Yamanashi prefecture is not just home to Mt. Fuji. It’s the “fruit kingdom” of Japan, and a great weekend destination for fruit lovers and wine connoisseurs.
Japan’s history of growing grapes goes back some 1300 years. Who would have thought vineyards grew in Japan? As it turns out, while the soil is not suited for rice, it is ideal for growing grapes, plums, peaches, and cherries.
What makes Yamanashi so special? For starters, it is seriously gorgeous. The region is a showcase of Japan’s reverence for quality fruit. Beyond that, it’s a lovely place to explore ancient temples, nature, and indulge in some wine-tasting.
Feast your eyes on the luscious green vineyards surrounded by snow-covered mountain peaks. And then feast your belly on sublime food and drink.
History of Japanese Wine
Although Yamanashi prefecture has been growing grapes for several hundred years, it has only been making wine for roughly 140 years.
In 1877, two Japanese men named Masanari Takano and Ryuken Tsuchiya traveled to France to learn about wine growing. On their return, they shared their wine-making techniques. Thus, the Katsunuma region became known as Japan’s wine-producing region.
Japan’s original grapes are surmised to have been brought – along with Buddhism – from China.
There are many walking paths that weave alongside small vineyards. Some paths are so narrow only that the average SUV is too wide. As a result, it is a walker’s paradise.
I went for a long walk Sunday morning and beheld farmers carefully tending to their vines, and shielding selected bunches from elements with white paper coverings. The richly pigmented green vines formed tidy canopies above bright dandelions and dandelion fluff. A walk is the best way to get an intimate look at the hard work that goes into caring for the plants.
I also appreciate that the smaller scale vineyards add a sense of genuine personality. The vineyards are located alongside traditional Japanese houses with gorgeous, distinctive roofs, and by freshly laundered clothes hung out to dry. This might be Japan’s premier wine-growing region, but nothing feels mass produced.
Temples and Grapes
One of the neatest things about Yamanashi is the intriguing mix of vineyards and Buddhism, Shintoism, and Christianity. Almost every vineyard has at least one religious marker, be it a statue or a small shrine.
Daizenji Temple, located a 40 minute walk from the train station, is known as the “Grape Temple”. The temple was established at roughly same time that grapes arrived in the 8th century. Indeed, the temple is considered the birthplace of the Koshu Grape. It was here that the Buddhist monk Gyoki is said to have encountered Yakushiyu Onsen Buddha (Buddha of Medicine and Healing) bearing grapes in his hand. While the Buddha is kept out of public view, the temple is a veritable museum of ancient cultural treasures and Mt. Fuji traditions.
I think it is delightful that the temple’s parking lot is slowly yielding to a canopy of grape vines.
On the flip side, I was amused to behold a statue of St. Vincent above a hillside cemetery. St. Vincent was a 4th century martyr considered to be the patron saint of wine. I took a picture of the statue’s sign, which was written in Japanese. According to the translation, St. Vincent was a wine lover who went to heaven, but returned to earth again to indulge a bit. Drunk on good wine, he stayed and forgot to return to heaven. As a result, he was turned into a stone statue while still holding the glass.
I like the Japanese version of St. Vincent. The Western history is decidedly more grim. In the Catholic account, St. Vincent was sentenced to death and tortured on a wine press chest. He became the saint patron of vintners because the blood from his torn body poured down the wine press.
Yes, I definitely like the Japanese version better!
Katsunuma Budou no Oka
Katsunuma Budou no Oka translates to the “hill of grapes”. It is a very popular place to head for those who love panoramic views to go along with a very generous wine-tasting. It’s a five minute taxi ride from the local train station. Otherwise, it is a very physical 15 minute uphill walk.
For a mere ¥1200 ($8.56), guests are provided a silver “tasterin” with blue lanyard and given full access to the cellar. There, they encounter barrel after barrel topped with bottles of wine. Each bottle has a stopper that limits the flow to 1-2 sips…perfect for tasting. As someone who prefers to serve myself rather than point and ask, this arrangement was PERFECT. I happily went from barrel to barrel sampling wine. If you want to bring a bottle back for yourself or as a gift, the majority of wines are priced between ¥1700 to ¥3500 ($12.12 – $24.95).
Prefer to enjoy wine over fabulous open-air views instead of a cellar? There are machines that offer larger portions for ¥100 ($.71). Simply deposit your coin, select the bottle you want, and place your wine glass under the nozzle. After filling your glass, head for the patio, which overlooks the entire valley.
Cherries, Peaches, Persimmons
Japanese fruit is famous for being expensive. Why do melons and strawberries fetch several hundreds of dollars? The look, feel, and texture is unparalleled. The fruit is so perfect in shape and color they appear fake. Simply put, you are paying for quality.
I’m a huge fan of ichigo gari (strawberry hunting). However, if you’re looking for succulent cherries, peaches, and persimmons, head to Yamanashi.
Ever wonder if Japan’s lovely cherry blossoms yielded fruit? The cherry trees that produce those sublime pink blooms are not edible. Fortunately, if you’re craving edible varieties of Japanese-grown cherries, they reach their peak in Yamanashi between late May and September.
I was fortunate to have caught the early stages of cherry picking season; it was still too early for peaches.
A 30-minute all-you-can-pick-and-eat session at a protected greenhouse farm goes for about ¥2500 ($17.82).
Yamanashi is renowned for its hoto noodles. Hoto is comprised of thick wheat noodles inside a miso-based soup. It is said Japan’s warriors consumed the filling and utterly delicious dish before going into battle. I find it fascinating that – no matter the era or the nationality – warriors like a good meal before a fight. I tried hoto on a previous trip to the region and fell in love. It is so tasty and utterly satisfying.
Alas, I was sad to hear that the hoto restaurant was closed for lunch. My disappointment did not last long. A Japanese BBQ of fresh vegetables and thinly sliced beef overlooking the valley for ¥2200 ($15.68).
I had dinner at the top floor of Katsunuma Budou no Oka. The table was seated by full-length windows with phenomenal views in every direction. As if the view were not enough, the five-course menu came to ¥5500 ($39.21). The glass of red wine came to ¥700 ($4.99). Here’s what came with the menu:
- Freshly made bread with butter
- Hors d’oeuvre anchovies with Sakura prawns and canola flowers
- Fresh Vegetable soup
- Fresh fish fritters in Japanese green sauce
- Pork belly braised in red wine vinegar
- Sakura (cherry) cheesecake mousse with mango sorbet, mint, and fresh fruit
Whatever food you choose to eat here, I can pretty much guarantee it will be delicious.
Katsununuma Budou No Oka Hotel
(I was not compensated by the hotel, and this is not a sponsored post. I was simply blown away by the quality, hospitality, and value.)
A Japanese friend had recommended the hotel. She had wisely surmised I would not feel like walking far after a wine tasting. I was surprised by the size of the room and the extravagance of the bathroom. The rate came with an absolutely sublime breakfast buffet that features farm produce, fresh fish, and a variety of juices.
One of the hotel’s most delightful features is access to the adjacent onsen. There is a gender-segregated roof-top onsen with heart-stopping view of the mountains and valley. The changing area and onsen are sparkling clean. A staff member discretely asked if I had any tattoos; I responded no.
Many foreigners are put off by the mineral-ly smell of onsen water, or the color of some of the most famous onsen water. Some of the most highly regarded water comes out orange, green, brown. To my surprise, the water here had no noticeable smell, and the color was crystal clear. Bathing in hot spring water as cold early summer rain fell on my shoulders was heaven.
All of this for 12,000 ($85.55).
If You Go
It’s a 3.5 – 4 hour train ride to the Yamanashi region from Yokosuka.
During my weekend in Yamanashi, I came across no other Westerner. I am very curious as to why that was. Was it because it was the start of rainy season? Was it because an international clientele thought the Japanese should stick to producing sake?
Perhaps I am broadcasting my lack of sophistication and crude American Sailor palette, but I thought the wines were AWESOME. The food, wine, nature, and overall experience was extraordinary.
Yamanashi attracts a different clientele. There are no limousines or groups of 20-somethings on a bachelor/bachelorette weekend. It’s a place of incredible modesty. Authenticity. Simplicity. It’s luxury without the fuss.
Getting to Yamanashi does however require a certain amount of confidence or help from friends. I am fortunate to have amazing Japanese friends who had been there before and devised an itinerary for me. There are very few signs in English. However, with a fully charged phone with map, humility, and a sense of humor, you should be fine.
Make certain you bring yen with you. I forgot I was out of cash, and the closest ATM was two miles from the train station. Perhaps my forgetfulness was a blessing; I had the best time wandering along the vineyards into town.
As a young Midshipman in Japan for summer training, I was surprised when a fellow Midshipman who had lived in Japan before made a beeline for a grocers. We were in JAPAN. Why oh why was our first stop the local grocers? She emerged beaming with a plastic container of tiny purple grapes.
I popped a grape in my mouth and stopped in my tracks, blown away by the power of the flavor. I had no idea a grape could taste like that.
Here’s wishing you a safe and happy adventure!