The Japanese town hit by 'Typhoon Girl'

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Kate Graham explores Obuse, a little corner of Japan being given a make-over by a visionary American expatriate

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.

COMPACT FACTS

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.

Further information

Japan National Tourist Organisation (020-7398 5678; seejapan.co.uk)

News
More than 90 years of car history are coming to an end with the abolition of the paper car-tax disc
newsThis and other facts you never knew about the paper circle - completely obsolete today
News
people'I’d rather have Fred and Rose West quote my characters on childcare'
Life and Style
The new Windows 10 Start Menu
tech
Arts and Entertainment
There has been a boom in ticket sales for female comics, according to an industry survey
comedyFirst national survey reveals Britain’s comedic tastes
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Travel
Bruce Chatwin's novel 'On the Black Hill' was set at The Vision Farm
travelOne of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
Sport
footballManchester City 1 Roma 1: Result leaves Premier League champions in danger of not progressing
Arts and Entertainment
Gay and OK: a scene from 'Pride'
filmsUS film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
News
i100
Life and Style
Magic roundabouts: the gyratory system that has excited enthusiasts in Swindon
motoringJust who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
Arts and Entertainment
Hilary North's 'How My Life Has Changed', 2001
booksWell it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
Travel
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Management Accountant

    28,000 to 32,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our client, a hospitality busi...

    Food and Beverage Cost Controller

    18,000 to 20,000 per annum: Accountancy Action: Our fantastic leisure client i...

    Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive

    £20 - 24k: Guru Careers: A Marketing Analyst / Marketing Executive is needed t...

    IT Administrator - Graduate

    £18000 Per Annum: Clearwater People Solutions Ltd: ***EXCELLENT OPPORTUNITY FO...

    Day In a Page

    Ebola outbreak: The children orphaned by the virus – then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection

    The children orphaned by Ebola...

    ... then rejected by surviving relatives over fear of infection
    Pride: Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    Are censors pandering to homophobia?

    US film censors have ruled 'Pride' unfit for under-16s, though it contains no sex or violence
    The magic of roundabouts

    Lords of the rings

    Just who are the Roundabout Appreciation Society?
    Why do we like making lists?

    Notes to self: Why do we like making lists?

    Well it was good enough for Ancient Egyptians and Picasso...
    Hong Kong protests: A good time to open a new restaurant?

    A good time to open a new restaurant in Hong Kong?

    As pro-democracy demonstrators hold firm, chef Rowley Leigh, who's in the city to open a new restaurant, says you couldn't hope to meet a nicer bunch
    Paris Fashion Week: Karl Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'

    Paris Fashion Week

    Lagerfeld leads a feminist riot on 'Boulevard Chanel'
    Bruce Chatwin's Wales: One of the finest one-day walks in Britain

    Simon Calder discovers Bruce Chatwin's Wales

    One of the finest one-day walks you could hope for - in Britain
    10 best children's nightwear

    10 best children's nightwear

    Make sure the kids stay cosy on cooler autumn nights in this selection of pjs, onesies and nighties
    Manchester City vs Roma: Five things we learnt from City’s draw at the Etihad

    Manchester City vs Roma

    Five things we learnt from City’s Champions League draw at the Etihad
    Martin Hardy: Mike Ashley must act now and end the Alan Pardew reign

    Trouble on the Tyne

    Ashley must act now and end Pardew's reign at Newcastle, says Martin Hardy
    Isis is an hour from Baghdad, the Iraq army has little chance against it, and air strikes won't help

    Isis an hour away from Baghdad -

    and with no sign of Iraq army being able to make a successful counter-attack
    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    Turner Prize 2014 is frustratingly timid

    The exhibition nods to rich and potentially brilliant ideas, but steps back
    Last chance to see: Half the world’s animals have disappeared over the last 40 years

    Last chance to see...

    The Earth’s animal wildlife population has halved in 40 years
    So here's why teenagers are always grumpy - and it's not what you think

    Truth behind teens' grumpiness

    Early school hours mess with their biological clocks
    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?

    Hacked photos: the third wave

    Why can no one stop hackers putting celebrities' private photos online?