Famous for its connection with the artist Hokusai and its production of chestnuts, OBUSE (小布施), some 20km northeast of Nagano, is one of Japan’s most attractive small towns. The streets around the venerable Ichimura estate and brewery in the centre of town have been beautified and many residents take part in an open garden scheme. Pavements have been relaid with blocks of chestnut wood and old buildings have been spruced up and turned into excellent restaurants, bars and a super-stylish hotel. Casually exploring Obuse, surrounded by orchards and vineyards and dotted with traditional houses, temples, small museums and craft galleries, is a wonderful way to pass a day; even better is to stay overnight and use Obuse as a base for trips around the area, including to nearby Yudanaka Onsen.
The Hokusai-kan (北斎館), about ten minutes’ walk southeast of the station, is devoted to the master of ukiyo-e woodblock prints, Katsushika Hokusai. In 1842, the 83-year-old artist was invited to live and work in Obuse by Takai Kōzan, the town’s leading merchant and art lover. A special studio, the thatched roofed Hekiiken, was built for Hokusai, and it was here that he completed four paintings for the ceilings of two large festival floats and a giant mural of a phoenix for the ceiling of the Ganshōin temple. The beautiful floats, decorated with dragons, seascapes and intricate carvings, are displayed in the museum along with some forty other works, including painted scrolls, delicate watercolours and woodblock prints. The red-roofed Ganshōin (岩松院), housing the beguiling phoenix mural (the Great Ho-o), is a pleasant walk or bicycle ride 1km east, towards the hills.
Near the Hokusai-kan, amid the Masuichi-Ichimura compound, is the Takai Kōzan Kinenkan (高井鴻山記念館), the atmospheric home of Hokusai’s patron, who was also an accomplished artist and calligrapher. His drawings of ghosts and goblins are meant as ironic comments on the turbulent early Meiji-era years and are quite intriguing, as is the sketch of a giant mammoth. In one of the rooms you can see long banners inscribed with kanji characters as well as the 2.5m-long brush used to paint them.
A ¥1000 combination ticket allows entry to both of the previous museums and the delightful Obuse Museum (おぶせミュージアム), which includes the Nakajima Chinami Gallery, an exhibition of this highly regarded artist’s colourful works. Also on display are five more of the town’s traditional festival floats, along with regularly changing art exhibitions.
Look out for a couple of attractive temples as you explore the compact town. Gensho-ji (玄照寺), on the west side of Obuse, has an elaborately carved gate dating from 1799 and some very glitzy gilded chandeliers. In stylistic contrast is Jōkō-ji (浄光寺) on the east side of town, near Ganshōin. This simple, squat, thatch-roofed structure at the top of a flight of rocky steps seems as old as time.