Autumn (Tokyo Studio)

Soukou: Leaves turn yellow and fall/ snakes hide away (4 of 5)

November 2nd, 2008

Soukou 9 of 15Our second-day in Nagano prefecture began with our most hospitable hosts, Mr and Mrs Ito, rising at 6am (followed shortly by our fellow guest, Sassaya-san). When we emerged from our slumber at 7, we were most amazed by the full Japanese breakfast awaiting us. This was the breakfast I’ve fantasized about since I was a child having seen this amazing early morning feast in anime and manga. It was made up of the essential misohiru (miso soup), gohan (rice), yakizakana (grilled fish – aji/ horse mackeral), tsukemono (pickles), sarada (salad), diced fruit and kanten (agar jelly) with yoghurt, and black coffee.

The full breakfast was to prepare us for a full day ahead. Setting off promptly at 8.30am, the courageous Mr Ito drove all of us all the way to Obuse (and back), a town in northern Nagano prefecture. The drive took over an hour taking us through the mountainous terrain of the prefecture connected by toll ways and a series of tunnels (some over 4km long!).

Obuse is a historical town North-east of Nagano city. It is most well-known for its association with the famed Hokusai Katsuhika (master of Ukiyo-e) and, more recently, its chestnuts. During the Edo period, Obuse served as a commercial centre for trade routes between western Japan and the capital to its south. The town’s slogan: ‘Obuse – the highway oasis’, is probably as true as it is today as it was two hundred years ago.

Our first destination was the Ganshoin (temple). Its major attractions are a Hokusai painted ceiling – The Origin, featuring a ho-o (pheonix) with a body composed of matsu (pine), laurel and plantian, the mausoleum of Fukushima Masanori (a samurai commander in the late 16th century), and a pond favoured by the battlefrogs, where haiku/poet Issa Kobayashi composed some well-known verses. When we first arrived, a very old monk with an impressive walking stick was commanding a large crowd with his captivating lecture on Hokusai’s works. When we left, the early morning fog lifted making way for a fine day.

Like many historical towns Obuse is full of fame, every store has its own claim to it: chestnuts, gardens, meals, sake, history, and art; drawing tourists from all over Japan. The touring buses and the traffic jams along its narrow streets were a sight to behold. After a meal at the famous chestnut restaurant, where we tasted Aki no aji (Autumn taste: chestnut rice, mushrooms, pickled trout), we headed to the Hokusai Museum.

Hokusai was invited by a local Obuse merchant, Kouzan Takai, to live in Obuse when he was 85 years old (but he returned to Edo after about 4 years, where he later died). Kouzan became Hokusai’s patron and built the studio Hekikien, where the old master could work. Here, Hokusai focused on his paintings and ceiling works. The Hokusai museum was built in 1976 to showcase these works produced in the final period of the artist’s life. The museum is so famed that the crowned prince and princess made a special trip in January this year to see Hokusai’s works (further adding to its’ fame).

The final period of Hokusai’s life and career saw him take up the name ‘Gakyō Rōjin Manji’ (The old man mad about paintings). These later works were skilled, unconstrained, and full of humour, offering studies of forms and characters, musings, and fancies. The museum also have some of his earlier works on display including the travelling series: Thirty-six views of Mount Fuji, Unusual Views of Celebrated Bridges in the Provinces, A Tour of the Waterfalls of the Provinces. This made me ponder about local tourism-boom in Japan in the Edo period – perhaps not much has changed.

To complete our experience of local tourism, we bought the famous Yokokawa ekiben (station bento) before we hopped back onto the local train which took us back to the capital.

2 Responses to “Soukou: Leaves turn yellow and fall/ snakes hide away (4 of 5)”

  1. 1 lizzie
    November 4th, 2008 at 8:18 am

    What a great epistle from Nagano. I’m envious of all the trad food. Especially the “taste of autumn”. Very fitting for your seasonal journal. Historic tourism and its traces in art is an interesting topic. I saw an exhibition in Montreal of the artist Emily Carr which also made the point that lots of her paintings were part of a nascent touristic economy in the wild backwoods of canada.

  2. 2 jolaw
    November 6th, 2008 at 11:13 pm

    Lizzie, travel and art make a great combo. It keeps surfacing in this alamanc. The riverwalks in particular are conducive to such thoughts – as they provide ready-made routes for getting around on foot. The history of Edo – the roads built to connect the new capital to the old one and other cities – provides a rich background to many travel stories. I am reminded of Basho’s journey today (see November 6th’s post).