Japan’s Hidden Wine Region Offers Hot Springs, Hiking, and Historic Temples
Japan’s under-the-radar wine scene turns out so much more than sake. Get off the main tourist circuit and discover a distinctly Japanese take on all things wine in the Koshu Valley, an hour west of Tokyo.
Nestled between the Japanese Alps to the north and Mount Fuji to the south, Japan’s Koshu Valley is the setting for over 70 sweeping vineyards. Here, in the Yamanashi Prefecture, grape clusters don tiny hats (called kasa) that protect them from the rain (after a few generous tastings, you might expect them to tip them to you and say konnichiwa). Only over an hour from Tokyo, the fertile valley beckons with fruit farms and vineyards, where centuries of winemaking traditions endure, bolstered by more modern interpretations of wine country hospitality. Western and native grapes are widely cultivated, including the popular native koshu, which turns out a soft and fruity white wine with citrus and peach notes, as well as muscat bailey a, which typically lends itself to a light and fruity red but may also be blended with Western varietals like cabernet sauvignon and merlot to make a heftier, more complex wine.
Beyond the vines, Japan’s volcanic geology ensures that the Koshu Valley, like much of the nation, is home to plenty of natural onsen, or hot springs. If winetastings and hot springs sound like the perfect pairing, book into a charming lodge (like a ryokan, a traditional Japanese inn) in one of the wine region’s valleys or surrounding mountain towns and stay a while.
Here, we focus on five of the Koshu Valley’s very best towns. Keep in mind, you’ll be well off-the-beaten tourist track in these parts: A translator may come in handy; Mount Fuji Yamanashi Guide-Interpreter Association (FYGIA) has many English-speaking guides in the region.
It’s said that Japan’s first grapes were planted in small-town Katsunuma some 1,000 years ago, and it’s likewise where the nation’s winemaking tradition kicked off about 140 years ago. During the approach to Katsunuma from Tokyo by train or car (a 90-minute ride), the buildings melt away, replaced by vineyards and fruit trees, all against the backdrop of mountains. The town, with attractions like the 8th-century Daizenji Temple, aka “The Grape Temple” (the only temple in Japan to offer winetastings, it’s said to be the birthplace of the koshu variety—and a great spot to enjoy a glass), is situated within walking distance of over a dozen wineries. Try Katsunuma Winery, where you can pop into the tasting room for a pour or pair its wines with a meal at the winery’s on-site French restaurant, Le Vent (the chicken asparagus salad pairs wonderfully with its Aurga Branca Clareza, a crisp white made from the koshu grape). Or sample many of the area’s producers in one convenient spot at Budo-no-Oka (Grape Hill), a communal wine cellar established by several local wineries, which also touts a hotel with onsen and several restaurants.
Where to Stay: The casual, six-room Suzuki-en B&B unfolds across several converted, 19th-century wooden buildings set around a small courtyard and surrounded by vineyards.
Set in the northern part of the valley, picturesque and petite Kamijo Village contains a variety of traditional, early 20th-century buildings (called koshu minka, they were once employed for silkworm cultivation) and small shrines, hidden away in its narrow streets and farm-connecting pathways. (For scale, a walk from the Fukuzoin Temple—its main landmark—around the entirety of the village only takes about an hour.) Kamijo Village is located less than a 15-minute drive from a nexus of wineries, like winery/brewery hybrid Okunota Winery & Okuno Sake Brewery or Kai Winery, which turns out a wide range of Japanese and Western varietals in a 200-year-old building. When you’re all tasted out, consider an excursion into the mountains: Within a 30-minute drive is the forested Mount Kurokawa, where you can hike past an old gold mine (where Japanese coins were once sourced in the 16th century), and Mount Daibosatsu. Whether you hike (it’s six hours there and back) or drive, Mount Daibosatsu’s summit is considered one of the best vantage points over Mount Fuji.
Where to Stay: If you’re feeling adventurous, rent one of Kamijo Village’s traditional thatched houses with a stay at the Moshi Moshi House, where you can opt in for a locals-led cooking class based on houtou noodles. Or try the minimalist, four-room Zen and Bed, situated next to Erinji Temple, where daily meditation and vegetarian meals are part of the experience.
Technically part of the greater city of Fuefuki, the Ashigawa quarter is essentially a collection of small farming villages that snake along the Mitake Shōsen Gorge. Although it feels wonderfully remote, the area is only 30 minutes from Fuefuki’s main winery hub, a neighborhood that contains popular spots like Grace Winery, with its buzzing tasting room, and the eponymous Fuefuki Winery where you can have a go at making your own wine (from grape stomping to label making). Back in Ashigawa, don’t miss a visit to the Fujiwara House, a mid-18th-century thatched farmhouse-cum-community center that’s staffed by local farmers—many of whom are in their 80s and 90s—who serve visitors free green tea, seasonal fruits, and sweets and love to speak about the area. Ashigawa is also popular with hikers, thanks to the stunning views of Mount Fuji from the bluffs of Mount Kurodake. The hiking route is called the Shindo Pass (or Shindotoge), and during the summer it’s possible to see 2 million wild lily of the valley, or suzuran, en route.
Where to Stay: There’s only one real lodging option in Ashigawa (apart from hiking lodges): rent one of two private houses at the folksy Loof Inn Ashigawa; it dates to 1907 and features an open-hearth communal dinner, with more than 100 local and imported wines to choose from.
At the southern end of the Koshu Valley, in the greater Fuefuki region, the small town of Isawa Onsen maintains an attractive collection of ryokan and hot spring hotels and spas (like the Kaisen Healing Resort Spa), making it a great base for wine country exploration. But you needn’t leave the town for some great tasting opportunities: Within a 10-minute walk of the Isawa Onsen train station (a two-hour rail trip from Tokyo), Mars Yamanashi Winery offers tours and private tastings, while Monde Winery and Vineyards pairs tastings with a culinary boutique full of wine-centric treats (like raisins covered with wine-flavored yogurt). Notable for art buffs, the Yamanashi Prefectural Museum of Art (20 minutes by car from Isawa Onsen) combines an outdoor sculpture park with a gallery featuring modern and contemporary artists from Japan and beyond.
Where to Stay: While there are many ryokan to choose from, the 118-room Hanayagi No Sho Keizan is one example that really shines, for its open-air stone onsen, spa, naturally heated indoor pool, and nightly Japanese drum show.
A little outside of wine country but close enough to enjoy the wineries of the Koshu Valley (situated about 30 minutes to the south), Lake Kawaguchiko is an enchanting lakefront town that sits upon one of the Fuji Five Lakes, with Mount Fuji affording a stunning backdrop. You can venture into the valley for tastings at spots like Alps Winery, for its heftier, Western-style wines, or Win Winery, a small-scale family operation. Or stay in town to sample local varietals at establishments like wine museum/bar Memoire Kawaguchiko Wine Hall or Cafe Buddy’s, a wine bar and shop that serves European cuisine. Lake Kawaguchiko is also home to the Kawaguchiko Music Forest that’s as magical as it sounds—the indoor/outdoor theme park and museum is devoted to automatic musical instruments, such as music boxes and mechanical organs. For panoramic views and fresh mountain air, take the Tenjo Yama Park Ropeway cable car that ascends more than 1,300 feet from the lakeshore to Mount Tenjo (you can then catch the cable car back down or opt to descend the mountain trail on foot).
Where to Stay: Book a stay at the 27-room Mizno Hotel, touting amenities like an open-air rooftop onsen and bar, library lounge, loaner bikes, and swan-shaped paddleboats to take out onto Lake Kawaguchiko—all of which have glorious Mount Fuji in full view.