The Japanese town hit by 'Typhoon Girl'
Kate Graham explores Obuse, a little corner of Japan being given a make-over by a visionary American expatriate
Sunday 31 August 2008
What strikes you most about the centre of Obuse is what's missing. There are no bland concrete box buildings, no criss-cross of overhead electric wires, no harsh neon lights. Instead, the view from my lunch table is a perfect balance of ancient pine trees and earthen roof tiles. Walkways made of chocolate-brown chestnut wood wind between the mottled buildings, and along them people stroll in the snow, holding brightly coloured paper umbrellas high to protect them from the falling flakes.
It's a vision most hope to find when they visit Japan. But decades of earthquakes, bombs and a relentless push for progress have seen many beautiful landscapes lost, torn down and replaced by the new and the bland.
Now one small company is fighting back. The 250-year-old Masuichi sake brewery has revived a landscape many thought was lost for ever and the woman leading the charge isn't a lifelong local. She's a blonde American who saw a culture worth saving and got to work.
Since joining the brewery in 1994, Sarah Marie Cummings has become a legendary figure. Nicknamed "Typhoon Girl", her whirlwind of activities includes founding town beautification committees, saving ancient buildings from the bulldozers and reviving craft skills that threatened to die out.
It's her latest project that brings me to town. Masuichi Kyakuden is a newly opened 12-room guesthouse, a collection of traditional buildings that were rescued, relocated to Obuse and renovated into a sleek, modern hotel. It's a creation born from years of intergenerational collaboration, ageing craftsmen working beside young architects. The hotel now forms a central part of the brewery complex, surrounded by shops, restaurants, museums and gardens.
Kyakuden certainly doesn't look new; its combination of shining dark wood and whitewashed walls blend effortlessly into the surroundings. Yet through the fluttering noren (cloth curtain) the reception is airy and modern. I'm taken through a courtyard and up a polished spiral staircase to my room, a surprisingly generous suite open to the rafters.
The interior is glossy and expensive; specially designed furniture is angled towards the private terrace garden, two oversized beds covered in soft cotton. Every comfort is considered: a wetroom has a rainforest shower and deep glass bath, the toilet festooned with the obligatory baffling buttons. In the separate dressing room fluffy towels are piled high while feet are kept toasty with underfloor heating.
But it's far from bland modernism. The details all pay homage to Obuse's roots. Rooms include clogs and green tea, and each oversized wooden keyring opens to reveal a print by the famous local wood-block artist Katsushika Hokusai. Walking back through the courtyard, I notice a pond where koi carp swim in lazy circles. The well-placed art displays are, in fact, polished brewery implements. An Edo period building has been converted into a cosy library, the perfect spot to read about the town's history.
There's little time to linger. I'm to attend another of Sarah's successful schemes, Obusession, a regular lecture and discussion group created seven years ago. Every month, guests from the various worlds of Japanese culture share their thoughts and ideas. Anywhere else, it would be off limits to non-Japanese speakers; here a translator is supplied. Tonight it's the turn of Terukichi Nagata, an economist turned agriculturalist. The inspiring discussion continues long after his lecture has ended. There's a delicious dinner of local cuisine and free-flowing sake followed by a party late into the night.
The next morning I meet Sarah over breakfast in San Poo Loh, one of the brewery's three excellent restaurants. She explains that the inspiration behind Kyakuden, like so many of the projects, came from studying the company's past. "During the Edo period guests would come and stay on the brewery's tatami mat floor. It's a tradition we wanted to revive. We want people to be able to experience the lifestyle of Obuse, and to bring new ideas and energy into the town." And the hotel's clever blend of traditional crafts and modern comforts? "There are reasons why people stopped wanting to live in old houses. If you want to value things from the past, you have to update them so they apply to today."
Lunch is a perfect example. At the Club restaurant I enjoy simple, traditional Japanese cooking: fish and soups, pickles and rice. Perched at the busy counter in front of the open kitchen, we watch the chefs at work, flitting between the wood-burning stove recently brought back into use. On the wall, beautiful black and white photos of the brewing dynasty act as locker doors and old equipment is displayed as art. It's not a slavish re-creation of a bygone era: it's the town's history brought to life.
Obuse isn't a museum of the past, Sarah says as she walks me to the brewery exit, a 300-year-old gatehouse. It's a living, evolving place. "That's what makes it so special. Everyone who comes here becomes part of that organism, rather than just passively looking at it behind glass."
Back on the bullet train that whisks me towards Tokyo, I gaze at the urban sprawl and take heart. I hope more passionate people out there are working to revive ancient Japanese culture. But in the meantime, there's always Obuse.
How to get there
British Airways (0844 493 0787; ba.com) offers return flights to Tokyo for £599, based on travel from 25 October to 9 December. Book by 23 September. Trains run from Tokyo to Nagano, and then to Obuse for approximately £44.
B&B at Masuichi Kyakuden (0081 26 2471111; kyakuden.jp/english/) in Obuse from 35,000 yen (£174) per night. Obusession (obusession.com) costs 5,000 yen (£23) per person.
Japan National Tourist Organisation (020-7398 5678; seejapan.co.uk)
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