The entrance would fit perfectly into a bucolic Japanese woodblock print. There is an elegantly gnarled pine tree, a small stream flowing under a stone pathway and a scene-stealing wooden gate capped with waves of curved roof tiles.
But just inside the gate, alongside old timber houses and flowering trees, is something a fraction more modern: a bright orange sports car.
The scene stops me in my tracks – and not just because of the incongruous motor. I pause and savour my arrival because the wooden gate (minus the car) is precisely the same sight that greeted Japan’s most celebrated artist, Katsushika Hokusai, when he first visited the remote town of Obuse in Nagano Prefecture in 1842.
My journey to Obuse came as I followed in the footsteps of Hokusai, who is perhaps Japan’s most famous cultural export, influencing Western artists, from Monet to Degas. As comfortable sketching the dynamic curves of a sumo wrestler’s torso as he was painting the delicate petals of a chrysanthemum, Hokusai excelled at a range of techniques and subjects.
His most famed works were his ukiyo-e woodblock prints – in particular the 1830s series 36 Views of Mount Fuji, which includes one of the world’s most recognisable artworks: The Great Wave, with its sweep of deep blue water alongside Mount Fuji. Next week, it will feature among 110 artworks in a major new exhibition at the British Museum, called Hokusai: Beyond the Great Wave.
Ahead of the show, I set off to explore some of Japan’s most famous Hokusai landmarks – starting in the Sumida neighbourhood of Tokyo, where the artist was born and lived. Emerging from a modern train station, there is little to indicate Hokusai’s decades-long presence. A short stroll away, however, the Sumida Hokusai Museum looms into focus – a resolutely modern structure overlooking a children’s playground designed by the architect Kazuyo Sejima.
I lose track of time exploring its woodblock prints, brush paintings and intimately detailed sketches. After asking staff where exactly Hokusai was born, I am directed to a nearby office building, its unremarkable entrance lined with potted plants. There is, however, a Great Wave mural on the building opposite, home to an old-fashioned rice cracker shop.
I return to the serene confines of the Palace Hotel Tokyo, which also houses an impressive private art collection – and head to the 20th floor Club Lounge terrace in the hope of seeing something quintessentially Hokusai: a view of Mount Fuji. Unfortunately, despite inelegantly jumping onto a chair when no one is looking, I see only a horizon as blank as white canvas above the endless skyscrapers.
The Hokusai trail continues with a trip to Obuse, a small town in the Japanese Alps famed for its autumnal chestnuts, flower gardens – and, perhaps unexpectedly, its Hokusai heritage. A chance encounter in Tokyo between Hokusai and Takai Kozan, a prominent Obuse merchant, led the artist to enjoy four extended stays towards the end of his life, in a studio provided by his patron.
My train pulls into Obuse and, as I walk into town, it instantly scores top marks for aesthetics: old wooden houses, dark timber merchant stores with cotton noren curtains and flower gardens to inspire haiku poetry.
My destination is Obusedo – a beautifully maintained estate in central Obuse which is home to a sake brewery, a chestnut sweetshop, several restaurants and the Masuichi Kyakuden boutique hotel with interiors by John Morford (who also designed the Park Hotel Tokyo). The man behind Obusedo is Tsugio Ichimura, a fifth-generation descendant of Hokusai’s patron, Takai Kozan.
I wander through Obusedo’s wooden entrance – as Hokusai did before me – into the courtyard (past Mr Ichimura’s orange car) and arrive at the hotel. Its traditional exterior belies a minimal contemporary interior of high ceilings, dark timbers, stone floors and modernist black seating overlooking a carp pond.
Here, over tea and jelly like mizuyokan sweets wrapped in bamboo, Mr Ichimura, elegant in a modern-cut grey jacket, explains: “Hokusai was a guest of our family 160 years ago. I think the scenery and atmosphere Hokusai experienced can no longer be seen in Tokyo. But the atmosphere here in Obuse is still very similar to what he knew in the past.”
Opposite the hotel is the Hokusai Museum, where curator Kenichiro Hashimoto shows me around, politely apologising because more than a dozen works are at the British Museum. I stop in my tracks when confronted by the 36 Views of Mount Fuji series – including a small but perfectly formed Great Wave in Hokusai’s signature deep Prussian blue. He made many woodblock print copies of the iconic image but only a few very high quality early prints such as this (and the one acquired by the British Museum) survive today.
Another highlight is a pair of large wooden festival floats with richly painted ceiling panels – one depicting a dragon, the other a frothing wave (a replica, the original is in London). The day concludes with a multi-course meal in Obusedo restaurant (accompanied by a “clear, fruity and easy-to-drink” Hokusai-inspired sake) followed by a soak in a Japanese-style bath with startlingly modern glass sides in my hotel room.
The next morning, I follow a winding chestnut path to the Takai Kozan Museum, with an ambience that feels more country home than museum. I gaze at artworks in rice storage buildings before wandering through blossoming gardens to peer into tatami mat rooms where Kozan hosted cultural salons.
My Obuse pilgrimage concludes with an idyllic 30-minute walk past Eden-esque flower gardens and apple orchards beneath cloudless blue skies to the small mountainside Ganshoin Temple. Here, I sit on a bench and gaze up at the temple ceiling – and I’m rewarded with the sight of a swirling phoenix painted by Hokusai in dramatic gem reds and greens on cypress wood panels.
It’s with some reluctance that I board my train and bid farewell to the pretty world of Obuse. However, my Hokusai mission is not quite complete: my final stop is Matsumoto, a castle city a couple of hours away containing the Japan Ukiyo-e Museum, home to a 100,000-strong collection of woodblock print art.
I discover that there are no Hokusai works on display (one famed ink painting from their collection will, however, soon appear in London) and console myself with a stroll around an absorbing Sakura-themed exhibition.
Later, however, I get lucky. Sitting on the bullet train to Tokyo, I gaze out of the window – and am rewarded with something so iconically Hokusai that it brings an instant smile to my face: it is my own personal view of Mount Fuji, its perfect triangular lines and snow-capped peak dramatically highlighted against blue skies and the passing cityscape.
Danielle Demetriou travelled to Obuse and Matsumoto as a guest of Inside Japan (0117 370 9730) which can tailor a seven-night Hokusai Japan trip – including four nights at the Palace Hotel Tokyo, two nights at Masuichi Kyakuden in Obuse and one night in Mastumoto – from around £2,593 per person excluding international flights.
The Palace Hotel Tokyo (en.palacehoteltokyo.com; 0081 3 3211 5211) is also offering a five-night Celebrating Tokyo package from June 1 to December 18 to mark its fifth anniversary which includes a string of experiences, among them free tickets to either the Sumida Hokusai Museum or Edo-Tokyo Museum, a spa treatment, a sushi-making class, a food culture excursion, a chocolate and Champagne tasting session and a taiko drumming class, from £5,366 (Y785,000).
For more information about Japan, contact the Japan National Tourism Organisation.