I have travelled a lot in Japan, but one place on my list to tick off (that I still hadn’t got to) was Yamanashi Prefecture and Nagano. I’m still a little stunned, but was so happy to be offered a free tour of Yamanashi and Yamanashi’s wineries from Kinki Nippon Tourist, and in return I decided to write a series of posts covering the tour – but don’t worry they’re all going to be honest opinions, because bias is for those with no backbone.
Getting up at 4:30am to walk an hour in the freezing cold to catch the first bullet train is painful, and not even the thought of winery hopping through Fuefuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture and Nagano for the next few days could entice feelings of warmth at that point. But hey, at least I got to ride a shinkansen again – and if you haven’t been to Japan, or you have been, but didn’t catch a bullet train – then trust me, it’s definitely a great way to travel across the country. It’s such a relaxing experience rocketing across the country and getting a glimpse at a different side of Japan. One a side note, in my experience I’ve also found that riding a Shinkansen gains you access to this sort-of unspoken group of approval by Japanese people. Living in Japan, you often get to talking with locals and you’re asked if you’ve ever ridden a bullet train. When this happens and you respond in the affirmative without expressing exaggeration, surprise or excitement, simply more of an “of course I’ve taken a Shinkansen” or “last week I went to Tokyo by Shinkansen”, subtly slipping it on, you gain this kind of unspoken nod of approval from Japanese people – and to some extent it’s understandable. Japanese people have a deep love and respect for trains, in particular bullet trains, and it’s a level of admiration and respect you can only get from experiencing it. Plus you join the club. My attempt at riding a Shinkansen this morning resulted in the same experience I have had for every one of my last trips. Now I have to admit that I am no regular Shinkansen rider or authority on bullet trains whatsoever, as I made the same mistake I always do taking the train, in that you need to insert both your ticket and the fare ticket together at the same time to get on and off the platform – so once again I ended up being the bad foreigner that caused a jam at the ticket gate and holding up all those exiting. My apologies.
Getting back to where I left off, from Shin-Osaka I jumped on the Tokaido-Sanyo Shinkansen and pit-stopped in Shizuoka before heading on to Kofu station in Yamanashi Prefecture where I was to start my 4 day tour across the countryside. Swapping my ankle socks for a pair of longer, warmer socks was a necessity and I was lucky I had packed extra after viewing the weather forecast the previous night (40cm of snowfall was predicted, and during the week it would be a top of -2 degrees Celsius). One of the stations in between Shizuoka and Kofu happens to be Fuji, the city where the symbol of Japan calls home. Watching the high altitude winds blow away snow from the peak, like a child blowing icing sugar from the top of a cake, is simply breathtaking to behold – even if its from the comfort of the train slowly rolling by.
I was soon happy to find out that Kofu Station is a handy little central railway station run by JR East, and is also a hub that easily connects to Tokyo or to get around the Chubu region including to Mt. Fuji or the stunning Shosenkyo Gorge (note to self – plan another trip to Mt. Fuji in April). On the 4 hour train ride from Osaka I decided to read up on the history of the destination I was soon to arrive in and, as with most Japanese locations, I was surprised to find what an interesting history it has.
Kofu has a long past, and in 1519 it was rebuilt as a castle town under rule of the infamous warlord Takeda Shingen who is still prominent in the historical imagination of many Japanese people. He has been prominent in many books, TV shows and movies and is often recalled as a wise ruler and a master at military tactics. He’s also noted for decreeing a fair criminal and civil code and is often credited in the set of morals and principles of the samurai, called Bushido. One of his most famous quotes wisely states “Knowledge is not power, it is only potential. Applying that knowledge is power. Understanding why and when to apply that knowledge is wisdom!”. Kofu in fact is a high plateau surrounded by towering mountains and was the base of Takeda’s power, from where he launched many assaults. Arriving at Kofu Station, I was content to come face to face with the worshipped warlord himself; well face to statue anyway. In Kofu you can find 5 temples called “Kofu Gozan”, or ‘the five mountains of Kofu’, and you can set off on a trail passing Takeda and his wife’s tombs that ends at the Takeda Shingen Shrine (Takeda-jinja) roughly 2 kilometres away, finishing back at Kofu Station. That’s a whole lot of history in such a short walk so if you’re a traveller that is into history and culture then you should add it to your list when you visit, and the fact that they are beautiful locations only adds to the beauty of its history. The small kingfisher ornate work that adorns the street poles (for kingfishers are famous in Yamanashi) adds to the quaint charm.
After leaving Takeda-jinja I joined up with the tour group that would be my company for the next few days to enjoy a delicious lunch of soba at Kiri, only a brief walk from the station. With lunch a being a quick-ish sort of affair, we headed off for the main purpose of our tour, to taste our way through Japanese wineries in Fuefuki City, and the first of those was at Sadoya Winery.
Yamanashi Prefecture is considered the birthplace of winemaking in Japan dating back to around 1870-1871 where the now famous Koshu and crimson glory varieties were first used. In fact there are approximately 280 wineries in Japan, and 90 of those call Yamanashi home. These days there are more than 80 wineries throughout the region and the oldest of those is Sadoya Winery. Sadoya was established in 1917 and has been producing wine for over 100 years featuring cellars that span nearly half an acre which is about the size of 8 tennis courts in case you can’t really picture it. Descending to the dark cellars, a sweet smell of red wine overwhelmed me as I waited for my eyes to adjust in the dim lighting.
Continuing to follow the group exploring the winery, we inspected old wine tanks, barrels and tools used to make wine when the company was first founded – and of course the whole point of the tour – sipping on wine samples at the end. Between a rose, a semillion and a cabernet sauvignon, the wine of my choice was the white; smelling of crisp apples with a slightly sharp acidity.
The actual location of Sadoya features the cellars and a recepetion area (with the vineyards in the hills not too far away). There’s also a restaurant, a shop and a church (in case you have a few sins that you need to be absolved of, that of course I skipped) with the whole tour roughly taking about thirty minutes. Despite it’s long history, Sadoya Winery wasn’t exempt from the toll of WWII and in fact was used as a place to make munitions and tartaric acid (which is found naturally in grapes) for submarine detectors. It was so important that in 1945, Kofu was attacked by the United States with the winery being one of the targets. Yet their rich history is paired with their rich wines. If you have a thing for quality wine, you can taste vintage wine and brandy that’s dated at over half a century, and from mid to late May they hold a wine festival right outside Kofu Station. And it’s back here where I left off for the next part of my tour.
The next part of my day saw me taking a 5 minute walk to the historically cute Koshu Yume Kouji street. This quaint little street is a reproduction of the castle city of Kofu during the Meiji, Taisho and Showa eras when the jewelry and silk textile industries became prominent. You can browse shops selling gemstones, jewelry, flowers and wine, as well as take a coffee break at any of the charming cafes or restaurants – all of these which I skipped, except for a quick coffee break as I did get up at 4am to get here remember.
A highlight of the Koshu Yume Kouji street is the Kofu bell tower ‘Toki no Kane’ (which you can see above), which residents used to tell time for more than 200 years until it was taken down in the early Meiji era. The current bell tower is a faithful reproduction of the original, and still remarkable nonetheless. As well as being illuminated at night, there is a button at the base allowing you to ring the bell, which is pretty neat. From the moment I stepped onto the street I was transported to another time an era, and completely immersed in the ambience and charm of days gone by. For me it was pleasant and memorable, and being only a quick walk from the station, I strongly recommend it to any visiting Kofu or those simply stopping at the station.
As the sun started to set and the weather began to drop, I tightened my scarf around my neck (for it’s winter in January in Japan if you recall) and decided to head for the hotel. After 14 hours and 430km, to say I was glad to get to my hotel was an understatement. My accommodation for the night was a Japanese style room (with tatami floors and a futon bed) at Hotel Kasugai (and what an incredible view it has!), which also happens to offer an all you can eat dinner including as much snow crab as you want, if that’s your thing. I’m not much of a hotel critic, as for me all I need is a bed, but in Japan if the hotel includes onsen or open-air-baths then everything’s coming up roses.
Day 1 was about to finish, and I was eager for the next few days exploring Fuefuki City, Yamanashi Prefecture and Nagano (which will be in the following posts over the next few days) but for now I was over the moon to walk into the hotel and arrive to smell the roses.
For more information on any of the places mentioned in this article please view the below links.
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