Yamanashi Prefecture is not only the oldest area for wine production in Japan, but also possesses many other ‘oldest’ qualities that are not only unique to the region but also the world. The two oldest family-run businesses in the world I was surprised to find are actually Japanese businesses! One of these can be found in Yamanashi Prefecture, that being Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan (a hot spring hotel) that was founded in 711 in Hayakawa. Japan has a long-running nickname as the land of the rising sun, credited to the rising sun flag of Japan designed by feudal lords during the Edo period (Kyokujitsu-ki) and the modern day national flag (Nisshoki). In Yamanashi Prefecture you can look upon the oldest Japanese flag, which is housed at Unpo-ji Temple in Koshu. The exceptionally important heritage item dates back to the 16th century and according to legend it was offered to the temple by the Emperor Go-Reizei in the 11th Century. As with the national flag, when you imagine iconic imagery of Japan one of the first images you picture are the blossoming sakura or cherry blossom trees, which see the country inundated during the spring. Adding to the pride and history of Yamanashi Prefecture, the oldest cherry tree in Japan can be found at Jisso Temple and at 2,000 years old, as with wine, it has only improved with time.
It was my first visit to Nagano Prefecture, and one that was long overdue. With several Japanese friends having been born, attended university or have family located in Nagano it was one region I was eager to see for myself. With a wealth to offer foreign visitors, it is understandable that CNN included Nagano as one of eighteen places to visit in 2018. The forth largest prefecture in Japan, this mountainous region is home to a population of approximately 2 million people as well as its fair share of wineries.
Entering Nagano Prefecture I headed for the birthplace of the “Shinano (Nagano) Wine” movement and my first stop would take me to Kikyou-gahara also known as Nagano’s wine valley region, renowned for its grape growing climate. Enjoying wine has always been a family occasion in Japan and it was no surprise that Sinano Winery is yet another winery with a longstanding heritage. Founded in 1916 during the Taisho Era, a man by the name of Kenichi Shihara (the great grandfather of the current President Shihara Masayumi) began planting and cultivating grapes. Now in it’s third generation of operation and with a plenty of international wine awards under their belt (winning international awards year on year since 1993) I was keen to join the free underground cellar tour. Interjecting with my own strong opinion momentarily, might I just say that I think winter is possibly the best season to visit Nagano Prefecture specifically for wine. The weather may be a top of -2°C and a low of -10°C but there is no greater beauty than witnessing Nagano in the frosty season. Picturesque clear blue skies contrast the highlighted white-capped mountains and snow-dusted landscape. With summer comes the heat, and with Autumn (specifically around October) being the prime season for harvesting and brewing, access to wineries becomes limited due to their general busyness.
Despite being 715m above sea level and with temperatures reaching up to 30°C in summer, the temperature in the Sinano Winery cellars (that contain over 150 oak barrels and more than 5000 bottles) felt a little similar to the winter weather outside. After tasting my way through merlot, chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, sparkling wine, Niagara and Concord varieties, and brandy aged since 1998 (quite potent to say the least), I purchased another few bottles and went on my way.
As my inner lunchtime bell began to toll I headed to Soba-shou in Azumino; if the name did not give it away, I was due for hearty soba to warm away the winter-chill. Soba is the Japanese word for buckwheat, and Nagano Prefecture’s version of soba combines both buckwheat and wheat – with the noodles at Soba-shou made from buckwheat grown near the actual store. The resulting noodle is firmer and heartier in comparison to ramen, somen and udon. Soba making, I believe is an art form in itself, and witnessing soba making through the glass window standing on the outside only made my stomach grumble louder. If you skipped breakfast and need a larger size over the already-generous standard portion, then by all means challenge yourself to the large size. I was torn between the Kakiage Tempura Soba (soba with vegetable fritters) and the Niku Soba (topped with porn and Nagano vegetables) yet in the end the salty attraction of the Kakiage was the winner! To say the soba hit the spot on the cold Nagano day was an understatement.