At the start of November we found ourselves on a bus bound for Obuse, a tiny village spanning seven square miles with a population of roughly 11,000, tucked between a river and a mountain in Nagano Prefecture, northwest of Tokyo.
There are plenty of stories about the hollowing out of Japan’s countryside. With a population declining and aging, Japan’s big cities alone hold the allure of opportunity (jobs and a social life) for the young. You don't have to travel far past Tokyo’s urban edges to find the vacant homes and shuttered schools of rural Japan, where many dilapidated towns host mostly the aged, and fewer of them each year.
But Obuse is not one of those towns. Each year Obuse welcomes over a million tourists and
is well prepared to greet them, boasting a storybook elegance right down to its manicured floral gardens and sidewalks made from the wood of chestnut trees. No kidding. Chestnuts are a big deal in Obuse, served up in just about every manner imaginable except the one I'm used to in New York: shoveled into paper sacks from smoky street carts.
Chestnuts go especially well with rice—good rice—like the kamameshi bento we were served for lunch on the bus north.
It wasn’t just any old bus. We were there at the behest of dear friend Peter Grilli, who connected us to the John Manjiro Whitfield Commemorative Center for International Exchange. I realize that’s a mouthful, but it helps explain the nature of the venture.
Since 1991, the Manjiro-Whitfield Center has held an annual Grassroots Summit for Japanese and American citizens, alternating between locations in Japan and the US to celebrate a historic encounter.
In 1841, a shipwrecked 14 year-old Nakahama (John) Manjiro was rescued by American captain William Whitfield and taken to Massachusetts, where he studied for ten years. Manjiro is widely considered the first Japanese immigrant to the US. After Whitfield returned him to Japan in 1851, Manjiro helped pry open the Tokugawa shogunate’s isolationist policy ahead of US Commodore Matthew Perry’s arrival in 1853.
Among the Americans on our bus to Nagano were descendants of Captain Whitfield and Commodore Perry. In Obuse, we met one of Nakahama Manjiro’s lineage.
There was more history to be had: Tours of miso and sake breweries, both over 200 years old, a tea ceremony and a visit to the Hokusai museum, commemorating the years Japan’s most famous woodblock print (ukiyo-e) artist spent visiting a patron and working in Obuse in the 19th century. A night at a local hot springs inn and a foliage-viewing pit stop at Mirror Pond (Kagami ike) in the Togakushi Mountains capped things off. Everywhere we ate excellent soba, a personal favorite and regional specialty.
But Tokyo was calling. My smartphone buzzed with editorial queries throughout.
This month sees the US release of “Monkey: New Writing from Japan, Volume 3,” the literary magazine to which I am a contributing editor, and the publication of my new book, “The Art of Blade Runner: Black Lotus,” penned in pandemic isolation. On the Shinkansen bullet train back to the city I finished final edits on my opinion essay for the New York Times. You can't complain about deadlines if you're a writer, and you definitely can’t ignore them.