It is likely to be a very small minority of my readership that is not now aware that Japan makes wine, and some of it pretty tasty too. Even customers of our upmarket UK supermarket, Marks & Spencer, have been able to buy a Grace Vineyards Koshu since 2014. So it will not really surprise many that on my recent trip to Japan I went to explore some of the vineyards, though naturally I had other reasons as well to head up into the mountains beyond Nagano – more of that later.
Koshu is, in the opinion of most who know the country, Japan’s best indigenous (white) grape variety. Until relatively recently, most of the grapes grown in Japan for wine production have been hybrids, able to withstand the hot and humid summers and prodigiously cold winters. Many wines used to be fairly sweet at one time and some still are, but Koshu, albeit a table grape, essentially makes subtle and perfumed dry wines which, once you get used to their unique flavour, can be very appealing. The scents and flavours which may be familiar are both floral and (gentle) citrus, making for a delicate dry wine with a rounded finish. But what seems unusual is an additional element which is slightly mushroomy or musky.
Koshu’s heartland is in a region called Yamanashi, southwest of Tokyo on Japan’s main island, Honshu. I travelled to a different region, northwest of Tokyo, to Nagano, and then up into the very similarly named Yamanouchi district. If Yamanashi is Japan’s oldest and best established wine region, the valleys around Nagano arguably come second. The Shinkansen, or bullet train, whisks you from Tokyo Cental Station to Nagano in not much over two hours. Catching a local train from Nagano up to Yudanaka you are in a different world to the urban conurbations of the lowlands, but an altogether familiar one. Surrounded by tree-covered mountains, the lower slopes are adorned with fruit, in particular crisp green apples, peaches the size of a small squash (crisper than we know, but so good), and grape vines.
The paper parcels are to protect the grapes from summer rain showers. The vines are trained high to allow air to circulate in the high humidity.
Some of the grapes you see are destined for the table. They boast large berries almost the size of greengages. But there are also vinifera varieties too, in surprising number.
Between Nagano and Yudanaka is the old market town of Obuse. Its fame lies partly as the place where Hokusai worked in his later years. It is also well known for sake, and for its two beautiful temples on the eastern edge of town: one, thatched, dates from the 1400s in its present form, the other boasts one of Hokusai’s finest works on its ceiling. The Hokusai Museum is unmissable, among several sites of interest in this attractive old town, and it is worth spending a whole day here.
On the northern edge of Obuse is Domaine Sogga (aka Obuse Winery). It’s open for visits, and for tasting (payment required, with different tasting packages). The Domaine is under new ownership, and whilst the new owner was happy to give me an extensive tasting, he was remarkably reticent that I didn’t write in detail about the project, nor that I publish any photos I had taken of the bottles in his tasting room. His explanation was that he didn’t think the wines currently very good, but whilst I make no claims they are wonderful, I think he’s mistaken.
I will merely list the vinifera varieties Domaine Sogga has planted: Chardonnay, Petit Manseng, Albariño, Cabernet Franc, Petit Verdot, Pinot Noir, Barbera, Merlot and Cabernet Sauvignon. All wines produced are from estate grown fruit, many without any chemical treatments. I’d like to tell you what they all tasted like, but again, I feel under embargo, and as I was firmly told, “you can’t buy them in the UK anyway”. But if you go to Obuse (and I certainly recommend you do), you might find a visit here more than interesting. There are wines here which are no less good than many slightly commercial South American wines, for example, and others which are no worse than some perfectly drinkable English wines from our more northerly vineyards. There are some interesting sparklers as well.
Before I leave Obuse it is worth mentioning that if you want to get out to the winery and temples you may prefer some form of transport. Just over the road from the Tourist Information Centre is a bike shop, and you can hire bicycles there. The owner speaks no English, but the girl in the Centre came over and helped us rent them for a couple of hours.
There is another way to get to know the wider region’s wines, albeit a more expensive one, the North Shinano Wine Valley Train on the Nagano Dentetsu Railway. A one hour and twenty minute ride through the vineyards to the north of Nagano leaves the city at 11.01 every Saturday, arriving at Yudanaka just before 12.30. You get to taste the wines of four estates with commentary, at around £50pp (at current exchange rates).
Yudanaka is the gateway to the massive Shiga Kogen ski area, which in summer provides popular hiking. I was staying in the small village of Shibu Onsen, just on the edge of Yudanaka, which boasts pretty shrines and temples, and a number of hot baths. The oldest and most beautiful bath house dates back more than two hundred years, to a time when Japan was yet to open its doors to The West. The bath house in Studio Ghibli’s “Spirited Away” is reputed to be modelled on it.
As well as the fine walking, much in ancient forest (but beware, there be bears), which can be accessed from here (the Shiga Highlands are a UNESCO Biosphere), Shibu Onsen is also one of the nearest villages to the Jigokudani Yaen-Koen, better known to us here as the Snow Monkey Park (you may well have seen them on television, probably with David Attenborough narrating). Here you can watch the wild Japanese Macaques bathe in the hot spring, and generally create a very appealing type of havoc around your feet.
This is no zoo. Although you pay a few pounds to enter the park, which itself entails a twenty minute walk through the forest to get to, this is just a river valley with an open air hot spring. The monkeys are lured by the hot water (temperatures descend to -10 degrees in winter and the water in the pool is 41 degrees centigrade, warmed by the volcanic activity of this still active mountain region), and by food put out for them, but they are completely wild, and their appearance cannot be guaranteed every day.
We turned up early one morning to the “no monkeys” sign, but after waiting for a little over an hour in the park Visitor Centre, sheltering from the rain, the skies cleared and down the valley came around one hundred monkeys, including many newborn babies clinging to their mothers. Eye contact is best avoided, especially with the males, but the monkeys generally ignore the dozen or more tourists, so you can get very close. It was one of life’s unforgettable experiences.
Do be warned, there are bears around here in the mountains. Walkers in Japan often carry “bear spray” as a last resort, although the mere sound of humans approaching is usually enough to scare the animals away (you will find chimes to clash together along the marked trails). When there are other people around it’s never a problem, but on a wet day when the trails are deserted there is always an ear pricked for a heavy rustling in the undergrowth.
We stayed in Shibu Onsen, near Yudanaka, at the wonderfully friendly Koishiya Ryokan, in one of their traditional tatami rooms (with futons). They have a restaurant serving locally sourced food and western-style dishes, local wine, beer and sake, and some of the most decent coffee I’ve had in Japan (from a rare “Synesso Hydra 3” machine). The staff will shuttle you to the Monkey Park, to and from Yudanaka Station, to local Onsen (which you have to try), and in our case, even to the local laundrette, where they made sure we knew how to operate the machines. Check them out via expedia, tripadvisor, booking.com or Airbnb.
The Information Office at Yudanaka Station is another great source for maps and brochures, and the friendliest help imaginable.
Koishiya Ryokan, Shibu Onsen – local beverages and dishes, our traditional tatami room and local landmarks.