Yamanashi vineyards – Visiting a Japan Heritage

By Yuri Yuhara

 Scenery interweaved by vineyards. This is the title of the first story in Yamanashi Prefecture registered as Japan Heritage. Yes, you read it right. Story.

Japan has many places recognized as World Heritage Site by Unesco, being the most famous one, Mt. Fuji, located here in Yamanashi Prefecture. But, from a different perspective, the Japanese Agency for Cultural Affairs aims not only to preserve well-known landmarks registering them as Word Heritages, but also to recognize and promote stories of areas with unique traditions and customs, as well as the cultural properties related to them, that are passed on for generations as Japan Heritages.

Yamanashi has a unique grape and wine culture. The history of this fruit cultivation in the region started more than a thousand of years ago and thanks to its climate, today, Yamanashi is the biggest grape producer in the entire country, being some kinds of grapes considered luxury products and sold at high-end shops in all over Japan and abroad. The wine production history also dates back to centuries ago, and nowadays about 80 wineries (more than one third of all wineries in Japan) are located in Yamanashi Prefecture, mostly in Koshu, Fuefuki and Yamanashi city region.

And 23 spots in these three cities were registered as part of Yamanashi´s first Japan Heritage. But to understand the meaning and importance of these places it is necessary to know their history and listen to the stories about them. With this in mind, we joined a guided tour promoted by the Kyoto Wine Resort Association, and listened about the fascinating story of the grape cultivation and wine production in the Japanese Wine Country.

Katsunuma Budokyo Station
 The tour was centered on Katsunuma, the region in Koshu city that concentrates most of vineyards and wineries in the Prefecture. Departing from Katsunuma Budokyo station, where we can already get in touch with the grape and wine cultures, we first headed to the local grape and museum, Budo no Kuni Bunkakan. This museum, despite of being small, display a lot of information about grape and wine making in Japan, and besides of seeing the exhibition and reading about it, listening to the guide`s explanation can be considered another attraction itself.

Budo no Kuni Bunkakan
There are many legends that tell the story about the grape cultivation in Katsunuma, starting in the Nara Period (AD 710-794). Until the cultivation got spread in the late Edo Period (AD 1603-1868), grapes were mainly produced in temples to be used as medicine. But in the Edo Period, with the development of the Koshu Kaido, the road that connects Nagano to Tokyo, passing through Yamanashi, grapes started being taken to Edo (Tokyo) to be offered to the military government and also commercialized in the local markets. The demand for grapes started to grow and by the beginning of Meiji Period (AD 1868-1912) not only table grapes but also wine production expanded significantly in the area. Meiji Period is known by being the time when Japan started adopting innovations and habits from the West, but the history of wine production in Yamanashi cannot be simply considered as a western inspired innovation, as we could learn from this tour. We can say that the development of Katsunuma in the Meiji Period is connected to the grape culture that already existed, and the wine production, despite of being greatly improved by the implementation of western techniques, inherited deeply rooted traditions from this area.

1.8l wine bottle
In fact, at first, wine started being produced by the same techniques used to make Japanese sake (what, of course, did not worked as expected). As one of the unique traditions related to the beginning of wine production in Japan that survived until the current days, we can find 1.8 l size wine bottles being sold in Yamanashi wineries, the same bottles used to sell Japanese sake. Wine also has been used in temples and shrines in this area instead of the traditional rice made alcohol, and many households in Katsunuma keep stored wine to serve to their visitors, as a gesture of omotenashi, the Japanese hospitality.  

Ryuken Cellar
While listening to the explanation, we visited other points of the tour: the Ryuken Cellar (one of the first cellars built using western style bricks), vineyards, grape fridges (buildings used to store grapes, using only natural methods to keep the temperature low), the oldest grape vine in the country and others.

After a lunch break, we visited Katsunuma Dam, an important construction from Taisho Period (AD 1912-1926) that had a great impact on the drainage system of the surrounding vineyards, and headed to Daizenji, one of the oldest temples in Yamanashi. Due to its long history of grape making, Daizenji is also called the Temple of Grapes, housing a centenary wood statue of a Yakushi Nyorai (a Buddha with medicinal powers) holding the fruit, and many other grape themed items used in religious ceremonies, as it was believed that grapes have medicinal effects.

Katsunuma Dam

From there, while appreciating the beautiful scenery of vineyards, we passed through the site where traditionally, after the end of the grape harvest, during the Grape Festival, in October, bonfires are lit in the shape of the Japanese portal, Torii. From there, we walked by temples and historic streets, the stage of stories preserved by the locals until the present, and finally arrived to our last destination, Haramo Wine.

Haramo Wine was built in 1924 in a construction that preserves the architecture of traditional houses and surrounded by vineyards. At the winery, we tasted koshu (white) and black queen (red) wines, the local specialties, and listened about their production and characteristics, an experience that can be enjoyed by both wine specialist and beginners.

Finishing the tour sipping a couple of different Yamanashi wines couldn’t be better. After all, it was thanks to all the stories we heard through the day that Yamanashi became the Japanese Wine Country, and preserving this stories also means to preserve this unique culture and taste.   

How to get to Katsunuma: Take the JR Chuo line from Shinjuku bound for Kofu until Katsunuma Budokyo Station (about 90 min by train)

More information about this tour in:

Yamanashi Wine Resort home page

Tabizen Tours

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