A Winter Weekend in Wine Country

Grapes have been cultivated in Japan since at least the eighth century, but it was not until 1879 that the first grape wine was produced.

By lucky coincidence, the location of Japan’s earliest wine production, and still one of Japan’s major wine producing regions, Katsunuma in Yamanashi Prefecture, is just an hour and a half from Tokyo, perfect for a weekend getaway from the city, even during winter.

Yamanashi, which produces more than 1/3 of all wine grapes grown in Japan, boasts 71 wineries, many of them located in the Katsunuma area. I’ll share a few that have become favorites.

Daizenji: a wine-producing temple

Located on a hillside, Daizenji temple was founded in 718. According to one legend, monks coming from China first introduced grape cultivation at this temple, grapes then being considered to have medicinal value and monks often taking the role of healer. Another legend has it that Gyoki, the monk who founded the temple, had a vision of Buddha holding a bunch of grapes. He carved a Buddha statue cradling a bunch of grapes in his left hand to represent his vision. Because of its extreme age, the statue is not usually on public display. Instead visitors must be satisfied with a large photo in its place.

The temple has long had its own vineyards although it only began producing its own wine in 1953: 9,000 bottles annually. It also offers basic but comfortable overnight accommodation usually including two meals, but currently because of the pandemic only offering a bed and breakfast arrangement. Reservations can be made in Japanese through the temple’s website or by phoning 0553-44-0027.

Miyakoen

Miyakoen is ground zero for wine production in Japan, the site of Japan’s earliest wine production in the late 1870s. It is one of the places included in the Japan Heritage listing commemorating the history of Japanese wine. (Another is the Ushiku Chateau in Ibaraki.) It’s an interesting place, but its old buildings are unheated–dress warmly!

The 1892 central building has museum exhibits detailing the history of two young men, Tsuchiya Ryuken and Takano Masanari, who traveled to France in 1877 to learn more about wine production. They produced the first grape wine in Japan in 1879. Ten years later, Tsuchiya formed a new partnership, called Kaisan Shoten, with Miyazaki Kotaro which was better resourced and more successful, although it seems they were always striving to produce wines suited to the Japanese palate.

The exhibits also include such items as early bottles and labels, with their retro appearance. There are also a couple of explanatory films (mostly in Japanese) that use delightful historical footage and provide further explanations about how the earliest wine was produced.

Miyakoen is open Wednesday through Monday, 9:00 am to 4:30 pm. Admission is JPY200.

Chateau Mercian Wine Museum

After Miyazaki’s death in 1947, Kaisan Shoten became Chateau Mercian. At the Chateau Mercian Wine Museum across the road from Miyakoen, visitors can walk through an actual historical winery, viewing the area where grapes were pressed, as well as the cellars where barrels of juice fermented into wine.

Another fun feature of the museum is its long, detailed timeline of the history of wine in Japan.

One of the winery’s early buildings, across a small courtyard from the museum, is now a wine shop which also offers tastings. A number of the Mercian wines sold here are limited editions that can only be purchased in this shop. The shop and the museum are open daily, 9:30 am to 4:30 pm.

Budo-no-Oka (panoramic views and an amazing tasting cellar)

The name “Budo-no-Oka” means “Grape Hill”. It is a hill-top complex that includes several restaurants, a hotel, outdoor vendor stalls and a couple of ways to sample the Yamanashi wines. From the restaurant on the top floor there are panoramic views of the valley below. It serves a nice three course set menu lunch, too.

The main wine shop at Budo-no-Oka offers hundreds of Yamanashi wines and various accoutrements for their enjoyment. Along one wall are dispensers for sampling a number of the wines. But the real fun wine tasting experience here is in the “cave”. For JPY1,520, visitors get a tastevin (metal wine tasting cup), complete with a cord for hanging around the neck, and access to a cellar containing 170 different wines to sample using their own personal tastevin. One of my companions was determined to try all 170, but ran out of time before he could complete the task.

Haramo Winery

Haramo Winery is unique in a number of ways. It started as a farm that raised grapes and mulberries, and also raised silk worms in the top floor of the farmhouse. They started making wine when employees decided to try their hand at winemaking with juice from leftover grapes. The winery now produces a dozen different varieties. There is a tasting room on the second floor of the century-old farmhouse where Furuya Shintaro explains his wines and pours them with panache.

In summer the Haramo yard is shaded by grape vines more than 70 years old, with seating beneath where patrons can enjoy wines and light refreshments. Even in winter, one can get a sense of the pleasant atmosphere of this space.

Marufuji Winery

Marufuji Winery has been in operation since 1890, making it the third oldest winery in Yamanashi. On my winter visit, it was a sunny afternoon, so we took a little walk through a few of the vineyards. It being winter, the vines looked quite dead, but actually, the lack of foliage made it easier to appreciate the structure of the plants and their supports.

The winery itself is comprised of several buildings taking advantage of a hillside location to have good cellars for storing the wine both as it ferments and after it has been bottled. In the shop visitors learn that one label the winery uses is Rubaiyat, inspired by the poetry of Omar Khayyam (1048–1131). There is even a display of vintage and antique books of the poetry in several languages, including its original Persian. While here, if you get the chance, taste their sparkling Chardonnay!

There are many aspects of the world of Japanese wine that are different from its American and European counterparts. But in spite of its relatively short history–just 140 years–it is producing a number of very nice wines that can hold their own. And wandering the wineries of Katsunuma is a delightful way to get acquainted with them.

© 2022 Jigsaw-japan.com and Vicki L. Beyer
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