Obuse to Nozawaonsen
Distance: 22 miles
Total Distance: 1010 miles
Photo Album

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This was one of our most interesting and memorable days so far, but not for the usual reasons. We woke up around 7 and met downstairs in the hostel in Obuse, about the same time as the hostel owner was serving breakfast to all the guests who had paid (that is, everyone except us). While we were getting our own breakfast together at the “public” table, Vicky politely asked the owner if she could have a cup of tea from the hot water and tea stand that was on the counter. The owner snapped a curt “No! For paying people only!” at her and walked out of the room. We quickly ate our breakfast after that, then packed up and left somehow feeling a little disappointed in the hostel.

After leaving the hostel, we went down the street to look for the Hokusai museum, which I was especially looking forward to visiting. Obuse has a direct relationship with this famous artist, as he lived here in the later years of his life and produced several major works for temples in the area.

As we we walked down the street we saw an older man with short white hair and simple yet neat clothing standing in the middle of the road. He caught my eye as we approached, and beckoned to me: “Are you looking for the Hokusai museum?” he asked in Japanese, “Why don’t you come with me first–please, come see my collection.” I translated for Vicky, and we looked at each other, shrugged, and followed him–he was a little ahead of us and looking back to make sure we were following.

He took us to a two-story aluminum-sided building down a side alley that looked like a small warehouse or large garage, with large dirt-obscured windows facing out on the street and a tiny apartment on the second floor. He opened a side door into the main building and ushered us inside. As our eyes adjusted to the light, he handed us each a can of coffee and beckoned us further inside–there we saw an amazing array of collected and found objects covering every inch of space in the building. The centerpieces were 4 Harley-Davidsons with sidecars (circa 1970’s, with a Honda tucked casually against a wall), and two huge muscle cars–a mid 70’s Toronado complete with bull’s horns on the hood, and a heavily modified Audi; both of these had their hoods raised to show off the details of the engines inside. All of the vehicles were encrusted with a bizarre array of objects: one exclusively with 500 yen coins, another with 5 and 100 yen coins and small plastic dolls. He led us around the vehicles explaining each in detail, focusing on cost, engine size, origin of decoration, etc.

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Santa in his museum

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The Audi

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Jumpsuits from Santa's riding days

The walls of the building were lined with display cases and shelves containing a vast collection of toy cars, model planes, electric trains, badges, pins, patches–anything that could be collected and arranged. Behind the shelves were framed pictures and newspaper clippings, old jumpsuits and riding gear, and–somewhat incongruously–a collection of calligraphy scrolls and Buddhist ink paintings.

While he explained each item Vicky took pictures, which seemed to please him tremendously–he would point out some items in particular and ask me to make sure she photographed it before continuing on. As we continued the tour, he eventually introduced himself saying that his name was Santa and pantomiming St. Nicholas with a large belly and long white beard.

When we finally ran out of things to look at, talk turned to where we were headed and where we were staying that night. When I said Nozawaonsen but that I wasn’t sure exactly where we were staying, he got very excited and suggested a specific ryoukan that he had helped build years ago. He offered to help us make a reservation there and to drive us to Nozawaonsen as well. We had some difficulty with this topic, as I was trying to explain politely that we wanted to ride their on our own, but my Japanese was not sufficient. Unperturbed, he eventually led us out of his museum and down the road tot he main tourist area. There we entered a shop with a vague “country store” decor. He started a lively discussion with a tired looking woman in her mid-50’s that involved more hand-waving and animated voices than I have every heard between two Japanese people. Eventually she turned to us, rubbed her temples, and began speaking in halting but very clear English.

“It seems that there is some confusion”, she said, “this is my neighbor–he is retired and does not have much to do all day, so he tries to help foreign people. It’s his hobby. He wants to take you to Nozawaonsen and have you stay at an inn there that he helped build. However, I think it is too expensive–I can recommend a another one though, if you would like.” We both agreed, and she wandered to the back of her shopt o find the phone number, talking as she went. “He likes helping, also showing people his cars.”

“Yes”, I said, “we already spent some time looking at his museum.”

She gave a soft laugh. “Oh yes, his museum. He spends all of his money on his collection and does not take care of his house.” She handed Vicky a piece of paper with a number on it. “Here is the hotel I usually stay at–please call them and mention my name.” We thanked her and then made arrangements to meet Santa back at his house in an hour and a half–he was still intent on seeing us all the way to Nozawaonsen.

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"He likes to help foreigners - it's his hobby." This woman was great! She had lived in New Jersey for a few years, which was why her English was so good.

Vicky and I used our time to see a little of Obuse–we visited the Hokusai museum (very nice and well presented) and sampled some local foods (mochi with chestnuts and mountain vegetables). Soon, we were back at Santa’s, where he explained that he would like us to see two temples in Obuse before we left for Nozawaonsen.

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Sampling local Obuse snacks

We got into his tiny car and he drove off–he had placed two hot cans of green tea on the dashboard for us, and insisted that we drink them as we rode.

The first temple we visited was a small wooden structure at the top of a long series of rough steps carved into a steep hillside. The main temple building was dominated by a huge thatched roof that–according to photographs in the entryway–had been replaced in the mid-80’s. As we waled up the steps, Santa told us that his father had helped build the temple–I gathered that both his father and grandfather had been architects and contractors.

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Walking up the steps to the first temple of the day

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Santa, Vicky, and myself

After taking some pictures, we walked back down and went to the second temple–a much bigger structure this time. This was the temple for which Hokusai produced the float panels on display in the Obuse art museum. After Vicky and I had seen all the rooms, I heard a whisper behind me and turned to see Santa grinning and pointing at the ceiling in the main hall, where a large replica of one of the Hokusai panels was in place. “My father installed this”, he said.

Once we had both admired it, we left–I hoped we were heading back to Santa’s to pick up our bikes and leave for Nozawaonsen, as we still had 40 kilometers of uphill riding to do and was already after noon. However, Santa mentioned that there was another place that he wanted us to see, so we drove t the other side of town to an old wooden school building that had been converted into a folk museum and community center. In one room, older wome sat and showed young children how to make onigiri, while many of the other rooms were filled with an extensive collection of items from the past century.

Old weighing machines were set out alongside straw sandals and handmade porter’s backpacks, while another corner contained winter coats for a samurai family. Santa took us through every room in detail, taking care to point out the ones he had donated and making sure that Vicky photographed each one.

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Santa explains traditional snowshoe design

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Traditional Japanese footwear

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A cupboard that Santa had donated to the museum

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Old sewing machines (Darse, this one is for you!)

At last, we were done with the museum–I had thought we would return to his place now, but he took us to another temple which his grandfather had worked on in the 1950’s. To be honest, I was getting a little impatient by now as I was worrying about the riding we still had to do and the rain clouds that were beginning to accumulate at the end of the valley. However, I was glad we saw this last temple–it was very quiet and dignified, with a large central hall surrounded and beautiful columns supporting the roof.

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Interior of the last temple we visited

Once back at Santa’s house, he invited us back inside his museum for a snack–he had a glazed bun and an onigiri waiting for us on a table, along with our choice of sodas and canned coffee. While we ate, he brought over a series of pictures, newspaper clippings, and brochures related to his travels around the world.

When we were done eating, we had a discussion about whether or not he would accompany us all the way to Nozawaonsen. While I appreciated the sentiment, I thought it would be very difficult for him (and a little awkward for us) to follow along beside us in his car as he wished. I explained that it would take us several hours to get there, and he finally agreed that it would be OK to just go along with us as far as the main road that we needed to follow.

We set out, and after a few turns, he pulled over on the side of a busier road and pointed north along it. “You can follow this all the way to Nozawaonsen” he said, and offered me his hand. I shook it warmly, and thanked him for all of his help and guidance. When I dug into my wallet for one of our cards he became almost frantic, thinking I was trying to give him money; once he saw what it was he was very happy.

Vicky and I headed down the road while he stayed there on the sidewalk, waving for as long as I could see him. The image of that small old man standing alone on the side of the road waving is one that we will always remember…

Very little happened on the way to Nozawaonsen except for a small accident that Vicky had which–although she was very sore for a few days after–could have been much worse. There was a long climb up to Nozawaonsen in the last few miles, but once there we had fun riding through the town’s narrow streets. We arrived in the early evening and spent some time looking for a place to stay for the night–very difficult on a Sunday without a reservation!

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Vicky took out this pole with her bike--luckily her injuries weren't too bad

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Finally! Nozawaonsen is in sight.

Finally, we went up to the very top of the hill to check out a hotel mentioned in our guidebook–it was closed, but I took a chance and asked a man outside the lodge next door if they were open. He seemed surprised by the question, but went inside to ask his wife, who it seemed actually runs the place. She came out to take a look at us, and seemed to approve of our bikes and bags. She offered a price that was much lower than I expected, so I quickly agreed. Once this was settled the rest of the family (daughter and son-in-law had been playing catch on the lawn out front) went inside to get things ready for us. It turns out we were the only guests that week, so we had the whole place to ourselves!

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Lodge Hahnenkamm--we definitely recommend this if you need a place to stay in Nozawaonsen!

Within a short time we were comfortably installed in our room, and getting ready for a hot bath and a home-cooked meal. The food was delicious, and the family atmosphere made us feel right at home. After a busy day, we were ready to relax and enjoy our rest day tomorrow!