Ushiku Chateau: wine and Westernization

The last thing you would expect to find an hour outside of Tokyo is a French chateau. But there it is, just a 10 minute walk from JR Ushiku station in Ibaraki Prefecture.

The chateau was completed in 1903 as part of what is now recognized as Japan’s first “full-fledged” winery. The chateau was built by Kamiya Denbee (1856-1922), another of those visionaries that make Japan’s Meiji Period (1868-1912) such a distinctive time in Japan’s history. At the same time as he was building his chateau, Kamiya was also busily planting vineyards all around it, all part of his grand plan to make this area into a major wine producing region.

As you might expect, there a story here.

Kamiya was the owner of Japan’s first western-style bar, Kamiya Bar, which opened in Asakusa in 1880 and is still in operation. In 1873, while still a teen-ager, he got a job in a warehouse in Yokohama operated by a French wine merchant. When he was injured on the job, his kind employer visited his sickbed every day and gave him a glass of wine to drink to aid his recovery. Kamiya became convinced that wine in moderation could be marketed as a health drink. But he struggled to get his fellow Japanese to drink wine; the flavor was just so different from anything they were used to.

Finally Kamiya realized that if he added honey and Chinese medicinal herbs he could create a drink more pleasing to the Japanese palate. This is when Kamiya’s “Bee Brand Kozan Wine” was born. Although Kamiya’s given name is pronounced Den-beh-eh, with short e, when romanized it becomes Denbee and the second syllable looks like “bee”. It is likely he leveraged that spelling and the honey in his product to brand his product with a bee.

Kamiya’s Bee Brand Kozan Wine was moderately successful and, in fact, is still in production today. It is rather sweet and tastes a bit like a port wine.

There is another two story red brick building behind the chateau, which was the actual winery. Harvested grapes were brought into the complex from the vineyards via a small railway that passed through the arch in the chateau. The winery also sourced grapes from Yamanashi Prefecture, long a grape-producing region of Japan. Eventually it was realized that this area of Ibaraki was not suitable for grapes, although the winery continues on a small scale.

Today the winery has been turned into a museum where visitors can learn about the history of wine-making at the chateau. One the ground floor are large wooden barrels, the first stage of the fermentation process. When this was a working winery, the barrels stood up, rather than resting on their sides, and the grape juice that was pressed on the second level was poured into them from above. They are turned sideways now to allow visitors a better view.

The second floor has been turned into a gallery with displays on the history of the winery as well as on the wine production process. The antique equipment on display is fascinating.

It was also fun to see pupitres and a bottle capper on display. Pupitres are the special racks in which bottles of fermenting champagne are stored upside down at a 35 degree angle so that the sediments in the wine settle in the neck of the bottle and can be manually removed at a particular stage of fermentation.

In the cellar beneath the winery are two more points of interest: the current small, modern winery and row upon row of barrels and bottles of ageing wine.

The courtyard between the chateau and the winery, once a hive of shipping and processing activity, is now a leafy spot with a fountain in the center, a serene spot to relax and soak up the historical atmosphere. On one side of the courtyard is a souvenir shop and snack facility, which a red brick warehouse once used for storage is now a French restaurant.

The chateau itself is not usually open to the public, although apparently its large hall can be reserved for private parties catered from the restaurant. I was fortunate to be given a “backstage tour”. On the second floor is the large hall, complete with fireplaces for heating, and a boardroom containing antique furniture. On the ground floor is Kamiya’s private retreat, a suite of three Japanese style rooms opening onto a small Japanese garden.

While the grounds around the chateau are not as expansive as they once were, it is still a spacious facility fun to stroll around in fine weather. There is still a small vineyard in cultivation. There is also a microbrewery in operation, although it is not open to the public.

In one corner of the grounds is a small modern museum, the Oenon Museum. Oenon is the name of the food and beverage conglomerate that now makes Kamiya’s original Bee Brand Kozan Wine, among other well known beverages. This little museum has displays on some of their popular products and especially their past packaging and advertising. It’s probably the most fun to visit with a Japanese friend who will regularly exclaim “Oh, I remember this!”

Today the entire chateau facility belongs to the municipal government, the result of a campaign by local residents to have the buildings preserved. It is designated as a Japan Heritage site, acknowledging its role in the history of wine production in Japan. It is open daily from 10 am to 4 pm and entry is free.

© 2021 and Vicki L. Beyer
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