Review of Hoshinoya Karuizawa in Japan

To celebrate my uncle and cousin's birthday, my family arranged a holiday stay at Hoshinoya resort in Karuizawa, around 2.5-3 hours drive outside of Tokyo. The resort is a whopping US$900 a night for the cheapest room, and markets itself as an idyllic, tranquil getaway from city life. It is designed to allow you to escape from your worries to find inner zen (and be told off by the staff if you speak too loudly...no kidding, this actually happened to us in the lobby!). It is situated about 10 minutes walk from a small village center called Harunire Terrace (and there are free cars that will drive you there if you request at the front desk), and around 25 minutes drive from the larger shopping outlet.



Rooms

Let's be honest: you probably don't want to arrive at the resort at night, especially if you are travelling with anyone who has difficulty seeing in dim lighting conditions (as pretty as it can be). The resort is spaced out so that the lobby and main restaurant are in one location, with the rooms fanning around it, at least a few minutes walk away from the main area.



If you are with elderly travellers (like we were), following your guide in near-darkness to walk to your room from the main lobby area is a bit tricky (one of our group managed to wander off in the dark and find themselves a bit lost). Our rooms were also up a flight of stairs, so it's not the most invalid-friendly resort.




This all wasn't really an issue for me and my boyfriend, but what was quite disappointing was the room itself. For US$900 per night, I was expecting a lot more when we were shown our room. While spacious, the room housed two separate beds resting on an elevated platform (a nod to the Japanese tatami style of sleeping), with a lounge area with a table surrounded by a thin sofa base and pillows (a nod to the Japanese Horigotatsu restaurant seating where you sit low to the ground, with a recessed floor beneath you for your legs), a separate toilet (with the very Japanese multi-function / multi-button toilet), and a separate bathtub / shower room, housing a traditional wooden Japanese soaking tub.




Some things I liked: the bathtub had a button that you could press that would automatically fill it (and would automatically stop the water), and the hotel had provided three lemons for us to put in for aroma, which was a nice touch. I can personally testify to this tub retaining some serious heat: if you like your baths hot and long-lasting, you can soak in searing temperatures for a few hours in this tub.The other thing that I loved was that the resort provided a skincare pack, with cleanser, moisturiser, etc - something that every traveller looking for small, travel-sized skin care products, would appreciate.



All in all, the room was minimalist - something I would ordinarily enjoy...except when paying the rate we were paying per night.

Food

The hotel offers a choice of a Japanese or Western meals, but some of these need to be booked the day before.

If you're craving fruit and vegetables, there is a quaint (and tiny) grocery store at the village.
Alternatively, you can walk to the small village center around 10 minutes away (or take a complimentary hotel car) for food. For breakfast, we stopped by a cute bakery cafe called Sawa Mura, which sells a range of baked goods (I highly recommend the caramelised tomato tart stuffed with mushroom and chicken!) and coffee. For those who are lactose intolerant, you’ll need to buy a small carton of soy milk and add it separately to your coffee. The bakery also sells a range of nicely packaged cookies and jams. A breakfast of a tomato tart, chocolate raspberry croissant, ham and cheese panini, two coffees and a soy milk set us back JPY 2,900 (US$26).

Cute cafe Sawa Mura sells a variety of baked goods and coffee.
For dinner, the hotel offers a few options, but again, many need to be booked the day before. For the Japanese dinner, we had a choice of Shabu Shabu (¥12,000 / US$135) or Seasonal Kaiseki (¥12,000 / US$110). Note that both prices exclude tax and 10% service charge. The Kaiseki was not bad: highlights include the sashimi, but the eel rice was disappointingly lacking in eel.



Activities


The hotel encourages all its guests to enjoy the natural wildlife all around, and you can spend 30 minutes wandering around the picturesque gardens, which are split into a few different rows with water flowing through them and between each one, with miniature waterfalls. The sound of running water and birds in the air is incredibly soothing. 


There are some activities that you can pay extra for (such as horse riding, nature tours, and watching flying squirrels), but there is enough to do without forking out extra money. There are two onsens (hot spring bathing pools): the private one for guests only is called the Meditation Bath, and consists of a hot indoor bathing pool; whereas the public bath (Hoshino Onsen Tombo-no-yu) is 10 minutes walk away, and has both an outdoor and indoor section. The private bath is open from 3pm until 10am; whereas the public bath is open from 8am until 10pm (and from 8am - 9am, it is only open to resort guests - so get in early!). Both have fairly strict Japanese bathing etiquette (no clothes / swimwear allowed inside the onsen; no tattoos allowed; must shower before getting into the onsen etc), but there are some guides in the hotel to help you navigate this.

In addition, you can hike around the area (which takes around 1.5 hours) - most of the track is simply forest, but there is a break in the treeline at one point, which is quite pretty.

Borrow a bike from the hotel and explore the natural beauty.
If you're feeling desperate for some shopping, the hotel has free shuttle buses running to the shopping outlet called Price Shopping Plaza, around 20-25 minutes drive away. Expect to see your usual suspects of high-end brands such as Botega Veneta, Salvatore Ferragamo and Saint Laurent Paris, to younger brands like Kate Spade and Alice & Olivia, and sportswear labels like Under Armour, Nike, and Adidas. Don't forget to bring your passport to get your tax refund handled instantly; and also keep an eye on time because the complimentary shuttle buses get full quickly and leave right on time! If you want to catch a cab, the price is around US$40 one way.

Having said that, there are interesting complimentary activities at the resort - they offer you free happy hour drinks (including juice, apple whiskey and rose) and Japanese snacks every afternoon at the lounge, complimentary tea in the morning, and at times will have a food truck that serves desserts and cocktails.



I have to confess that I can't recommend the resort because of the exorbitant price...but if you are visiting Hoshinoya Karuizawa, I'd recommend just kicking back, enjoying the onsens, and relaxing with a book outside in the tranquil, natural landscape.

xx Carmen


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