The second day of my trip across Yamanashi Prefecture tasting Japanese wine courtesy of Kinki Nippon Tourist (for which I decided to write a series of honest articles) saw me up early, downing a coffee and heading off for the first stop of the day, Katsunuma Winery. If you didn’t read about my first day exploring Yamanashi, go back and read Day 1!
Firstly, you might be thinking “Really? Wine in Japan? Are Japanese wineries even any good?” but in my experience Japan produces some pretty incredible wine, and I have tasted quite a bit. It is not only my word you have to take as well. Japan started producing wine in the 19th century, with some wineries winning gold medals at international competitions in France, which most consider to be the home of wine. In 2016 alone, approximately 5.5 million tourists visited Yamanashi Prefecture, with more than two thirds only visiting on single-day trips (as it is an easily manageable daytrip from Tokyo) but these approximately 3.5 million people missed out on the opportunity of a slightly-buzzed multi-day winery-hopping adventure. At least a single day trip to Fuefuki city in Yamanashi Prefecture is better than no day trip at all I guess.
Katsunuma, considered the birthplace of Japanese wine and the home of viniculture in Japan, is located in central Yamanashi and includes more than 30 wineries that produce 27% of all Japanese wine using Koshu grapes, which have been grown in the region for more than 12 centuries. And what a tasty little grape they are! Katsunuma Jyozu Winery, I was happy to find, was nestled in beautiful countryside just north of Mount Fuji and is also famed for their production of Koshu wine; but as most people know, perfection takes time, and the delicious wine from Yamanashi was not award winning from the onset which I was to learn more about later that day.
Koshu in Japan has a long and fascinating history dating back over 1,000 years when it is said that Koshu grapes travelled together with Buddhism along the silk road only to find its home in Yamanashi Prefecture. According to Japanese legend, in 718 a Buddhist monk named Gyoki went to sleep one night to dream of the ‘Buddha of Medicine’ holding a bunch of grapes. Whether a dream or vision or his desire for something new, Gyoki constructed Daizenji Temple and started to grow Koshu grapes for medicinal purposes. From medicine in temples to table food and flavoured tea in teahouses, Koshu grape cultivation expanded in the picturesque landscape where the environment and volcanic soil of the region were suitable for the propagation of Koshu. Although used for medicine before wine, by happenstance it was a famous doctor by the name of Tokuhon Kai who in the Edo period (1603-1867) implemented the overhead trellis-type cultivation method that saw grape harvesting become more efficient, economical and profitable leading it to expand across Japan. Cheers to you Doc! With the overhead trellis cultivation revolutionizing wine production in Japan I set off in search of wine produced from this method and the first on my list was a tour and tasting at Katsunuma Jyozu Winery. The fact that their wines are often used in the offices of the Japanese Prime Minister and for VIPs, only further spurred my enthusiasm in my early morning sober state.
Katsunuma Jyozu Winery, visually striking thanks to its Japanese tile roof and mortar walls, was established in 1937 and has been a long running family business, now in it’s third generation with a total of 23 workers from the extended family. With a big production family comes a big amount of wine, and despite its small appearance from the outside, the award-winning winery cultivates 30ha of vineyards to produce over 400,000 bottles a year from just two grape varieties; Koshu and Muscat Berry.
From Katsunuma Jyozu Winery, I headed a short drive to another famous winery in the region called Lumiere. Now in its 133rd year of operation, Lumiere winery has a long history of wine production in Yamanashi. Bearing straight for the vineyards, I walked amongst the rows of merlot, Koshu and other endless varieties before moving on to witness the wine production in action.
On the slope down towards the facility, it is here that the previous owner of Lumiere, being a Shinto priest, commissioned Omiya Jinja (a Shinto shrine) in a small lush patch of vegetation that includes a pine tree said to be over 1,000 years old. Inhaling a light sweet aroma as I entered the factory, I felt like this was the alcoholic version of Charlie and the Chocolate factory as I watched the dedicated workers delicately bottle fresh batches of sparkling wine.
With a few award-winning wines quite easily purchased, I settled down for a French-style lunch overlooking the vineyards. Whilst it may be common for wineries in western countries to have cafes and restaurants, in contrast, most Japanese wineries are not constructed with kitchens, so I relished the chance for a spot of lunch. With a delicious lunch paired with the perfect wines, as the Japanese say “mottainai” (which means not to waste anything) I left with my plate clean, and my palate refreshed.
After winery hopping in the morning and now contently full with a light buzz, it was time for a leisurely break strolling through Miyakouen; a collective term for sightseeing vineyards and brewery that is maintained as a museum with a range of exhibits on viniculture and winemaking established in 1896. Founded by Mitsutaro Miyazaki this relaxing rest stop features beautiful Japanese gardens and impressive wine relics such a barrels that are big enough wine to fill 7,700 bottles from one single large cask. As the weather became cooler I took the opportunity to sit inside by the gas heater and learn a little more about the history of Japanese wine.
Koshu grapes weren’t naturally perfect for winemaking as was discovered during the Meiji era. A winery in Katsunuma was the first winery in the region, formed when families living in the area developed a collective and pooled their funds to start the first commercial wine business, Daikoku Bodoshu. It was around 130 years ago that the Japanese government got involved in the promotion of wine production in Japan as a part of a project to learn more of western culture. One part of this project involved selecting two young Japanese men from the first commercial winery aforementioned, and sending them to France to study the art of winemaking and viniculture (for an world expo on wine was to be held in Paris at that time). Yet they were unfortunately disheartened on their return to Japan only to find their first attempt at making wine quite unsuccessful. The flaw in their newfound plan to expand the wine production of Japan just happened to be the famed Koshu grape that had been there the whole time. Koshu grapes proved unfitting and unappetizing for producing wine due to centuries of cultivation for other uses, specifically not wine.
Unfortunately the business went bankrupt, but not all was lost. A boy by the name of Kotaro Miyazaki, who was only 15 at the time the two young men were sent to France, proved to be the savior for Yamanashi wine, and upon adulthood purchased the business that was going bankrupt and revolutionized the company. The new successful company ended up playing host to many members of the Imperial family and other notable figures in Japanese history. And after a century of promotional investment by the government, the payoff was finally attained and pleasant plonk was produced.
After an overload of wine history and viniculture in Japan, to say I was a little thirsty was understatement and so I hopped on the bus and headed an hour away to the newly established Hosaka facility of Mars Winery; only recently constructed in November 2017 to be precise. Perfectly suited to its surroundings, the stunning concrete building was constructed in a minimalist-cross-Scandinavian style perfectly harmonized with earthy textures that evokes quality, warmth and a high attention to detail.
With other Mars facilities across the country (shochu production in Kagoshima, whisky in Nagano) wine production is based in Yamanashi. In 1992 wines first grown in Hosaka were released and from 2005 national winery awards started rolling in like the surrounding mountains. Going from strength to strength, Mars Winery has continued winning awards year on year from 2012 to the present. After warming up by the fireplace I risked stepping out into the -6°C weather on the rooftop deck to get one last look at the incredible topography of Yamanashi.
Chilled to the bone I farewelled the friendly hosts of Mars Winery and set out for the last goal of my second day in Yamanashi – the perfect meal at the most luxurious onsen hotel in the region, Yumura Tokiwa Hotel. Entering the hot spring resort, the impeccable Japanese-style garden, which the resort is built around, demands your attention – for all the right reasons; the classic garden has been ranked 3rd nationally after all. After visiting Takeda Shingen’s Shrine the previous day, I was looking forward to relaxing in the historic hot springs, which are said to be the secret baths for the warlord himself during the 16th century. Traditional Kaiseki meals do not get much better than those flawlessly prepared at Yumura Tokiwa Hotel, and from the food and onsen, to the overall feel and incredibly huge Japanese style rooms – this was already one place I knew I would be saddened to leave the following day.
After another 14 hour day exploring, I believe I deserve to close my computer and jump in the renowned onsen. If I don’t return from Yamanashi, you know where to find me!
For more information on any of the places mentioned in this article please view the below links.
Katsunuma Jyozu Winery – http://www.katsunuma-winery.com/english/index.html
Lumiere Winery – http://www.lumiere.jp/
Miyakouen – https://www.miyakouen.co.jp
Mars Winery – https://www.hombo.co.jp
Yumura Tokiwa Hotel – http://www.tokiwa-hotel.co.jp
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