Enjoy art with alpine views

The Azumino area of Nagano Prefecture hosts a wealth of galleries and museums catering to tastes from the sublime to the plain cute

by Winifred Bird

Special To The Japan Times

Back in the 1960s, a New York postal worker named Herbert Vogel and his librarian wife, Dorothy, began buying paintings. Using Herb’s modest salary, and living off Dorothy’s, they picked out affordable pieces that took their fancy — most of them by artists unknown at the time. By the early ’90s, their one-bedroom apartment was packed with thousands of works by Chuck Close, Sol LeWitt and other (by then) titans of Minimalist and Conceptual art.

The Vogels eventually donated their collection to the National Gallery of Art in Washington D.C., and their incredible story became the subject of director Megumi Sasaki’s award-winning 2008 documentary, “Herb & Dorothy,” which was finally shown in Japan in late 2010 and early this year. Don’t worry if you missed those limited screenings, though, because Japan’s own quirky world of artistic obsessions and gorgeous private collections can be viewed year-round in the art-loving town of Azumino.

Sitting in the middle of Nagano Prefecture with the towering Japan Alps rising up on the western horizon, Azumino is nonetheless conveniently accessible from Tokyo by train (three hours) or bus (three hours to Matsumoto, then a 30-minute train ride).

Once a collection of five quiet farming villages known for their tasty soba, apples and wasabi, Azumino was formed five years ago when the villages were combined into today’s city of 100,000 people. Consequently, farms now sit shoulder-to-shoulder with vacation homes, modern housing developments — and more than a dozen museums.

Azumino’s cultural boom started in 1958 with the Rokuzan Art Museum. The quaint brick structure was built as a memorial to local sculptor Morie Ogiwara (1879-1910), using donations from 300,000 schoolchildren; Ogiwara’s Rodin-esque bronze sculptures still fill its halls.

Over the ensuing decades, more and more museums flocked to the scenic region, and by 2010 a brochure for the Azumino Art Line was advertising 20 of them strung between the city and the ski town of Hakuba 50 km to the north. But there are a lot more, too, that didn’t make the Art Line.

Listed or not, aside from the Toyoshina Museum of Modern Art, most of the area’s museums and galleries display small, offbeat collections or rotating shows focusing on a single artist or theme. In fact, the whole area almost feels like one giant museum whose collection, rather than being gathered under a single roof, has been spread around the countryside in bite-size pieces.

If you want to take in the whole Art Line, you’ll need a car, a good-size budget (entrance fees average ¥500-¥800), and four or five days. A more enjoyable (and economical) option is to rent a bike in Hotaka, where many of the museums are clustered, and choose just a handful to check out. Then spend a day or two popping into museums and cafes as you pedal through rice fields beneath the snow-capped mountains.

Start your outing at Hotaka Station, half an hour north of the larger city of Matsumoto. There’s an information center just outside the station where you can pick up maps and get touring tips from the friendly, English-speaking staff. The center also has plenty of information about the area’s abundant local hot springs, inns, restaurants, cafes and range of outdoor activities.

To rent a bike, should you wish to, just walk across the square to either Shinano An or the slightly more expensive Hitsuji-ya, where you can also rent a car or enjoy a cup of house-blend spiced tea. From there, choose your route between the galleries and museums that sit along the foothills west of the station and pedal away. Here’s a sampling of what you’ll find.

Galerie Repos: If you’re looking for Japan’s very own Herb and Dorothy, this is the place to go. The one-room gallery was established in 2005 by retired Tokyo librarians Akio and Noriko Yonezawa, who spent 25 years exploring the Shinjuku art world on their lunch breaks and days off before moving to Azumino.

“We always liked to look at art,” says Noriko. “Then Akio started buying paintings, and once you buy one, you can’t stop. He’d skip lunch to go to the galleries and spend all our money there.”

His first purchase — a painting by Tokyo-based artist Ichiro Kurihara of a seductive white face smiling out from a mantle of black hair — still hangs on the museum’s back porch.

The one-room gallery isn’t on any of the main tourist maps, but it’s right next to Okuma Art Museum, which is listed. Shows rotate every two months and usually feature a contemporary Japanese artist. As you have a look around, Akio will likely walk over to the record player and slip on an album. He’s got hundreds stacked in green tubs against the wall, and selects music to match the show. When I visited, some of Kurihara’s moody canvases were on the walls and the Red Garland Trio’s urbane jazz was on the player.

Okuma Art Museum: Next door to Galerie Repos, Chieko Okuma presides over a quite different artistic world: two rooms of commemorative Christmas and Mother’s Day plates, teacups painted with scenes of lavish estates, and botanical-themed China made by Royal Copenhagen, porcelain purveyor to the Danish royal family.

Back in the early 1990s, Okuma was running a cafe and had a couple of the blue-and-white Christmas plates on display. Then she decided she wanted to collect all of them — there are different designs for every year since 1898. The museum is the result of that transnational shopping quest.

“I was moved by the way the plates give a shape to the passing of the years, and the fact that the company never stopped making them, even in the depths of World War II,” says Okuma.

If your interest in collectible China doesn’t run quite as deep as Okuma’s, you can skip the museum and enjoy your Christmas plate at her cafe next door — along with a slice of wickedly rich cheesecake on it (the cream cheese is imported from Denmark). The classical music, crackling woodstove and polished wood furniture make for a cozy retreat — but families be warned: Noisy children are not welcome.

Azumino Art Hills Museum: This large metal-and-concrete complex houses a collection of glassware by the Frenchman Emile Galle (1846-1904), a master of Art Nouveau. The small museum is buried at the back of the building, beyond sprawling shops offering Venetian vases and sleek Scandinavian serving plates. There’s also a workshop where you can watch local artisans blow glass, an Italian restaurant and a glass-art classroom.

If you’ve been turned off by cheap reproductions of Art Nouveau lamps, you may be surprised by the romantic beauty of the originals, which seem to be crafted from silk and chiffon rather than glass. The collection is arranged by season: for spring, an opaque vase whose delicate pink anemones bloom against the palest of green backgrounds; for winter, a darker, rougher vase with a raised seahorse on one side, designed during Galle’s bout with mental illness.

Mori-no-ouchi Picture Book Museum: Picture-book museums are an Azumino specialty, with Mori-no-ouchi one of three found there. These are perfect for kids, and surprising fun for grownups too: Illustrations that we take for granted between the covers of a book often come beautifully to life in the original.

The two-story wooden Mori-no-ouchi Museum is tucked into a forested vacation development. Downstairs there’s a cafe, gallery, and shop (selling — what else? — picture books); upstairs is a reading room that offers hours of entertainment for the kids, and a blissful trip down memory lane for the rest of us.

Azumino Jansem Art Museum: Another private collection-turned-museum, this time featuring the work of Armenian-born French painter Jean Jansem (1920-). Two galleries on the first floor display Jansem’s flowery still lifes, street scenes and portraits; upstairs, there’s a darkened room of striking lithographs, including a series of bony ballerinas scratched in thin, wavering black lines. The museum sits in a pretty garden with a cafe next door.

Spoon Art Gallery and Cafe: Inside this white house a block east of Hotaka Station, award-winning spoon artist Hiromi Matsubara crafts cutlery into wild silvery menageries. Entry is prohibited without a purchase at the cafe, but a peek into Matsubara’s fantastical world is well worth the ¥300 you’ll pay for a soft-serve ice cream. All creations are for sale, including, when I visited, a swan with butter-knife tail feathers and crabs with dessert-fork claws.

For more information on the museums listed above, and some that aren’t, as well as for travel information in English, visit www.azumino-e-tabi.net/en/.