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Sunday, March 29, 2009
Uncovering an ukiyo-e master in Obuse
By MANDY BARTOK
Special to The Japan Times
The small town of Obuse nestles quietly in the foothills of the Japan Alps, a 30-minute ride on a local rail line from the prefectural capital of Nagano City.
Known locally for its apples and sweet chestnuts, this rural community would likely have remained in wider obscurity were it not for the retirement plans of one of Japan's most famous artists — ukiyo-e (woodblock print) master Katsushika Hokusai (1760-1849).
Hokusai's masterpieces rank among Japan's most recognizable works of art. His woodblock prints garnered immense acclaim throughout his career, but his fame was assured for posterity with the publication of the captivating series titled, "36 Views of Mount Fuji."
The striking images of a snow-capped Fuji are imprinted in many an ukiyo-e fan's mind; thanks to modern commercialism, they also grace everything from coasters to coffee mugs to canvas bags. And in Obuse, even the manhole covers — decorated with etchings of his famous "Great Wave off Kanagawa" — pay tribute to this acknowledged legend.
Hokusai first came to Obuse near the end of his life, at the behest of his patron, wealthy farmer and salt merchant Takai Kozan. Already in his 80s, the woodblock artist born in Edo (present-day Tokyo) had no intention of slowing down in his twilight years. Instead, in the peace and serenity of the countryside, he devoted himself to brush painting, breaking away from the genre of ukiyo-e to turn out masterpieces in the style of Chinese classical art, such as the striking "Dragon Flying Over Mount Fuji" (1849). As death approached, he left many of his last works to the town and temples of Obuse. It's a move that has turned the quiet agriculture village into a key stop on the cultural tourist's trail.
Obuse also attracts visitors with its locally grown chestnuts. In shops around town, chestnut products abound, from baked goods and chestnut-themed set lunches to the ubiquitous chestnut-flavored ice cream cones. The sweet smell of roasting chestnuts wafting from the main square tantalizes many a hungry visitor, but if your nose needs a little assistance to track down the local treats, let the chestnut-decorated sidewalks steer you in the right direction. The shells of Obuse's important cash crop line the walkways, laid out in the cement in various geometric patterns. These unique studded paths begin outside the train station and wind through the streets to the center of town, where most sights and eateries are located.
On a corner of Obuse's main square, the Hokusai Museum opened in 1972 and houses the town's best collection of the artist's work. Inside, two oversize festival-float panels take pride of place in a first-floor exhibition room. Bold strokes of color blend seamlessly together on the wood, capturing the forms of a dragon, a phoenix and opposing tsunami waves. The panels were designed to adorn the interiors of two grand floats, the Higashi-machi and Kan-machi ones that were used in the town's many shrine festivals. In other rooms, visitors can examine Hokusai's exquisite scroll paintings or marvel at the detail of his early black-and-white ukiyo-e prints. Upstairs, a series of sketches showcasing peasant life rounds out the superb collection.
Outside the museum, a narrow chestnut-inlaid path leads past a group of renovated mustard-hued storehouses to the Takai Kozan Memorial Hall. Named for the art enthusiast who funded Hokusai's Obuse retreats, the manicured grounds of the courtyard contain the tiny studio where Hokusai worked on his final pieces.
The storehouse museum also displays drawings by Kozan himself, though the hidden gem of this complex is the attached sake brewery. The Masuichi-Ichimura Brewery, owned by descendants of Takai Kozan, has been producing its popular sake for 254 years. The business is currently managed by an American woman named Sarah Cummings, an arrangement uncommon in the male-dominated realm of sake. Under her direction, the brewery recently switched back to the traditional use of oke barrels (wooden barrels held together with bamboo straps) in their sake production.
One of Masuichi's cheerful brewers invited me to taste the difference, tempting me with samples bearing the names of Hokusai's nearby atelier and his art-loving patron, among others. I requested a glass of the namesake drink — Masuichi — commonly called "Square One" because of the shape of the kanji used on the bottle's label. Having pleased my palate, the brewer next took pride in showing me the mural in Masuichi's entrance hall — a painting of the kanji for alcohol. In Obuse, it appears, art is everywhere.
On weekends and in the summer months, a tourist shuttle bus does the rounds of Obuse's major sights, mostly ferrying weary visitors out to Gansho-in Temple, the location of Hokusai's largest painting. I went in the off season, when walking was the only way to get there — but the 2-km hike was worth every step on the way, if only to peek into Obuse's many attractive backyard gardens. In an attempt to boost tourism and attract visitors, local officials have recently implemented the Obuse Open Garden program. More than 90 Obuse homes and businesses have since landscaped and opened their yards to curious visitors. So, if the sign is out and the gate is unlatched, feel free to walk in and enjoy the surroundings.
My half-hour ramble to Gansho-in Temple found me at the base of the region's often snow-covered peaks. Surrounded by vistas of apple orchards, the temple is a peaceful home to Hokusai's Chinese phoenix painting. The work was one of the artist's last, completed when he was 89 years old.
The best view of the phoenix, which glares down at visitors from the temple ceiling, is apparently from flat on one's back, as evidenced by the handful of visitors I spied lying across the room's benches. With a reassuring smile from the temple caretakers, I sprawled out on the tatami mats and gazed toward heaven. A magnificent Chinese phoenix spread its emerald- and tangerine-colored wings across the roof, illuminating the tiny hall. The paint Hokusai used was allegedly mixed with jewels, and the brilliant colors of the mythical bird have yet to fade, a fitting legacy for an artist as highly valued today as he ever was.
With its population of around 12,000, Obuse is not a large town, and exploring it won't take more than a day. But spend a few hours wandering the tiny streets and you're sure to be charmed by this friendly community, where art awaits discovery at every turn.
Obuse (hometown.infocreate.co.jp/en/chubu/obuse/obuse-e.html) is a half-hour by car east of Nagano City, also accessible via the Nagano Dentetsu Line (¥650, 30-40 min). Nagano is 1 hr 40 mins from Tokyo Station on the Asama Shinkansen (¥8,170). The Hokusai Museum (¥500; 9 a.m.-5 p.m., April through October; 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m., November through March;  247-5206) and the Takai Kozan Memorial Hall (¥200; same hours as the Hokusai Museum;  247-4049) are both in the center of town, a 10-minute walk from Obuse Station. Gansho-in Temple (¥200; 9 a.m.-5 p.m., April through November; 9 a.m.-4 p.m., December through March, closed Wednesdays in winter;  247-5504) is a 30-minute walk from the train station. Alternatively, the Roman-go shuttle bus runs between the station and the main sights on Saturdays, Sundays and holidays. Bicycles can be rented from in front of Obuse Station.