Vegetarian's Japan Guide

The Best Guide to the Must-Visit Churches in Karuizawa

Whether you believe in God or not, when you come to Karuizawa, there are a couple of churches that you may want to visit. Even if you have nothing to pray for, you will be amazed by the architecture and might even gain some inner calmness during your visit!

Just like most churches around the world, if there are no wedding ceremonies or services going on, you can enter and explore the church. But please be respectful to those who are praying.

A List of Famous Churches in Karuizawa

Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church (軽井沢聖パウロカトリック教会)

Ⓒ 軽井沢町役場

In addition to Uchimura Kanzō Memorial Stone Church (石の教会 内村鑑三記念堂), another church that can excite architectural buffs is Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church. Designed by the famous American architect Antonin Raymond, the church is another landmark in Karuizawa.

It was where the first Christian wedding for non-Christians was held in Japan, and nowadays, a venue where many celebrities hold their weddings.

The best time to visit Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church is autumn. As the trees surrounding the church are dyed in yellow and red, the famous building’s gorgeous design stands out even more, creating a landscape that looks like a piece of painting.

Tip: The fall foliage season is from mid-October to mid-November.

Completed in 1935, Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church is adored by those who visited it and appeared in many popular Japanese pieces of literature and movies in the 20th century. If you are a Ghibli fan, you might recognize the church because it appeared in The Wind Rises (風立ちぬ)!

So what to pay attention to when you get there? Check out the roof design. It incorporates the traditional forms of the Czech Republic, Raymond’s hometown. The interior has a high ceiling and a scissor truss structure with exposed wood, so you can relax whilst feeling the warmth of wood in an open space.

Furthermore, instead of the typical colorful stained glass artwork, the windows at Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church are decorated with durable Japanese paper cut into various shapes.

Next to the church’s main building, there is

also a white bell tower. While most of us won’t have the pleasure of holding a wedding ceremony here, the newly married can ring the bell here after the ceremony.

Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church’s History

The person who founded Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church is Leo Paul Ward, a Father from England. Father Ward arrived in Japan in February 1933. With the invitation from Raymond, who had just completed building his villa in Karuizawa, Ward visited Karuizawa in the same year and held a mass at Karuizawa Hotel’s lounge.

On the first mass, there were only 8 attendants. But on the next mass, around 30 people attended. The number kept increasing, and when it reached 68 people, he decided to build a small chapel. The shrine carpenters who built the Nikkō Tōshōgū Shrine (日光東照宮) were called, and the chapel was completed in about six months.

Touched by the fact that Father Ward bore almost all of the construction costs, Karuizawa Hotel didn’t charge him for his stay. Being a devout Catholic himself, Raymond didn’t ask for any compensation for designing and building the chapel.

The First Church in Japan that Held a Christian Wedding for Non-Christians

When you watch Japanese dramas, you might wonder why most of the wedding scenes were filmed at a church. It wasn’t because the characters were Christians or Catholics, but to the Japanese, you don’t need to be a follower of God to be wedded in a church. And the origin is Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church.

At the time, to revive the weakened bond between Christianity and the Japanese people, holding weddings at a church for anyone was one of the many things that were tried. Since the 1960s, Karuizawa St. Paul’s Church has been open to the public to introduce Catholicism, resulting in a series of celebrity weddings being held at the church.

In particular, the wedding of Saigō Teruhiko (西郷輝彦) and Henmi Mari (辺見マリ) in 1972 was broadcasted nationally. Since then, the practice that only took place at Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church became common across Japan.

Saigō Teruhiko and Henmi Mari were famous Japanese singers in the 20th century.

Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church’s Opening Hours and Access Information

  • Karuizawa St. Paul’s Catholic Church is open daily except Thursdays from 9 am to 4 pm.
    • The Sunday mass is held from 9 am.
  • From Karuizawa Station, you can also take a bus and get off at Kyū Karuizawa (旧軽井沢). The church is then a one-minute walk.
  • If you plan to drive, park at Church Street Karuizawa. If you spend 3,000 yen or more at one shop, a voucher for 2-hour free parking will be given.

Karuizawa Shaw Memorial Church (軽井沢ショー記念礼拝堂) and Alexander Croft Shaw House (ショーハウス記念館)

Ⓒ 軽井沢町役場

Beyond the Old Karuizawa Ginza Street, close to the Nitebashi Bridge, you will encounter Karuizawa’s oldest church in a forest. The church was renovated from the first villa built in Karuizawa, home of a Canadian Anglican missionary, Alexander Croft Shaw.

Shaw was well-respected in the area because not only did Shaw successfully spread Christianity across the area, but he was also the person who spread the name of Karuizawa to the world as a summer resort. He is thus recognized as Karuizawa’s birth father (軽井沢発祥の父).

Although the church itself is simple, it is loved by the locals as a church open to everyone, especially those who are troubled by their life challenges.

In front of the chapel is a bronze statue of Shaw, and behind it is the Alexander Croft Shaw House, a museum that bears the same appearance as Shaw’s villa. In the museum, you will find many relics and materials related to Shaw. From the furniture placed in the museum and objects used, the lifestyle of the foreigners who enjoyed the summer in Karuizawa at that time can be easily pictured.

Since the completion of the villa, it has been used as the base for his missionary activities. From 1895, several renovations and expansions were made to the house until 1922, when it was finally transformed into the proper church that we see today.

Ⓒ 軽井沢町役場

Karuizawa’s Transformation After Shaw’s Arrival

In the Edo period, Karuizawa was an impoverished village. Due to the area’s colder climate, crops hardly grew, so the only source of income was from travelers.

However, since the Meiji period, Nakasendō (中山道), one of the five routes to Kyoto of the Edo period passing through Karuizawa, was abandoned. In addition, the construction of the new Usui Pass (碓氷峠) in 1884 diverted travelers from the town.

The person who saved Karuizawa from poverty was Shaw. He and his family first arrived in Karuizawa in 1886’s summer. Amazed by Karuizawa’s rich nature, he praised Karuizawa as “The Hospital Without a Roof (屋根のない病院)”. Wanting to spend more time in Karuizawa, he rented Kameya, an inn that was out of business, for a summer.

Seeing the opportunity that Shaw brought, the inn’s owner, Satō Mampei (佐藤万平), learnt the Westerner’s lifestyle from Shaw and Westernized a part of the inn. In 1894, Kameya was re-opened as Kemaya Hotel, which became the current Mampei Hotel (万平ホテル) the following year.

On the other hand, enjoying his stay in Karuizawa, Shaw built a small villa in the town and introduced Karuizawa as a perfect resort close to Tokyo to his missionary friends and Japanese intellectuals. As a result, villas for foreigners, artists, businessmen, and those of high social status increased. Several churches were built too.

After the completion of Usui Pass in 1893, Karuizawa was further developed and reborn as a luxury villa area with a hint of Western culture.

Karuizawa Shaw Memorial Church’s Opening Hours and Access Information

  • Karuizawa Shaw Memorial Church and Alexander Croft Shaw House are open daily except Thursdays from 9 am to 5 pm from April to the beginning of November.
    • From July to September, it is open from 9 am to 6 pm.
  • From Karuizawa Station, you can also take a bus and get off at Kyū Karuizawa (旧軽井沢). The church is then a 10-minute walk.

Uchimura Kanzō Memorial Stone Church (石の教会 内村鑑三記念堂)

Just a station away from Karuizawa Station, Naka-Karuizawa has two more churches worth your time. One of them is the stone church, Uchimura Kanzō Memorial Stone Church, in the Karuizawa Hoshino Area. This artistic architecture that blends in well with the nature of Karuizawa is one of the main landmarks in the town.

For more information, refer to our Guide to Karuizawa Hoshino Area!

Karuizawa Kōgen Church (軽井沢高原教会)

In the Taishō era, a community was formed by great writers and various artists in Karuizawa Hoshino Area. In particular, the building of Karuizawa Kōgen Church, buried in the forest, used to be where these talented people in the past gathered. In December, it is considered to be one of the most romantic spots in Karuizawa!

For more information, refer to our Guide to Karuizawa Hoshino Area!

Ⓒ 星野リゾート