are places that I’ve stumbled upon, and which I kept returning to during the time I was there. Some are places that I’ve bookmarked and would love to check out but didn’t get to do so. If you do visit, do let me know how it goes.

STAY

Onomichi U2 Cycle Hotel

Set in an old warehouse and situated just by the waterfront, here is a hotel (the very first in Japan with only 28 rooms) designed by Suppose Design for cyclists and with cyclists in mind. The space is stunning, very well-designed with an industrial feel (lots of concrete, but also wood). It is also a lifestyle hub, that houses a bike shop, a cafe, a retail shop that curates local goods, a restaurant and a bar. Rooms are very comfortable and at 10,000 Yen - 13,000 Yen, I’d say, very reasonable. Little touches make the difference, such as the provision of soft denim pyjamas designed and made in Japan especially for the hotel, racks in the hotel rooms for cyclists to hang their bikes, if they wish, and nice coffee. I just can’t recommend this hotel enough.

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LOG

Didn’t stay here, but space looks very zen and was featured in Monocle (although about 3x the price and up on the hill - waterfront at Onomichi U2 or hilltop at LOG, take your pick).


EXPLORE

Hike up the hill and head to the Onomichi City Museum of Art, check out the Sentoki Temple, the observation tower and if you’re lucky, stumble upon a few small shops and cafes along the way. Spend an afternoon checking out the cafes, having a drink at the waterfront promenade. Walk around the harbour and watch the sunset. It’s a small town, wander around and see what you find.

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SHOP

Campanella Press

This was a lucky and unexpected find. Paper products, notebooks, locally designed stationery and lifestyle products, and letterpress workshops. I really like the space.

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Onomichi U2 Shima Shop

This is the lifestyle shop situated at the Onomichi U2 Hotel , lots of locally-sourced/designed products.

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Onomichi Denim Project

You can read all about this here and here. I love the story behind it, but didn’t spend more than 5-min at the shop because there really wasn’t much to browse (!)

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Uzushio Zukkaten

Lifestyle shop with fun knick knacks.


EAT & DRINK

Yamaneko Mill

Having just arrived, I walked by a small back street on the way to ramen. Smelt something amazing. Through the glass, I saw a felt pastry chefs whipping something up in the kitchen. Popped in, asked if I can try/buy whatever they’re making. Ate one, and ended up packing another 3. Visit this place for the most delicious pudding, cheesecake, and on the 2nd floor, they have a restaurant that has a really good view/vibe serving up dishes focusing on local produce. Highly recommended, for coffee/juices, desserts, lunch and/or dinner. I would return just for this.

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Ramen opposite Uzushio Zakkaten

Small 7-8 seater ramen joint (name unknown sorry!) but simply find it opposite this shop Uzushio Zakkaten. Try the spicy ramen for a really good kick.


Onomichi U2 Hotel’s Restaurant + Cafe + Bar

Everything is good here. They’ve done a really good job curating the entire space. Head there for breakfast, lunch or dinner, grab a table outside and enjoy the view. If you’re there for a drink or for dinner, please order the wings too. It’s as good as it gets. Friend of mine said that the lemon pizza is excellent too.

Coffee

All around the small town you’ll find a good selection of roasters and cafes - some more traditional, some more hipster. a few that I like: Classico, AROUND, The Yard at Onomichi U2, Pour Over Coffee (can’t locate the address for this but it’s a few shops away from this old Japanese restaurant called Hanaakari), and this called satie that overlooks the railway tracks which I didn’t get to check out.

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Enjoy Onomichi.