May 13, 2005
Karuizawa Chapels, Noodles & Trees
Karuizawa felt almost like a small town in Colorado. The woods were thick, main street was just a few blocks long and hills thick with trees rose up as the buildings ended. There was a great shortage of leaves on those trees, though, which gave me a renewed appreciation for evergreens -- especially the Ponderosa Pines of my favorite mountains. But the bare branches all woven together with air in between (and no buildings or wires) had a character I could appreciate, and the place will be entirely green by mid-summer (when we return for another quick stay).
Karuizawa is known for many things. Every locality in Japan must be known for some kind of food or craft. If not, they make something up. A quick walk up the Ginza revealed an abundance of shops selling Sagawa jam and assorted pickled finger foods (well, chopstick foods that you eat with rice). Those were the gift stores. When Japanese people travel they often buy a some local food/snack items to bring back to their friends and neighbors. For those in the mood to consume on the spot, Karuizawa is "known for" its mocha soft serve ice cream, soba noodles and oyaki. Now I'm not convinced that mocha ice cream originated in this mountain town, or that their mocha ice cream is necessarily better than anyone else's (though it was good...). The soba is another story, which I'll get to later. Oyaki are steamed "dumplings" (kind of heavy, chewy rolls) stuffed with a veggie filling, and I like 'em.
Besides food, Karuizawa is known as the place where the current emperor of Japan met his wife (at a local tennis club). Members of the royal family apparently still go to Karuizawa for getaways, although we didn't run into any of them. Too bad.
Finally, Karuizawa is well known for its wedding chapels, or wedding INDUSTRY. Everywhere you look there are bridal shops with white dresses in the windows and cute little church-shaped buildings next door. My wife and I went to Hoshino Wedding Chapel. We actually went there because the building has a memorial inside for Kanzo Uchimura, and I wanted to take a look at that. Uchimura was a man of sincere faith and integrity who, many decades ago, gathered Japanese people to read the Bible and follow Jesus together completely outside of organized churches. They called it the "non-church" movement. Anyway, they picked a strange way to memorialize this man and his life. The chapel building is surely an architectural wonder. It's like a giant armadillo sprawled amoung the trees. An ode to concrete (intended as an ode to nature, or unity with nature -- go figure). In the lower level there is a small room with several glass cases featuring information and artifacts of Uchimura's life (like postcards and an underlined Bible).
By the way, I read online that Hoshino Chapel is the busiest wedding chapel in the world. A wedding party emerged from the building just as we arrived. After our brief look inside the chapel, we walked across the hotel grounds and I took more pictures as people emerged from another "famous" wedding chapel over there. We returned to our car in time to see wedding party number three. It was an eventful 40 minutes.
Aside from wedding chapels and the outlet center, we drove up the road and hiked (200 meters) to a beautiful waterfall one day. Another day we drove and hiked (100 meters) to a hilltop with a view. You choose short hikes when you have two year olds. I loved those places, and I'm looking forward to seeing them again when the place is green. We shopped a bit in the tourist shops, which we found surprisingly cheap. We found an extraordinary sculpture gallery (Monozukin). It deserves a blog entry in itself. Most of the welded, metal sculptures incorporate movement and, therefore, sound. It was all dark clattering teeth and motion. Unfortunately, there wasn't enough light to take pictures of my favorite pieces.
I said I'd mention more about soba later. We took my parents to have soba noodles one evening. I like soba, but I admit it's somewhat wrenching to pay $6 for a small pile of cold noodles and some sauce to dip them in. But often Japanese people don't go to restaurants hoping for a quantity of food; they go for a taste experience. Good soba takes time to make, and it has a complicated texture and taste. Well, the restaurant that was recommended to us (where we entered and sat down without checking the menu first) charged $10 for simple zarusoba (cold soba and dipping sauce), and $18 to throw in a few pieces of tempura. We were all feeling pretty hungry, and filling up there was clearly going to be a budget breaker. Plus, my parents had already experienced enough "price shock" for the day, and they aren't impressed by cold noodles no matter how you chop, dip or slice them. In the end, we ordered the minimum we could get away with to avoid slinking out of there without ordering (our group couldn't slink very well anyway). The soba was very good, by the way--in my opinion. After making an exit we walked down the street and had our second course at KFC.
Fish roasting at a road side stand just below the waterfall hike.