Morning breaks, and even before I open my eyes, the joyful song of the birds from outside tells me it’s a sunny day. I roll out of the futon, put on the appropriate pair of slippers and walk across the yard to the main household.
Breakfast is rice (from the garden), miso soup, tofu with eringi mushrooms (from the garden), green peppers, pickled radish, natto (sticky soya beans), carrots and satoimo potatoes (also from the garden), chikuwa (fish sausage) and the fried mackerel from yesterday (they never throw food out at the Kobayashi household). By any reckoning, it’s an extraordinary amount of food, but all so healthy and so fresh that after finishing breakfast, I feel like a superhero.
We ready our back pack, fix up the bikes and head off ready to seize the day, carpe diem baby! We’re going to cycle to Obuse, a pretty village nearby. Sachiko has the scenic route all worked out and off we go. The sun, uninterfered by clouds, pushes the temperature up into the low 20s and though we leave the house with our jumpers on…
We’re not long disposing of them. Along the way, Sachiko does tour guide and displays incomparable local knowledge.
“Nakajima family live there”
“That’s the Maki family”
“Ejiri barber shop”
“The Furya family live there”
“That’s the Kumai family house”
After a pleasant cycle through the neighbourhood, we come to a small green surrounded by fully blooming cherry blossom trees. The trees are enormous and already some couples are gathering underneath and admiring their splendor. Unlike the somewhat scrawny cherry blossoms I’m familiar with in Ireland, these trees are voluptuous giants; they’re positively heaving with cherry blossoms, while at the same time, they convey a great feeling of lightness. It’s a sublime sight. As far as expressions of spring go, this is high art. We linger for a short time under the canopy of pink and white.
The custom of hanami, marvelling at sakura (cherry blossoms), is one of the most quintessentially Japanese experiences. The cherry blossom tree is native to Japan and for over a thousand years it has been custom to marvel at it during spring time. We get back on our bikes and press on. Our route takes us by yellow fields of rape flower and over a flooded road.
We circle back and before cycling the remaining leg of our trip to Obuse, we take a last look at the cherry blossoms. By now there’s a family gathering taking place in the green with the sakura all around. Lots of kids are running around, full of innocence and gaiety. Nearby, their parents sit on the grass and relax. Also running around, is a large circle of young men kicking a football amongst each other. Finally, sitting in the shade of the cherry blossom trees, there are some grandparents smiling nostalgically at the entire scene. Their hearts are surely brimming with happiness.
We begin a steady ascent to Obuse. After about 20 mins pedaling, we arrive into the main square of Obuse village. We lock up the bikes and look around. Obuse is a village worth visiting in large part due to the diligent efforts of the local people who through years of hard work have lovingly maintained and restored the old chestnut wooden buildings and footpaths.
But there’s more reason to visit Obuse than if you just have a wood fetish. In 1844, and when well into his 80s, the artist Hokusai was invited to live and work in the town by a local sake merchant. At that time Hokusai was an elder statesman of Japanese art, much celebrated for his 36 views of Mount Fuji, which included his by now super famous image of the The Great Wave. Far from the madding crowd and up in the Nagano hills, Hokusai found sufficient peace to work productively for a number of years. Many of the artworks he completed remained in the village after he left. He died in Tokyo in 1849.
Today there’s a museum dedicated to Hokusai and the time he spend living in Obuse. It houses much of the art he completed when resident in the village and in we go for a visit. Everyday Hokusai completed new work and there’s an enormous selection of material, both consummate masterpieces and casual throwaway sketches. As usual, there’s a prohibition on taking pictures but some of the descriptions are great and so I write them down:
“The figure of this eagle which is staring intently at a point surely has a regal presence”
“The enraptured cat with the scruff of its neck bending is masterfully depicted”
“All the charms of this woman are oozing from her whole body”
This last image is very odd to my eyes. The alluring woman is dressed like a geisha, she is quite tall and oriental looking, but in a very weird manner, she is bending her head to display a very un-naturalistically long neck. It’s more disturbing that enticing. She looks like she’s been cross-bred with a giraffe. However, there’s a simple explanation. At the time, a long neck was considered very erotic by Japanese men (and thus by Japanese society). And Hokusai, who was no stranger to Japanese eroticism, has masterfully depicted the erotic charms of the woman. It still looks odd to me, but I guess, so do the tight-laced corsets that women in Europe used to wear at that time.
There’s an extensive selection of Hokusai’s mangas. The word manga literally means “whimsical pictures” and its use is attributed to Hokusai. They’re not the comic strip of modern times, just a single picture but using forms and methods that later became fundamental to Japanese manga. They’re a playful selection of images of a great diversity of characters, scenes and even proverbs. They’re anatomically brilliant but beautifully rendered too in the characteristic manner of Hokusai. He depicts animals (snakes, wrinkly elephants, mice) elements (wind), people (samurai warriors playing games, musicians, guards, people with long noses), various scenes (assassinations, acrobatics) and monsters (beast world, fishing for kapa). I’m able to track down some of the mangas later.
Two of the proverbs he draws mangas for are (when translated):
“Happiness is for those who laugh”
“Hide your head and your butt appears”
The museum also has two of the larger works Hokusai completed when in Nagano: the ceiling painting of the masculine wave and the feminine wave. We look at them for a while, guessing which one is which… then we argue for another while, about why each one is each one…
Afterwards we visit the house belonging to Takai Kozan, the man who originally invited Hokusai to live in Obuse. Takai Kozan was a wealthy merchant, but also a man with a keen interest in the events and ideas of the day. His house was something of a salon for the intellectuals and thinkers of the time to visit. Kozan’s many visitors could have had their discussions in the numerous rooms which surround the large courtyard with its beautifully maintained garden.
The Japan of Kozan and Hokusai was the end of the Edo period when cracks were beginning to show in the political structure of the country. For the previous few hundred years, Japan had been a virtual military dictatorship, ruled by a shogun (general) of the Tokugawa clan. The shogun was supported by local daimyo (chiefs) whose hired protectors were the samurai class. Within a generation of Hokusai’s death, the shogun would relinquish power, the samurai would be abolished and the Emperor would be restored to rule the country. But back in the 1840s, a time of great upheaval and war was bubbling underneath the surface.
This lurking danger shows itself in Kozan’s house, for in nearly every room we go into, there is some hidden feature that if necessary, enables rapid escape. One could never know when thieves, murderers or would-be-assassins would try to gain entry to the home of a man who was promoting ideas that ran counter to the conservative ethos of the ruling class. Apart from the samurai, the other deadly profession in Japan are the ninjas and they can strike from any point. As we walk around the house we find parts of the floor that can be lifted to reveal hidden tunnels underneath, normal looking wall-paneling which when swiveled, shows a hidden door and in all the rooms on the first floor, we see that the windows give access to the roof outside where one can make a hasty escape.
But it’s not all danger and stealth. In one room I find a simple 1-string instrument called the ichigenkin and I have a go.
As we pass through the reception to leave the house, we pause for a minute and the friendly man behind the counter invites us to have some free barley tea. It’s pretty hot outside, so this is a welcome break. The man asks where I’m from.
“Irelulando”, I reply.
“Oh” he says, “Is that where men wear skirts?”
“That’s Scotland”, I correct him, “But Ireland is a neighbouring island.”
He thanks me wholeheartedly for travelling so far to visit Japan after the earthquake, tsunami and nuclear disaster. He’s quite surprised anyone is visiting Japan from abroad.
“Tourism is down 30-50%”, he tells us.
This collapse in tourism is painfully obvious as we return to the square where we locked our bikes. It’s lunchtime by now and the square is encircled with numerous little stall holders, but there are simply no tourists around. Most of the workers look intensely bored, but a few chat amiably to each other. We do our bit for the local economy by having some delicious chestnut ice-cream.
Our last venture in Obuse is Ganshoin, a Zen Buddhist Temple on the outskirts of the village. Our main reason for going up there is to see the other main fruit of Hokusai’s time in Obsuse: a ceiling illustration of a large ho-o (phoenix) bird staring in eight directions. It’s a bit of a cycle, but en-route we pass through some more cherry blossom magic…
We walk the last part of the route, passing through the Deva Gate…
We leave our shoes outside the temple and go in. There’s no else around, we sit down and marvel up at the ho-o bird. It’s a stunning piece of work, 30 square metres of colour and dynamic movement and the bird has an intense stare which easily follows you around the room. I’m really tempted to try and capture the image with a photo, but in the end I respect the prohibition. Since the image is in the public domain, it’s easy to track down.
We go outside and nearby there’s a little pond. According to a leaflet I’ve picked up, in the pond at the back of the temple is a site of intense frog activity in the spring. The leaflet contains a wonderfully euphemistic description of the frog mating season:
Each year in the season of hanami (cherry blossom viewing), countless frogs appear in the small pond in the backyard of the Ganshoin Temple. The male frogs like to assist the female frogs in their reproductive duties. There is quite a scramble by the former for the latter, who are fewer in number.
The frogs are quiet when we visit, but their croaking is said to disturb the tranquility of this Zen Buddhist Temple during spring every year.
We go for a little walk about and find a stone with a haiku poem etched into it. The stone commemorates the haiku by the famous haiku poet, Kobayashi Issa who visited Obuse in 1816. Apparently, while watching the frog-mating antics and at the same time thinking of his terminally ill young son, Issa composed what became one of his most famous verses:
Don’t be defeated
Issa is here!
We’re nearly finished our ramble around the temple area and the cherry blossom is so alluring I declare a timelapse photo is essential. So I tell Sachiko where to sit, and line up the camera.
The first picture is a complete accident, the timer function wasn’t even switched on…
In the second picture, I’m too tardy getting into position…
But thankfully, its third time lucky.
In the outskirts of the temple where we locked our bikes, we linger around just a little bit longer. There’s something very special about the place and no doubt the cherry blossoms are contributing to it. Up in the hills, the complete absence of other tourists and people contributes to peaceful quietitude of the Zen Buddhist temple. I take one last picture of the Ganshoin Temple nestled in the hills and then we cycle downhill back to Suzaka.