Photo: Vicki L Beyer
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Art and ambience in Obuse

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By Vicki L Beyer

During Japan’s Tokugawa Period (1603-1868) the country was dotted with trading towns, central hubs through which flowed people and goods. Many of these towns withered after Japan industrialized at the end of the nineteenth century.

One little trading town that has managed to retain its historic roots and leverage a somewhat distinctive history is Obuse in northern Nagano, about 250 kilometers northwest of Tokyo. It’s an easy place to visit as an excursion from Nagano city and autumn is a perfect time to go.

Art History

During a career that spanned nearly eight decades, the artist Hokusai Katsushika (1760?-1848) produced more than 30,000 works in various styles. In 1842, while in his early 80s, Hokusai traveled to Obuse at the invitation of a local landowner/merchant, Kozan Takai. Takai was a cultured man of letters who had met Hokusai in Edo some time before. Takai wanted to study drawing with Hokusai and so offered him a home and workshop in Obuse after Hokusai’s Edo workshop was destroyed by fire.

Although Hokusai had gained fame as a print artist, he was, by this stage in his career, focused on painting, which, he claimed, he needed many more years of practice to perfect. During his years in Obuse he produced a number of now-famous paintings. Many of these, together with several of his prints and other works, can be seen at Hokusai-kan Museum, Obuse’s art museum dedicated to the work of Hokusai. Among the special works exhibited are two floats used in Obuse’s annual festival, their ceilings adorned with Hokusai’s colorful work. And don’t miss the special autumn exhibition (until November 13).

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Hokusai-kan also offers regular showings of two videos with English subtitles that provide historical context to Hokusai’s life and work and examine his particular connection to Obuse and the work he did while there.

Hours: Daily 9:00-17:00 (closed on December 31 and between special exhibitions)

Admission: 1,000 yen

The home of Hokusai’s patron/student, Kozan Takai, is just a short walk from Hokusai-kan. It, too, is now a museum with displays on Obuse’s history, Hokusai’s time in Obuse, and, most especially, Takai’s artistic and intellectual endeavors. Takai was particularly skilled at drawing images of yokai, Japanese imaginary monsters. Visitors can get a feel for the kind of residential complex commonly used by successful merchants and also see a replica of Hokusai’s atelier.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Hours: daily 9:00-17:00 (closed on December 31)

Admission: 300 yen

Historical Ambience

Just strolling the streets of the old heart of the city carries the visitor back in time. Obuse has retained much of its 18th/19th century feel with narrow streets and laneways lined with shops offering various items including traditional handicrafts like paper. It goes without saying that local food and drinks are also plentiful and tasty.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Look for tall brick smokestacks at the back of a building complex to identify local sake breweries. Sometimes tours or tastings are available and even when they’re not, the locally-produced brew is bound to be available to buy and carry home.

Oyaki, Nagano’s distinctive steamed-then-grilled dumpling, is sold at several locations around the town, either to eat in or take-away. The variety of predominately vegetable fillings available is surprising. These yummy morsels can easily make up a meal, or just buy one to nibble while wandering the streets. Some shops will ship frozen oyaki to your home (within Japan only, unfortunately) so that you can prepare and eat the treats at home, too.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

Another local delicacy to watch out for, especially in autumn, is chestnuts. The Obuse area has long been a major producer of chestnuts. There are plenty of opportunities to buy or eat chestnut treats including chestnut rice, chestnut flavored soft cream ice cream, and marron sweets. This time of year, maybe you just want a bag of freshly roasted chestnuts to munch on. Roasters operate in shops open to the street so that passers-by can stop to watch or chat.

Gardens and Flowers

While munching those chestnuts and wandering the quaint laneways, feel free to drop into the gardens behind many local homes. Obuse has an open garden system and many local gardeners welcome visitors.

Avid gardeners or flower lovers may also want to make a stop at Floral Garden Obuse, a 15,000-square-meter botanical garden on the eastern outskirts of town. The Floral Garden, open 9:30 to 16:30, is especially well known for its seasonal blooms.

Historical Temple

Obuse’s final must-see destination, Ganshoin temple, sits in the foothills just beyond the Floral Garden. Founded in 1472, it seems to have been a simple local center of worship situated in a scenic spot, until Hokusai was asked to paint a ceiling panel for it.

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Photo: Vicki L Beyer

The massive painting Hokusai created shortly before his death is widely regarded as one of his greatest masterpieces. It depicts a colorful phoenix bird with an image of Mount Fuji (one of Hokusai’s favorite subjects) hidden in it. The painting, 550 cm by 630 cm, was was made on 12 panels that have been affixed to the ceiling. The vibrant colors, that have never been touched up or restored, are as astonishing is the vivid image itself.

Several times a day one of the temple priests gives a talk about the temple’s history and relics, including the famous Hokusai painting. An automated translation is provided for non-Japanese speaking visitors.

Hours: daily 9:00-17:00 (April-October); 9:00-16:30 (November); 9:30-16:30 (December-March)

Admission: 500 yen

Getting there

Obuse is easily accessed by train or private car. By train from Nagano, catch the Nagano Dentetsu Nagano Line bound for Shinshu Nakano. It takes 33 minutes to reach Obuse. Although everything in Obuse is easily walkable, rental bicycles are also available at the station.

Vicki L Beyer, a regular Japan Today contributor, is a freelance travel writer who also blogs about experiencing Japan. Follow her blog at jigsaw-japan.com.

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