At some point during the journey from Sendai down to Obuse the pine forests of the north gave way to the vineyards and grassy hills of Central Honshu, a land famous for its rice, vegetables and most importantly for its sake!
Before arriving in Obuse we made a short stop in the city of Nagano, made famous in the 1990s when it hosted the Winter Olympics. The small glimpse we had of this city was beautiful, its tree lined streets and friendly people combined with the glorious sunshine have made it one of many places we would like to come back to.
A short local train ride from Nagano is the mountain town of Obuse, famous for its chestnuts and three local sake houses. The walk from the train station to our hostel was incredible, the narrow streets were lined with traditional Edo-style homes and beautiful gardens. Every shop that we passed offered every variety of chestnut dish imaginable from roasted and candied chestnuts to noodles, curries and even sake flavoured with chestnut paste.
The other pride of Obuse is the legendary Japanese artist Hokusai, and his influence is apparent throughout the town, whether in murals and stonework or in the plethora of Hokusai themed gifts that all the stores offer. It is easy to so see how somewhere as beautiful and peaceful as Obuse could provide the perfect setting for some of Japan’s most famous pieces of art.
After checking in we explored the labyrinth of streets that made up central Obuse, wandering in and out of market stalls, shops and cafes sampling the many chestnut dishes. It was at this point that we realised we had run out of cash and so went on a desperate search for an international ATM, this search was made all the more difficult by the baking sun and Obuse’s lack of any kind of structure.
Eventually we came to the edge of the town and found the ATM, from here the real beauty of Obuse became clear. The town is surrounded on all sides by wooded hills and every street seems to have a stream or a creek running alongside it, adding a gentle sound of running water everywhere you go. As there are no high rise buildings in Obuse the focal points of the skyline are the ornate roofs of the temples and shrines that appear on almost every street.
As the sun reached its peak and the temperature soared to above 30’C we sought shelter in the quaint Yura Curry House, a tiny establishment with 3 tables and a small bar. The menu had only three options, all variations on the traditional Japanese curry that originated in Nagano prefecture. Unlike the curries of northern Japan this was a lighter sauce with much more delicate spices, and instead of huge hunks of meat the curry constituted almost entirely of local seasonal veg.
With the afternoon sun at its most beautiful we made the 2km walk out of the town to one of the many temples that dot the valley, sadly the name of this beautiful place evades me. I have never been a religious person, and to be honest I’ve never really been spiritual either but there is something about this country and these places that resonates with me.
The beautiful architecture, the silence and the space have allowed me to really be alone with my thoughts for the first time. When you pass other people in these temples there is rarely the exchange of words, instead a simple bow and a smile.
Spending a couple of hours in the temple had left us feeling revitalised and tranquil, so our walk back into the village was slow and silent. By the time we returned to the centre of Obuse most of the tourists had left and many of the shops were closing, with only the sake bars and a couple of restaurants catering to those who were staying in town overnight.
The one shop that did remain open had another selection of tasting foods on offer, so obviously we hurried over. Only this time we were met not with chesnuts or dough balls but rather candied crickets. Now they tasted delicious, but any food that results in you having entire legs stuck between your teeth is not my cup of tea…I will not be eating crickets again.
Night came quickly in Obuse and soon the town was almost completely dark, save for a few street lamps the dimmed lights of the houses. As we wandered in search of dinner we came across Tommy’s, an American themed diner run by a lovely old Japanese lady. With no other options for dinner we decided to eat here, and though the food was okay it was the people that made Tommy’s a real delight.
By the end of the meal we had heard the lady’s life story, including her 6 month stint in London during the 1960s, and as we left she treated us with a bag full of local produce for our breakfast and an open invitation to return at discounted price whenever we wanted.
When we arrived back at the hostel we had our first glimpse of the room we were to be staying in. It was a private room, it even had chairs and a table…and a pair of ornate kimonos for use around the house. Safe to say we were relishing having our own space and were soon sat on our respective beds chomping away on pork buns, drinking beer and listening to ‘My Dad Wrote a Porno’.
I haven’t mentioned ‘My Dad Wrote a Porno’ until now because I have been waiting for the right time but my advice to anyone who is travelling long distances is to download this hilariously vulgar podcast and prepare to giggle the miles away. Words can’t explain how brilliant this podcast is so please if you only do one thing today let it be downloading the first episode.
The next morning as we prepared to leave Obuse we decided to pop out one last time to find somewhere nice to have breakfast, what we stumbled upon instead was Obuse’s annual Autumn Festival. It is a 2km long celebration of food, culture and music from across Nagano Prefecture, serving everything from mushroom soup and fried octopus to popped rice and crepes.
As we made our way through the crowds of locals trying all the foods on offer the sound of music filled the air, soon we were confronted with the most adorable children’s choir I’ve ever seen. As they sang their little hearts out, their parents and friends looked on with pride, it really was beautiful. This music was rudely interrupted by what sounded like an explosion, however on closer inspection what we found was a large metal canister filled with rice being rapidly heated to very high temperatures in order to pop the rice. Another explosion although expected proved no less terrifying and we hurried to find more food in order to calm ourselves.
It was at this point that one of the many strange Japanese trends really hit home, as we walked around we saw more and more adorable dogs. However the Japanese don’t seem content with just having a dog, every single dog must either be dressed in human clothing or be in some kind of bag (and sometimes both). A particular highlight for us was an adorable family taking a picture outside the sake gallery, however the pram was facing the wall and not the camera, now I know not all kids are as photogenic as the Rice Crispy Kid but come on, that’s just mean. It was only when we saw the family from the other side that we realised the reason behind this odd behaviour. In the pram sat not a child but rather an adorable French bulldog. I know Japan has an ageing population problem but is raising dogs as people really the answer?