Standing beside a rushing brook with a glass of crisp white wine, gazing at acres of vineyard and snow-capped mountains across the way, it’s feeling more like Switzerland than the Japan I’d imagined. It’s also feeling like I’ve found a tourism gem, a region of Japan that few tourists see: Yamanashi Prefecture.
As beautiful as this winter vista is, I know it’ll only be more stunning come spring when the cherry blossoms cover the whole region with what locals fondly refer to as the “pink carpet.” But for anyone who frequents Japan, another visit is quite easy–it’s just an hour and a half by “shinkansen,” or bullet train, from Tokyo.
Wine may not be the first thing that comes to mind when thinking of Japan. In fact, it may not come to mind at all. Mention Japanese wines to friends and you’ll likely get blank stares or the inevitable “I thought the Japanese drank sake.”
But the Japanese do indeed make wine and have been doing so for about 150 years. The grape common to this region is the pink-skinned Koshu, which, genetic testing shows, came to Japan from the Caucasus about 1,200 years ago along the Silk Road at around the same time as Buddhism made its way here, too. The Japanese had been growing Koshu as table grapes for centuries but were not accustomed to using them for making alcohol. In the later 1800s, as the nation became increasingly curious about Western ways, the region sent two young men to Bordeaux to learn the art of winemaking. They returned two years later, but early attempts at making wine with Koshu were unsuccessful because the grapes were not yet cultivated for winemaking.
There are now 280 wineries in Japan making quite palatable–and even award-winning–-wine, 90 of them in Yamanashi, a quiet, rural province that’s also famous for peaches, cherries, plums and strawberries. Like much of Japan, Yamanashi is ringed with mountains and forests, with most of the population living in an extended valley. Mount Fuji looms large over the area–one can see it from just about any vantage point–and limits the amount of rain the region receives. In addition to relatively low rainfall, the area is ideally suited to growing grapes due to the volcanic soil, strong seasonal temperature variations and good natural drainage.
All that said, Japanese wine is probably different from what you may be used to. Tannic, acidic, full-bodied, and long finish are not terms you’d associate with wine here–rather: crisp, delicate, light, elegant and citrus notes. The reason for this is actually quite basic and has nothing to do with ability, skill or knowledge–in a country known for its obsession with food quality and freshness, you can be sure that Japanese winemakers know exactly what they’re doing.
The wines here are designed to match the food, which is generally far subtler than most Western cuisine. These wines are not for drinking with big pasta dishes or saucy meat dishes; they’re for eating sashimi, miso soup, seasonal vegetables and other Japanese favorites. Much of the wine never makes it to oak barrels, but rather is fermented in stainless steel and then bottled. This is partially what keeps the wine lighter and crisp, much like a Japanese pilsner. It’s also why so little of it is exported–it’s a natural for domestic consumption.
Learning about Japan’s wines taught me a lot about the culture, which made my three-day excursion to Yamanashi all the more meaningful. I visited a half-dozen wineries, most of them within 15–20 kilometers of one another. They were mostly located in the prefecture’s capital city of Kofu, and nearby Fuefuki.
First on my list of favorites was Katsunuma Jyozu Winery, where I sat on a wooden terrace in the brisk sunshine with a glass of white wine enjoying the view. Started in 1937 and now led by the third generation of the same family, the winery takes pride in using only Koshu grapes, the majority of which are grown on their own land. Although the winery once specialized in sweet wines–the Japanese have traditionally enjoyed wines that we might compare to grade-A Manischewitz–Japanese tastes have evolved and so have the wines. The wine here is so good that it’s often served on first class flights to Japan as well as at state functions in the prime minister’s residence.
On the drive to the next stop, Lumière Winery, I marveled at how nearly every home had vines growing in the yard, as well as peach trees–in fact, it was near impossible to find a yard, regardless of size, that didn’t. One can only imagine how extensive the so-called Pink Carpet is in this valley. Sadly, much of it will be harvested by retirees because much of the region’s youth relocated to nearby Tokyo.
Lumière takes pride in growing several different varietals including Koshu, Merlot and Tempranillo, and using organic, old-school methods like grass cover crops, no-tillage, and horizontal overhead trellises. One can walk among the rows inspecting the many different varietals while admiring the impossibly steep peaks across the valley. As its name suggest, this winery aspires to French standards. Many of the wines are aged in oak for a slightly fuller bodied feel, and there’s a restaurant featuring nouvelle cuisine to match the wines.
Further out of town, into the foothills, is the improbably named Mars Winery. It’s a stunning minimalist concrete-and-wood Scandinavian-inspired structure with an unforgettable view of Mount Fuji that nearly overshadows the wine itself. Back in Kofu, another winery of interest is Sadoya, which gives tours of its extensive underground cellars. During the war, they were used for the production of another grape product–tartaric acid, used to manufacture radar. For its compulsory government service, the winery and city were extensively bombed by the Allies.
Although some make a visit to Yamanashi a day trip, the affordable “ryokan,” or traditional inns, with their tatami-mat rooms and hot spring “onsen,” or communal baths, are easily as big of an attraction as the wineries. Imagine coming home to a spotless tatami-mat room where you walk in slippers provided for you, sit at a traditional table for your own private tea ceremony, walk down the hall for “kaiseki”–or traditional multi-course meal–bathe in piping hot spring water and then sleep beneath a giant comforter atop a traditional futon. After each day of touring wineries, I did precisely that. And it was amazing.
If you go
The best way to reach Yamanashi is to take a bullet train to Kofu. There you can rent a car or hire a driver to take you to the wineries, which are not especially far from one another. Keep in mind that although Yamanashi is near Tokyo, it is a rural area and many people don’t speak English, something that can prove to be a challenge at times. Most wine tours, however, can be arranged in English, particularly if you contact the winery ahead of time. It’s a very friendly area and businesses are happy to accommodate you.
Kasugai hotel http://www.k-view.jp/language/english/
Traditional tatami rooms and communal hot baths. Stunning vista of Mount Fuji from 12th floor.
Tokiwa hotel http://www.tokiwa-hotel.co.jp/e_index.html
Tatami rooms and hot baths. Enormous lobby windows overlook a courtyard garden voted one of the best in Japan.
Katsunuma Jyozu winery http://www.katsunuma-winery.com/english/pg/winerypg/winery.html
Lumière winery http://www.lumiere.jp/en/#
Mars Hosaka winery https://www.hombo.co.jp/img/news/mars_hosaka.pdf
Sadoya winery http://visitjapanesewinery.com/view/46