Way back in 2004, a little movie called Sideways put California’s wine makers center stage, prompting people across America to take interest in wine culture. This October, a Japanese version of the movie, also named Sideways, will appear in Japanese cinemas. Oddly, the Japanese version also takes place in California, forsaking the numerous wineries across Japan. While the characters in the movie travel all the way to California to wet their palates with wine, it’s much easier for the rest of us to try out the wonderful wineries of Yamanashi prefecture.
Yamanashi prefecture is located just an hour train ride from Tokyo and is often called the “Fruit Basket of Japan,” a name it rightfully deserves. It’s lush green valleys and mountainsides make for the ideal fruit growing climate. It was here that grape production was first started in Japan. Now, some 130 years later, Yamanshi prefecture produces over 25 percent of all the grapes in Japan, as well as plays home to hundreds of wineries.
For the wine adventurer, the easiest place to taste test hundreds of Japanese wines is Katsunuma. Just 15 minutes away from the capital of Kofu, the small town of Katsunuma sits right in the middle of wine country. As soon as you exit the train, you’re surrounded on all sides by grapes. Acres of vineyards stretch from the mountains down into the valley towards Kofu, and everywhere you look there are signs of wine.
The cheapest and easiest way to taste test wine is by visiting the Budo no Oka Center (Grape Hill Center). Built to show off the region’s wine, it features a Wine Cave stocked full of local wine. For the low price of 1,100¥, you’re given a small cup and free reign to test out the 150 different types of wine on display. Think of it as a nomihodai of wine, only there is no time limit. Once finished with your testing, you’re able to buy any of the wines on display at very reasonable prices.
Walking through the main streets in town is a lot like walking through a jungle — everywhere, you’re surrounded by hanging grapes high above. Unlike a jungle, you’ll also be surrounded by roadside stores and stands selling grapes and wine, beckoning you in with the offer of free wine and fruit. It’s most certainly worth stopping and trying them out. Even if you’ve had your fill of wine, the local grapes are delicious. You’ll probably never find a more delicious grape in Japan.
Located a short walk from the Budo no Oka is the famous Grace Winery. Grace is one of the premiere wineries in Japan, winning numerous national and international competitions. Their goal is to produce a world-class wine to compete on the international scene, as well as promote the vineyards of Japan. Inside their large Western-style buildings, visitors can sample any number of their wines, or take part in a guided wine tasting. If you’re in town, it’s most certainly worth a visit, though print out the address ahead of time as many people did not know it by the name Grace.
If you’re wanting to make a weekend trip out of a visit to Yamanashi, there are also plenty of sights around. Onsens and small bistros can be found all over Katsunuma. To the south is Mt. Fuji, as well as numerous hiking and camping areas. But no matter what you do while visiting Yamanashi, be sure to pick up a few bottles for the trip home.