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A relaxing trip to the “chestnut town” of Obuse

A relaxing trip to the “chestnut town” of Obuse

Nagano (長野県) is a prefecture that is filled with amazing travel spots that people can enjoy throughout different times of the year. From beautiful mountains with stunning seasonal views to scenic towns steeped in rich history and cultural heritage, the prefecture has something for travellers seeking all kinds of travel experiences. That also includes those who fancy a relaxing day trip to a charming and tranquil town, and there’s one such town perfect for such an experience.

 

Obuse (小布施町 Obuse-machi) is a small town in Nagano Prefecture that can be easily accessed by train from the capital city Nagano (長野市 Nagano-shi). With its idyllic and serene atmosphere, and a fair share of interesting attractions, the town is gradually gaining popularity among local visitors who are looking for short day-trip destinations from the capital city.

 

Location of Obuse in Nagano. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

I had the pleasure of paying a brief yet memorable visit to Obuse, where I made some interesting discoveries and was won over by its charms. It was my first time visiting the town, and though I had read up about it before making my way there, there were some surprises that left wonderful impressions on me.

 

For this article, I will share with you my personal experience of visiting and the route I took to explore the town. Though the journey was only for one morning, the town offered me a fair share of pleasurable moments, and it made me want to go there again, perhaps during other seasons.

 

① From Nagano to Obuse

Taking the Nagano Dentetsu Line from Nagano to Obuse. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My journey to Obuse began at Nagano Station (長野駅), where I took the Nagano Dentetsu Line to reach Obuse. The line is operated by Nagano Electric Railway (長野電鉄 Nagano Dentetsu), and features the 8500 series train for the local railway services. Do you know? The trains plied the railway lines in the Tokyo Metropolitan Area many years ago, and the model has been donated to other railway operators throughout Japan, including Nagano Electric Railway.

 

Inside the train on the Nagano Dentetsu Line. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

When I hopped onboard the train, I could feel a peculiar sense of nostalgia. From the quaint ceiling fan to the retro-style upholstery and windows, the train exuded an olden atmosphere that starkly contrasted with the sleek and modern trains that I often ride in the bigger cities. I also learned that the train type I rode on was once used on the Hibiya Line in Tokyo many years ago before it was phased out for newer train models.

 

Nagaden Express, bound for Yudanaka Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Here’s another interesting point to share about the Nagano Dentetsu Line. Apart from Obuse Station, it also features Yudanaka Station (湯田中駅), which is the gateway to Shiga Kogen (志賀高原 Shiga Kōgen), the largest combined ski area in Japan and also one of the venues for the 1998 Winter Olympic Games, and Jigokudani Snow Monkey Park (地獄谷野猿公苑), where visitors can see adorable macaque monkeys bathing in hot spring water in the open. If you plan to head straight for Yudanaka from Nagano, you can consider taking the Nagaden Express, a limited express train bound for the station.

 

Obuse Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a short train ride on the Nagano Dentetsu Line, I finally arrived at Obuse Station (小布施駅 Obuse-eki). When I set foot at the station, I was pleasantly surprised by the surroundings, from its quaint station building to the splendid mountainous views that could be clearly seen from the station platform.

 

Here’s a tip from me: when you visit Obuse, take a look at the stunning “Five Mountains of Northern Shinshu” (北信五岳 Hokushin-gogaku) in the background of Obuse Station. You can check out the different peaks that you can see if the weather is favourable, such as Mount Kurohime and Mount Takatsuma.

 

First-time visitors to Obuse might also notice images of chestnuts everywhere, and wonder why it is a recurring theme in the town. That’s because Obuse is known for its high production of chestnuts during the harvest season (mid-September–mid-October) thereby earning the reputation of being a “chestnut town”. Visitors can look forward to many patisseries there that specialise in chestnut desserts and pastries, including myself who could not wait to sample some of its chestnut-based delicacies.

 

Once I arrived at Obuse Station, I set forth to explore the town on foot accordingly and see what I could find during my walking tour.

 

② When in Obuse, eat chestnut ice cream

Sensekitei. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

By exploring the streets of Obuse on foot, I realised first-hand how charming the town really was. From homes filled with beautiful flowerbeds to chic cafés and restaurants that offer guests desserts using local ingredients, the town was one of those places where you could spend a whole day passing the time away and make pleasant, serendipitous findings wherever you go.

 

Sensekitei’s menu. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Speaking of serendipitous findings, the first one I made that was a short walk from Obuse Station is a traditional restaurant named Sensekitei (泉石亭). The building used to be a private mansion by Takatsu, a wealthy merchant family that used to run a sake brewery in the town, and it was originally built during the Bunka Era (1804–1818).

 

Opened in 2013, Sensekitei specialises in using local Shinshu ingredients for their exquisite meals, such as Obuse’s chestnuts for their chestnut rice (栗おこわ kuri-okowa), locally grown buckwheat for their handmade Shinshu soba, and seasonal mountain vegetables for their tempura. Guests can also look forward to enjoying the local delicacies in the restaurant’s tatami rooms that directly face a scenic Japanese garden.

 

Sensekitei’s chestnut soft-serve ice cream. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

By the time I reached Sensekitei, the sun was high in the sky and the weather was getting really warm. Among all the delicious-looking delicacies I saw on Sensekitei’s menu, one particular item stood out among everything else: chestnut soft-serve ice cream! Savoury and not overly sweet, the dessert made me realise why chestnuts from Obuse are renowned. Needless to say, it was a tasty treat, and I could have easily gone for seconds.

 

Sensekitei is just one of the numerous restaurants and patisseries in Obuse that specialise in using local chestnuts for their menus, so if you’re heading to the town, be sure to try out all the different treats you will find at every corner (and of course, that would include ice cream).

 

③ Right up your (chestnut) alley

Chestnut Alley. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Obuse is filled with streets that are very pleasant to walk along, but the town also has many quaint back alleys that visitors may miss. When I looked at the town map for local attractions, the one name that grabbed my attention was Chestnut Alley (栗の小径 Kuri no Komichi), and it made me curious enough to check it out.

 

Walking up to Chestnut Alley’s centre. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Visitors can find a small entryway along Dainichi-dōri Street (大日通) that leads into Chestnut Alley, which can be pretty easy to miss while walking along the street. Upon entry, they will get to experience the alley’s elegant ambience, lined with refurbished traditional warehouses that have been converted into shops selling local confectioneries using (you guessed it) chestnuts.

 

“Charmed” is the apt word to describe what I felt when I walked into Chestnut Alley. What I love about the alley are the relaxing atmosphere and picturesque surroundings, and the sight of traditional Japanese architecture with vivid greenery was simply stunning. I was also surprised to notice that the walkways are paved with chestnut wood blocks!

 

Hokusai Museum. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Did you know? Obuse used to flourish as a mecca for arts and culture during the Edo Era (1603–1867), and it was due to influential works by the famous ukiyoe artist Katsushika Hokusai (葛飾北斎), who lived in this town for several years. His art collection can be viewed at the Hokusai Museum (北斎館 Hokusai-kan) located at the centre of Chestnut Alley.

 

One tip from me: when you visit this museum, do not miss two gorgeous festival floats: the Higashimachi Festival Float, and the Kanmachi Festival Float. The former is a reconstruction that was requested by Kōzan Takai, a wealthy merchant who was also Hokusai’s student, and the latter was conceived by Kozan himself. Both feature Hokusai’s paintings and Kozan’s craftsmanship, and have even been designated as treasures by Nagano Prefecture.

 

Hokusai Museum (北斎館)
Address: 485 Obuse, Obuse-machi, Kamitakai-gun, Nagano 381-0201
Access: 12-minute walk from Nagano Electric Railway Obuse Station (長野電鉄小布施駅)
*Opening hours:
   9am–5pm
   9am–6pm (July and August)
   10am–3pm (New Year’s Day)
*Last admission is 30 minutes before closing time
Admission fees: ¥1,000 per adult

 

Do you know what is one of the best things to do while at Chestnut Alley? Explore the many Open Gardens available around it! Open Gardens are those owned by private residences that are open for public viewing, and there are up to 38 of them in Obuse. They are part of the town’s Obuse OPEN-GARDEN initiative, in a bid to attract visitors to come and appreciate its beauty.

 

A private garden along Chestnut Alley. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Some of the gardens can be accessed directly from the alley, and there are many types of gardens too: Japanese and Western, simple ones with vivid greenery and elaborate ones with carefully tended flowerbeds, and more. Best of all, admission to these gardens is free, so step inside these wonderful gardens and see the real side of Obuse and the warm hospitality of the locals!

 

Several points to take note of about Open Gardens: they are indicated by small signs that state “Welcome to My Garden: OBUSE Open-Garden HOME”, so keep a lookout for them if you are not sure if a garden is open for entry. Also, these gardens are on residential grounds, so visitors should keep their volumes down and be careful not to destroy the plants and flowers.

 

Flowers galore all around Obuse. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Even if you miss the flowers of the Open Gardens around Chestnut Alleys, worry not. Flowers are plentiful along the streets of Obuse, especially during the warmer months, and it would be hard for you not to stop and admire all the floral wonders. I was pleasantly surprised by all the flowers I spotted during my walk around the town, and I imagined that looking at them would brighten up anyone’s day.

 

Little did I know that the flowers I saw all over Obuse’s streets and backyards were simply a preview of the next spot on my walking tour that day.

 

④ Floral fantasy

Floral Garden Obuse. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a visit to Chestnut Alley, I continued walking away from the town centre and towards the outskirts. The next spot that I wanted to visit is a floral garden that was said to be home to a plethora of beautiful flowers that are open to the public, and after seeing so many already along the streets of Obuse, I was all the more curious to see this one.

 

Flowers galore at Floral Garden Obuse. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Floral Garden Obuse (フローラルガーデンおぶせ Furōraru Gāden Obuse) is a garden located on the eastern side of the town, and it showcases how Obuse is not simply a “chestnut town”, but also a flower town. With an area of 15,000 square metres, the garden features a wide collection of seasonal flowers that will simply leave visitors mesmerised.

 

Different types of roses in the garden. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

It was a rejuvenating experience for me to stroll around Floral Garden Obuse, and I was highly impressed to see so many different flowers there, from orchids and lilies-of-the-valley to hydrangeas and even lavender flowers that were imported from Hokkaido. I was particularly enamoured by the different kinds of roses blooming then which were not only gorgeous to look at, but also smelled amazing.

 

After a leisurely stroll around the garden, visitors can also take a break at “OBUSE花屋”, a restaurant where they can enjoy a refreshing meal and beverage while admiring the flowers around them, and a shop where they can purchase flowers and floral-themed souvenirs.

 

Floral Garden Obuse (フローラルガーデン小布施)
Address: 506-1 Nakamatsu, Obuse-machi, Kamitakai-gun, Nagano 381-0209
Access: 25-minute walk from Nagano Electric Railway Obuse Station (長野電鉄小布施駅)
Opening hours:  9am–4:30pm (last entry at 4pm, closed every Thursday during winter and New Year holidays)
Admission fees: None

 

Rokusan Farmers’ Market. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

My floral journey didn’t end at Floral Garden Obuse; after exploring the garden, I made my way to the opposite side of the road to Rokusan Farmers’ Market (農産物直売所ろくさん Nōsanbutsu-chokubaisho Rokusan), a market that sells locally grown agricultural produce. More flowers awaited at the market, and there were many locals shopping and browsing them, making me realise just how much the town of Obuse loves flowers and gardening.

 

Sparrow’s nest. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Here’s another tip from me: when you visit Rokusan Farmers’ Market, keep a lookout for a sparrow’s nest near the main building. It was a serendipitous find for me, and it also proved to be one of the unlikely attractions at the market. Seeing sparrows flying in and out of the nest, and the locals taking good care of it was a heartwarming sight for me.

 

Rokusan Farmers’ Market (農産物直売所 ろくさん)
Address: 496-1 Nakamatsu, Obuse-machi, Kamitakai-gun, Nagano 381-0209
Access: 25-minute walk from Nagano Electric Railway Obuse Station (長野電鉄小布施駅)
Opening hours: 9:30am–4:30pm
Admission fees: None

 

⑤ Tale of two temples

Entrance to Jokoji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After my visit to Floral Garden Obuse, I continued my way further out of Obuse’s town centre. There were two Buddhist temples on my map that are among the town’s most popular attractions, and they are were located on the outskirts of the town, so I decided to get there on foot.

 

The slope up to Jokoji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The first one is Jokoji Temple (浄光寺 Jōkōji), a Buddhist place of worship that was originally built more than 600 years ago. The temple building is designated as an Important Cultural Property, and visitors would come here to pray for luck in matchmaking and for good health.

 

Jokoji Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The temple is popular as a “power spot”—a place where visitors can get in touch with nature and endow themselves with healing energy—and I could feel myself being recharged by the tranquil nature around me. There is a short climb up a rocky slope to reach the temple, and the picturesque scenery of the climb, flanked by cedar trees and vivid greenery, was remarkable to look at.

 

Take note that the rocky slope up to the temple has uneven rocks, so watch your step when climbing up, especially during wet weather when it can be slippery.

 

Jokoji Temple (浄光寺)
Address: 676 Karida, Obuse-machi, Kamitakai-gun, Nagano 381-0211
Access: 30-minute walk or 5-minute taxi ride from Nagano Electric Railway Obuse Station (長野電鉄小布施駅)
Opening hours: 9am–3:30pm
Admission fees: None

 

Walking from Jokoji Temple to Gansho-in Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

After a brief visit to Jokoji Temple, it was time for me to head for the other temple. Thankfully, it was only a short walk away and an enjoyable one too, as I got to enjoy a beautiful landscape view of the town that was filled with fruit orchards and vibrant greenery along the way.

 

Entrance to Gansho-in Temple. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

For my next destination, I paid a visit to Gansho-in Temple (岩松院 Ganshō-in). Belonging to the Soto sect of Zen Buddhism, the temple was originally built in 1472 and has been rebuilt three times over the years. The temple is an essential part of Obuse’s rich heritage, but what makes this temple significant is that it is home to a famous art piece.

 

The main temple building. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

One of Hokusai’s most famous works can be found inside Gansho-in Temple, and it comes in the form of an awe-inspiring painting on the ceiling of the temple. Named “The Phoenix that Stares in Eight Directions” (八方睨み鳳凰図 Happō-nirami hōō-zu), the painting depicts a brilliantly-coloured phoenix that is seemingly glaring at you no matter where you look at it from.

 

It was painted by Hokusai on 12 cypress wood panels, and installed on the ceiling using traditional Japanese woodwork without the use of any nails. Perhaps the most amazing part about the painting, apart from Hokusai’s use of different colours and hues to bring it to life, is how it has never been re-painted at all since its completion in 1848!

 

Around the temple complex. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

The one thing I love about visiting Buddhist temples is the serene and almost soothing atmosphere. When I stepped into Gansho-in Temple, I felt like it was the perfect place for me to have a leisurely stroll and understand more about how Hokusai’s works have made a major influence on Obuse’s history and culture.

 

Apart from the iconic ceiling painting inside the main temple building, the complex also features a statue of Kannon, the Goddess of Mercy, and a pond teeming with ribbiting frogs during the summer that is said to have inspired haiku master Kobayashi Issa to pen one of his most famous poems.

 

Take note that photography and video recording are strictly prohibited inside the main temple building, but feel free to admire Hokusai’s famous painting with your own eyes while touring inside. It is quite a marvel to look at, and it would be the perfect experience for all visitors to the town of Obuse.

 

Gansho-in Temple (岩松院)
Address: 615 Karida, Obuse-machi, Kamitakai-gun, Nagano 381-0211
Access: 30-minute walk or 5-minute taxi ride from Nagano Electric Railway Obuse Station (長野電鉄小布施駅)
*Opening hours:
   9am–5pm (April–October)
   9am–4:30pm (November)
   9:30am–4pm (December–March)
*Closed on 15 March, 20 April, 23 September, and 8 December
Admission fees: ¥500 per adult
Note: Photography and video recording inside the main temple building are strictly prohibited.

 

Making my way back to Obuse Station. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

By the time I finished visiting Gansho-in Temple, it was around noontime, and I made a half-hour walk back to Obuse Station. Another thing I learned during my time in Obuse is how walkable the whole town is, and though there is a shuttle bus service that can take you around the town, I highly recommend visitors to explore it on foot. Like how I learned that way, you would never know what small yet delightful discoveries you can find while walking.

 

Nagaden Train Plaza. (Image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang)

 

Speaking of small discoveries, before leaving Obuse by train, there was still one more place to discover, and it was right by Obuse Station too. On the opposite side of the railway tracks is Nagaden Train Plaza (ながでん電車の広場 Nagaden densha no hiroba), where visitors can see a 2000 series train on display. The train series was once operated by Nagano Electric Railway until it was phased out in 2012, and visitors can even check out the inside of the first car of the train today, and imagine what riding on the train cars felt like in the olden days.

 

Getting around

My walking route at Obuse. (Image credit: Google Maps)

 

In sum, I spent around 2–3 hours exploring the town entirely on foot, which included a visit to the Chestnut Alley, Floral Garden Obuse, Jokoji Temple, and Gansho-in Temple from Obuse Station. I personally recommend visitors to set aside half to one full day to enjoy walking around the town.

 

For visitors who prefer not to walk much, they can opt to take the Obuse Town Bus, a shuttle bus service that will bring them to popular spots around Obuse for an all-you-can-ride fare of ¥500 per adult. Take note that the bus runs from 9am to 5:30pm, and operates mainly on weekends and national holidays, as well as weekdays from mid-April to May, and from July to November (not in operation from December to March).

 

Closing

Obuse is one of those towns that many visitors may overlook and opt for more popular tourist destinations. But, as I have learned myself, the town is full of charms and pleasant surprises, and visitors can enjoy all of the town’s warmth and hospitality as well as its local delicacies.

 

Though my half-day tour to Obuse was fun and delightful, I wish that I had more time to visit many other spots in the town that are also within walking distance from Obuse Station. What’s more, the town is said to be especially beautiful in spring and autumn, which makes me all the more invested to make another day trip there again. I know that that opportunity will come again, and in the meantime, I hope you will make a trip to the “chestnut town” and see why I love it so much.

 

JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area)

The JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area) and where you can use it. (Image credit: JR East)

 

If you plan to visit Obuse as well as other destinations in the Shin’etsu Region, then check out the JR EAST PASS (Nagano, Niigata area), an affordable pass that offers unlimited rail travel on JR East lines (including bullet trains) in the valid areas for 5 consecutive days. At only ¥18,000, it is a considerable option for railway travellers making multiple railway trips in the region.

 

The pass can be used for automatic ticket gates, and you can also make seat reservations for bullet trains and some limited express trains and Joyful Trains for free, up to 1 month in advance, here.

(Note: the rail pass does not cover rides on the Nagano Electric Railway, so tickets must be bought separately.)

 

Header image credit: JR East / Nazrul Buang, illustAC

 

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