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Monday, Oct. 8, 2001

ON THE ARCHIPELA-GO

Adventures in wine country


By STEPHEN MANSFIELD
Special to The Japan Times

For many years, Hakushu village, tucked away in Yamanashi Prefecture, was the venue for a colorful international festival featuring avant-garde performances by musicians, dancers and other artists.

That, sadly, no longer takes place, but vestiges of the event remain. Drawn to the beauty of the region, the traditional values of the villagers and the area's surprising proximity to Tokyo, Min Tanaka, a butoh dancer and one of the original organizers of the event, set up a dance collective there called the Body Weather Farm in the late 1980s.

Other artists joined the collective. The farm's dance workshops and courses have survived till today.

The busy Koshukaido links this area of Yamanashi to the capital, but thankfully, keeps most of the traffic firmly on its narrow strip, allowing this rustic area to go its own way, largely unmolested. Until a few years ago, many residents of Hakushu, in fact, had never laid eyes on a foreigner.

With the demise of the festival, the patina of rustic calm and neglect that lies like a mantle over the village has returned, despite the occasional appearance of a foreign dance student or an erstwhile naturalist.

One of the best places to stay in Hakushu is at a complex called Verga (an abbreviation of "Verdant Garden"), run and subsidized by the government. The complex is located in a pine forest, its sloping grounds running down to the attractive Ojiro River, its shallow, boulder-strewn bed, natural pools and sandy banks making it a perfect site for picnicking and bathing.

The designers at Verga have worked overtime at getting the complex to blend in with the natural environment. Its chalets and bungalows are made of cypress and pine, its communal onsen are set on a wooded slope.

The complex also boasts a fine restaurant in a geodesic dome surrounded by water and lawn, offering Japanese barbecues and a very decent French menu, an art gallery and a small shop. Self-catering is popular here: Each bungalow has its own fully equipped kitchen.

While private transportation is helpful, it is by no means essential, and may even detract from the country romps, which are integral to the Hakushu experience.

The area is covered with easy-to-follow hiking trails, the most ambitious being the one up to the summit of Mount Komagatake. Hakushu village, an unassuming cluster of mostly older properties and a few more recent, tasteless ones, is worth exploring on foot for its shrines, kitchen gardens and old wooden farmhouses, some dating back to the Edo Period.

If you look at the central eaves of these old wooden houses and barns, you will notice that many have family names and emblems inscribed on medallion-shaped reliefs made from plaster, clay and straw.

Mount Komagatake forms the backdrop to Hakushu, a peak from which the region's excellent water plunges down in cool cascades, trickling even at the height of summer. This is good news for those who like their picnics accompanied by wine, chilled in the natural rock coolers of the river and the streams that irrigate the area. In fact, Hakushu's water is so good that it is bottled and sold all over the country.

The district's waterside paths form an intricate web of routes that can be transformed, with the help of local maps given out at the nearest station at Nirasaki and at the area's minshuku inns, into walking trails.

Sengafuchi, a waterfall and clear pool enclosed by wooded slopes, is an enchanting place. So is the mysteriously named God-Snake Waterfall, featured on brochures of the region.

A trail leads from the waterfall to Takeu Komagatake Jinga, a truly rustic shrine built among rock boulders and moss in a pine and cryptomeria wood on the upper bank of the river.

The wooden shrine has a number of interesting carvings, but its headstones and its groupings of Buddhist and native figures, from Fudo, the guardian of hell, to the long-nosed Tengu, time-mottled but beautifully executed, form a fascinating collection of deities.

Coming from the waterfall, the shrine is reached by crossing a wooden suspension bridge over the Ojiro River. Water is not the only liquid identified with Hakushu. A Suntory whiskey distillery, in the shadow of a rather grand shrine, lies in the eastern half of the district.

Yamanashi, of course, is a serious wine-producing prefecture. Hakushu cultivates its own label at various small family-run establishments and medium-sized wineries dotted throughout the region. The easiest to reach, perhaps, is the 1940-built Charmant winery, a 20-minute walk from Verga. Reds, whites and roses are produced here.

Its whites, including a Semillon and a Chardonnay, are the best. Visitors are welcome to wander around the winery, inspect the vineyards at the back, and to help themselves to a free wine-tasting from the bottles on offer at the display shop, where local produce and cheeses selected to match their wines, are sold.

There is much to surprise and delight at Hakushu, and a ramble through the catchment area turns up more landscape features than just the peach orchards and the rice paddies, for which the region is noted.

What appear, at first glance, to be Paleolithic stone circles, a granary silo, a rusting septic tank and a cache of incubator bags from the movie "The Invasion of the Body Snatchers," turn out to be perfectly serious statements by contributing artists: art installations, no less, relics of Hakushu's association with the art festival.

Despite the industrial age feel of the materials -- concrete, stainless steel, nylon -- the works manage to blend their surfaces and contours in with the environment remarkably well. One, a car covered in leaf mold and overhung by a trellis of pipes that seem like a forest flyover, actually looked in danger of being overcome by the surrounding fecundity.

Finding them is often easier said than done. Nature moves at a brisk pace out here in the Japanese countryside, and several have already vanished, like Khmer ruins, into the undergrowth. Finding them can feel -- and this is half the fun -- more like a treasure-hunt than art appreciation.

Hakushu is 21/2 hours by the JR Chuo-Honsen Line from Shinjuku. Trains also go from Nakano. Get off at Nirasaki. Buses are infrequent, so grab a taxi for the 20-minute ride. Accommodation at Verga, (0551) 35-2121, runs from a campsite with some basic wooden chalets in the 11,000-15,000 yen range to pine log houses at 25,000 yen a night (up to six people can stay for the same price) with living rooms, kitchens and luxury baths.


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