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Sunday, Feb. 7, 2010

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Fields of plenty: Vineyards and orchards make a feast for the eye around Katsunuma. MANDY BARTOK PHOTOS

Go to where your cup runneth over

Visiting Wine Country in Yamanashi Prefecture is a tonic for body and soul at any time of year


By MANDY BARTOK
Special to The Japan Times

The green and white taxis are lined up outside Katsunuma-Budokyo Station like the stripes on a holiday peppermint stick. I readjust the contents of my daypack after the 90-minute train trip from Tokyo, take out my map, and hop into the back of the first cab in line with my husband in tow. We clue in the driver to our intended destination — Budo no Oka (Grape Hill), a hilltop retreat and prime wine-tasting spot in Yamanashi Prefecture.

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Tippling time: Visitors enjoy their tastings in Budo no Oka's wine cellar in Katsunuma.

"First time?" asks our cabbie as he steers us down the winding road from the station. We acknowledge that it is. Outside the window on this fine, late-autumn day, the last vestiges of gold- and amber-colored leaves cling to the vines that have made this region famous as the so-called Napa Valley of Japan.

We ask what's good here. "Wine!" the driver responds enthusiastically, and we query him on his favorite vineyard. With a laugh, he confesses that he doesn't actually drink, but assures us that Yamanashi's wines are the best in the nation. From what we've heard, both Japanese and foreign experts alike are starting to agree.

Lying just north of the jagged peaks of the Mount Fuji region, Katsunuma — befitting of its "Napa Valley" accolade — basks in a climate not unlike California's, with generally mild weather spared extremes of either heat or cold and just the right amount of rain to provide perfect growing conditions for the native koshu grape. This hearty fruit has been cultivated in Japan for more than a millennium, though we've missed the harvest and there are no longer any of the clusters of deep purple orbs to be seen on the long rows of vines as we motor down the country lanes.

Instead, the scenic Yamanashi countryside is enjoying a quiet respite from the annual onslaught of itinerant fruit-pickers who come to help harvest not only the grapes, but also the cherries, plums, pears and peaches whose orchards grace the hillsides of this fertile region — with the latter fruit also widely used in the area's dessert wines.

In the heat of summer, however, seasonal workers are not the only ones harvesting Yamanashi's natural bounty, as many orchards are also open for visitors to pick-and-pay to their hearts' content. Consequently, thousands of city-dwellers every year combine a countryside outing with an opportunity to skip the supermarket middlemen and savor some of the nation's tastiest fresh fruit picked by their own fair hands.

Returning from our reverie after the short, 5-minute drive from the station, we arrive at Budo-no-Oka and climb the steep marble steps past a tumbling waterfall to the main building, a low-roofed structure with sweeping views over the surrounding hills. It's a prime position from which to survey the 90 wineries of the region, nearly all of whose vintages feature prominently in Buda-no-Oka's tasting room.

It's precisely this welcoming cellar that lured us to Yamanashi, with the chance it offers to taste any of more than 170 different varieties of wine. Absent are the often-stuffy rules and procedures of a regular tasting. Instead, for a mere ¥1,100, we're handed a metallic tasting spoon and directed downstairs with a welcome explanation that no restrictions apply except that of the 5 p.m. closing time.

In the dimly lit, stone-floored cavern, thousands of bottles line the walls and fill the high racks between them. In the center of each aisle, a selection of wines have been uncorked and placed on wooden barrels, their arrangement making for a natural progression from dry whites to deeper reds along the length of the room. Some visitors bend seriously over the various labels, matching preferred tastes with the stock of bottles on the nearby shelves. Other groups take a decidedly less meticulous approach, their laughter and all-round joie de vivre increasing noticeably as they weave their way around the room quaffing as they go.

We proceed diligently from barrel to barrel, sharing observations and leaving lesser-quality samples in the strategically placed spittoons. Our palates are surprisingly most pleased by the selection of recently bottled wines in the back of the cave. Like France's oft-ridiculed Beaujolais Nouveau, these wines are made from the current year's grape crop. More practiced tasters might turn up their noses at the slightly syrupy "new" rose from one local vineyard — I instead help myself to a bottle to take home.

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Taking solids: After working up an appetite with all that elbow- bending in the winery's tasting cellar, there's nothing better to go with another glass or two of Yamanashi wine than a steaming bowl of the local hoto speciality, a hotpot loaded with udon noodles and all manner of hearty vegetables.

Upstairs, the shop is bustling with activity as tasters have their purchases packaged for the trip home. Our cashier then directs us to the information counter, where helpful staff offer maps and directions for visiting the wineries whose products we've chosen. Most of those also offer tastings, and guided tours of their vineyards. Some, including Shirayuri, let visitors design their own bottle labels, while Domaine Chateraise marries its wines to the tasty confections whipped up in the owner's French patisserie on site.

We plan a route for our afternoon wanderings, but first it's time to fill our stomachs with something heartier than fermented grapes. The restaurants in Budo no Oka's complex serve up European-inspired dishes and traditional Japanese staples, but we're keen to try the prefecture's specialty hotpot.

After a short wait for a taxi, we depart Budo no Oka's hillside perch and head off to Katsunuma village along narrow country roads. Clearly, grape-growing here seems to be a weekend hobby for many residents. Trellises laden with creeping vines stand in for carport roofs and burst forth out of backyards no bigger than postage stamps. Farm stands along the way also tempt us with the fresh local fare, while many houses we pass have handwritten signs in their windows advertising fresh grapes and peaches.

Down in Katsunuma village we join a hungry lunch crowd outside Minaka, whose elegant exterior bears a close resemblance to a turn-of-the-century country inn. The menu is sparse, and with the ocean far distant it bears no trace of seafood. Instead the focus is on miso-based hoto, a hearty dish loaded with thick udon noodles and a wealth of vegetables from pumpkin to potato to locally grown carrots and mushrooms.

We order and settle down to wait on the benches of the perfectly manicured garden. Famished as we are, the passing of the minutes seems interminable, and the smell wafting out and around us is torture. When the delicate paper-screen door slides open to signal our turn at the table, I practically sprint after the waitress. Yet even with my hearty appetite, the massive cast-iron bowls of hoto are hard to finish and we stumble out completely satiated.

A few hours later, we wait for our train home, bottles of local wine clinking in our knapsacks. Off-season in Yamanashi may be a low-key affair, but no matter when you plan your next trip to Wine Country, rest assured you'll leave feeling as if your cup — literally — runneth over.

Katsunuma is easily reached by train (good sense if you will be imbibing) on the Chuo Line from Tokyo. Direct limited express trains (88 min.; ¥3,100) run from Shinjuku to Katsunumabudokyo Station once an hour. The wine cave at Budo-no-Oka ([05] 5344-2111) is open year-round, daily from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.


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