The centre of Obuse is small: a cluster of a dozen retailers amid the myriad chestnut fields, with a brewery promoting sake and an open sq. across the edges of which it’s attainable to purchase each type of chestnut confectionery possible. And it’s right here, within the hush of the center of just about nowhere, within the cool hills of Nagano prefecture, 150 miles north-west of Tokyo, that the work of Japan’s most prodigious artist has been collected, within the Hokusai Museum.
Japan map Fuji
During his life, Katsushika Hokusai, painter of Thirty-six Views of Mount Fuji, together with The Great Wave off Kanagawa, is assumed to have produced 30,000 woodcuts and work, and far of his most well-known work was not begun till he was in his 70s. In 1844, in direction of the top of his life, Hokusai got here to Obuse, to retreat, and to color.
The museum is small however well worth the journey; well worth the half-day prepare from Tokyo and well worth the flight from London. In one of many early woodblock photographs, A Plum Tree and Two Beauties (1799), two geishas stand, shoulder to shoulder, taking a look at a degree within the distance. One is slipping a observe into the opposite’s sleeve; their faces simply barely acknowledge the pleasure of a shared secret. I have by no means coveted something a lot in my life.
Hokusai’s The Great Wave Off the Coast at Kanagawa, circa 1830. Photograph: Getty Images
I had longed to see Japan since I used to be a baby; to see the artwork, and the intricate building of the wood temples, and the mountains. I used to be collected from Tokyo airport by a driver carrying an indication with my full title on it, which is an unnecessarily lengthy one. He pointed on the signal, after which at me. “Only one?” I defined apologetically that it was solely me; even my title felt a bit of extreme and ungainly, and this was to be, it turned out, a operating theme; I have hardly ever felt so uncouth, nor been so kindly handled regardless of it.
In Kyoto, daytrippers can rent conventional costumes by which to go to shrines and temples. Photograph: Alamy
On my first morning in Tokyo, I walked to the Tsukiji fish market, to observe males fillet a tuna head as giant as a soccer in lower than 100 seconds. Around the market was a cross-hatching of slim streets with stalls promoting recent produce, yakitori – charcoal-grilled hen on skewers – and sizzling tamagoyaki, a candy rolled omelette. Food was largely London costs, apart from the fruit, which was priced to swimsuit the finances of a vegan Croesus. Single peaches sat, shining like spoiled monarchs, on beds of shredded paper at £7 every. I handed a £15 watermelon, which felt like quite a bit, till I noticed a punnet of £30 strawberries.
I have at all times taken the angle that you should eat the whole lot you’re provided as soon as, as a result of there’s at all times an opportunity that it is going to be a revelation. People wouldn’t promote a factor, I inform myself, if it wasn’t at the very least barely scrumptious. It is because of this that I have eaten tarantulas, tuna fish iced buns, and now, in Tokyo, fish bones crisps – which, I hoped, may be a fantastic and well-kept secret, however in actual fact tasted of sugar syrup and fish bones.
Tsukiji fish marke. Photograph: Getty Images
But the remainder of the meals was a delight, unparalleled by any metropolis I have identified. The late, nice Anthony Bourdain mentioned that if he needed to eat all the remainder of his meals in a single metropolis, it might be Tokyo. At evening, the streets subsequent to the fish market are darkish and empty, however unadorned white gentle pours from naked bulbs swinging exterior a handful of sushi eating places. I tucked into sashimi recent from the market; on fish that tasted of butter, of iron, of the ocean.
What I actually wished, although, was Fuji. In Hokusai’s 36 Views of Mount Fuji, the mountain is usually central, however extra usually incidental, a jagged inverted V within the background as women and men go about their business, rowing boats, flying kites, carrying heavy masses. Hokusai was a painter of the ukiyo-e style – this roughly interprets as “images of the floating world” – and Hokusai’s was a world alive and incessantly in movement.
Mt Fuji and
shinkansen. Photograph: Getty Images
My first view of the mountain got here from the window of the shinkansen bullet prepare from Tokyo to Kyoto. The trains are an journey in themselves; painted white and blue, they have the lengthy noses of purposeful anteaters, and travel at 200mph, with an annual common delay of solely 54 seconds per prepare. We handed rice fields brushing up towards bungalows and rickety inns; and all of a sudden, rising from the clouds like an thought being born, Mount Fuji – grey-white shading to white-blue on the prime. It was Hokusai’s Fuji; a mountain watching in stillness over a buoyant, moving world.
In Kyoto, there’s previous Japan. I went to the Kinkaku-ji Buddhist temple, the higher flooring of that are utterly lined in gold leaf; it shines, casting gentle down on to the lake that surrounds it and receiving it again once more. Equally stunning, although louder and extra frenetic, is the Kiyomizu-dera temple; close by are shops renting kimonos, and scores of younger Japanese men and women gown up for the day in sky shades of silk and posing exterior the temple, flashing V indicators on the digicam.
Kinkaku-ji temple. Photograph: Alamy
It is feasible, in case you are immensely wealthy, to purchase paper-thin pottery within the lengthy winding avenue on the backside of the temple’s hill. I’m not immensely wealthy so, after helplessly adoring rice bowls glazed in jewel-blue and jewel-black, I went to the Raku museum. Raku pottery nonetheless makes use of the hand-moulded method devised within the 16th century; each the title and the fashion have handed down the Raku household to the present, 15th technology, and the bowls are lower and kneaded, reasonably than spun.
At the Kyoto Imperial Palace, which isn’t a single constructing however a number of, set in riotously stunning gardens, I inspected a gravelled Kemari floor, the place emperors as soon as watched a game by which gamers kick a ball to one another, making an attempt to maintain it off the bottom for so long as attainable whereas wearing vibrant carnival colors. The inside partitions close by had been painted with photographs of Kyokusui, a celebration held alongside a winding stream, at which every participant should make up a poem earlier than a wine cup was floated right down to them on the water. Football then, for the emperors, was cooperative, and poetry aggressive. I’d have fared higher at college, I feel, if it had used the identical reckoning.
The gardens at Kyoto’s Imperial Palace. Photograph: Alamy
In a bid to comply with in Hokusai’s footsteps, I went onwards and upwards, into the Hakone hills, the place, in good climate, Fuji could be seen. The clouds had been low and thick sufficient to stroll by, so Fuji stood invisible, however I hiked by forests, in thick moist warmth, and handed small shrines each kilometre or so, some with choices of Oreos and potato crisps. There had been, too, statues of small human figures, eroded by rain and wind, however sporting freshly laundered crimson bibs. These are depictions of Ojizo-san, the Japanese deity who is a guardian of youngsters who die earlier than their dad and mom; the bibs are choices, positioned, I used to be informed, within the hope that Ojizo-san will shield the lost baby.
Buddhist sculptures within the Hakone hills. Photograph: Alamy
Also within the hills, unexpectedly, are merchandising machines, shaded by timber and surrounded by moss and rocks, branches blowing within the rain and scratching towards the clear Perspex entrance. Enticed by the title, I purchased a bottle of Pocari Sweat. It tasted like electrolytes, which I anticipated, and sweat, which I didn’t, although I can’t declare I used to be not forewarned.
My last day in Japan was spent at a glamping web site on Lake Kawaguchiko. There, after a match of torrential rain, the sky cleared, and Mount Fuji stood, trying shut sufficient to the touch in daring daylight, with smoke swirls of cloud scudding throughout it. It evoked considered one of Hokusai’s final photographs, The Dragon of Smoke Escaping from Mount Fuji (1849). In it, a dragon, surrounded by a cloud of silvery-black smoke, twists upwards to the sky. It’s an astonishing factor; a portray that might be of demise, or of triumph, or each.
In the lee of Mount Fuji. Photograph: Getty Images
On his deathbed, Hokusai is claimed to have exclaimed: “If only heaven will give me just another 10 years… Just five more years, then I could become a real painter.”
Hokusai knew although, that already his artwork had come up towards the very fringe of being alive. He wrote, in his final days: “I perceive that my characters, my animals, my insects and fish seem to be escaping from the paper. Is that not extraordinary?”
• The journey was supplied by Inside Japan. Its Hokusai’s Wave Trip – 4 nights in Tokyo, two in Obuse and two at Mount Fuji – prices from £2,305pp, together with ryokan stays, breakfast, another meals, transfers and personal guiding however not flights. The company’s new 15-night Through the Floating World itinerary is a specifically designed Hokusai path, costing £four,400pp, excluding flights
Masters of Japanese prints: Hokusai and Hiroshige Landscapes is displaying at Bristol Museum and Art Gallery till 6 Jan 2019