Taste the good life

By on November 4, 2008

The hills are alive with luscious fruit and the sound of clinking glasses; Yamanashi, the kingdom of fruit, beckons.

Yamanashi Wine Country offers a flourishing expanse of vineyards, vistas, and wineries. It might not have the razzle dazzle of Napa Valley but just a few hours from our back yard, it can’t be bad. Last month saw the area swamped by wine festivals and grape pickers galore but November is a quieter period for the kingdom, and more suited for a wine safari.

Leave the car at home and jump on the train to Katsunuma. Soon, you will be travelling through the fertile lands at the centre of the Japanese archipelago, surrounded on all sides by mountain ranges and offering both dramatic and beautiful landscapes. Yamanashi is home to over a hundred wineries and Katsunuma has over a third of these, and as such is undeniably the mecca, supplying almost a third of the domestic output. Wine cultivation began here over 800 years ago but it wasn’t until the late 1800s that two illustrious gentleman, Tsuchiya-san and Takano-san, took it into their heads to travel to France to learn the fine art of Enology. Since then, local wine makers have been battling with the elements and their grapes in order to produce Japan’s finest wines.

Arriving at Katsunuma, part of the new Koshu City (a merging of the three towns of Katsunuma, Enzan, and Yamato a few years ago) you don’t have to have the sommelier nose to know you have come to the right place. You’ll see the mighty budo (grape) everywhere; it’s clear who is king of this kingdom. Yamanashi’s pride and joy is the ‘koshu’ grape. This dominant varietal has a thick skin resilient to the rot produced from the humidity and rainfall. Hardy it may be but the thick skin has a tart, bitterness that has been the bane of the Japanese wine-growing industry. Modern production has allowed much of this bitterness to be lessened with some interesting results! You’ll have your chance soon enough to taste for yourself!

Invitations to sample a drop of the local produce are extended to one and all, and sample you must! Early on in this safari, you will realize that leaving the car at home and letting the train take the strain was one of your better decisions. Despite a few moans from the kids, you don’t want to be the designated driver. This trip, taxis, buses, and local trains are the order of the day.

The Katsunuma Budoukyo tourist office has a free map that guides you around the narrow streets and tasting stores, and lists the wineries in the area. Wineries that are a must are the medal-winning Chateau Mercian, Katsunuma Jouzou, Marufuji, Shirayuri Jojo where the family can make wine labels and fill their own bottle with the wineries peach wine. Haramo Winery has a beautiful café housed in a century-old stone building and Suntory’s Tomi no Oka winery looks like you have walked into ‘Jean de Florette’ country. This is what you want to see, acres of trellised vines with a beautiful view of Mt Fuji in the background, a view that rivals anything Napa has.The taste might not be to everyone’s liking but the view and atmosphere certainly are.

Stop off at the Budono-oka, “the grape hill centre,”  run by Katsunuma town where visitors can try a bewildering 170 brands of wine in an underground wine cellar for the price of a bunch of grapes. You’ll receive a sipping tray or cup and plenty of reasons to both swallow and spit! Sample hoto, the local udon dish made with carrot, pumpkin, potato, leek, and mushroom and simmered in a delicious, thick creamy broth. Visit the hot springs, and if the tasting is starting to take its toll, check into the reasonably priced hotel.

When the kids get fidgety after downing too much of the delicious grape juice, try the Fuefukigawa Fruit Park. Housed in a futuristic, domed structure, it is part of an enormous complex with many attractions centering on the fruit industry of the area. Its sobering effect will revive you for the frenzied activity that awaits: fruit picking!

The fertile soil, abundant water, and year-round sun mean that grapes, peaches, cherries, strawberries, plums, pears, apples, persimmons, and blueberries are all grown in the prefecture. The fruit farms are great fun, and filling too.

The farms usually offer two picking options depending on the crop and your needs. The eat as you go or pick and buy by the kilo. Fruit farms such as the friendly Nakagomi Nouen farm change their picking schedule month by month. Check their website and give them a call. November to December is apple season, so why not box up a few kilos?

Top off the day with a relaxing dip in one of the many rotenburos to be found just a short stumble away and soak away any possibility of a hangover. A spot of wine tasting, a touch of the country life, and a reviving hot soak. Ah, the good life!

Getting there

To reach Yamanashi takes 90 minutes from Shinjuku Station to Enzan Station by limited express on the JR Chuo Line; a local train stops at Kasanuma.

Budo-no-oka Center

5 minutes by taxi from Katsunuma station.

Tel: 0553-44-2111

Admission to wine cave: ¥1,100

Wine cave: 11am-5pm
restaurant 11am- 7:30pm

Fuefukigawa Fruit Park

15 minutes by taxi or bus from Yamanashi station.

Tel: 0553-23-4101

Admission: ¥400

Open 9am-5pm

Nakagomi Orchard’s Fruit Picking (Nakagomi Nouen)

Apples ¥500 eat as much as you can or ¥400 per kilo.

Tel: 090-1664-2921

Open from 10am-5pm


About Carl Williams