Our oldest daughter Kylie jokingly asked if we could pick her up in Yamanashi, which is the next Prefecture over from Kanagawa where we live. She was going to be at a rock concert, one of many on the Okamoto’s 47 tour (they’re touring all 47 Prefectures), and she was not feeling like schlepping from the venue to the train station, 30 min away on foot.

The Planning

On a lark, we decided to go for it, to get in a day trip down to Japan’s wine country, and maybe hit an onsen hot spring. Looking at Google Maps, the route was to drive to Chigasaki via the Shonan Bypass, then up the Ken-O Expressway to Mt. Takao near Hachioji, then west on the Chuo Expressway, to Yamanashi. Big Google said it would be a quick 2:12 hour trip over 138km.

The Drive

We printed some maps, packed some extra clothes just in case, and brought some along for the Ky. When we left we were fully expecting to drive back, based on our assumed driving time. It was pretty smooth the whole way, except our somewhat dull car navigator did not know about the Ken-O expressway, having us flying over roadless mountains. There was some accident near Hachioji in the opposite direction, and we passed a big traffic jam, hoping it could clear before we drove back.

We had light rain the whole way, but this caused the mountains to be wreathed in mist; breathtakingly beautiful. The trip took longer than expected, since we got off the Chuo expressway at Katsunuma, to pick some grapes, trundling our way towards Kofu on local roads.

Lovely Koshu Grapes

As we drove down the local road, Akiko had been searching for a good grape-picking place to go to seeing that we were in Koshu, but we ended up stopping at one because a worker there was waving us in off the street. She was so enthusiastic, I said now we kind of have to go in.

Photo - Pizzutello Bianco Grapes
Photo: Pizzutello Bianco Grapes
Photo - Pizzutello Bianco Grapes
Photo: Pizzutello Bianco Grapes

The place was called “Misawa-en” and they had all manner of grapes, including an interesting type called “pizzutello bianco” or “ピツテロビアンコ” in Japanese. This grape was basically muscat in taste, but shaped like little torpedoes. One of the guys there drove us to the orchard where we picked a couple of bunches, then we arranged to have a box sent to our house via Japan’s awesome express mail service. (Flash forward, the package arrived exactly on time, unscathed. Sasuga Japan.)

Houtou Noodles

Next, Lunch! We had Yamanashi’s famous, healthy “Houtou” flat udon noodles dish. It reminded me a bit of the chanko-nabe that the sumo wrestlers eat. It was a bit kansai-style in its seasoning, with a very light taste, but it was served with miso so you could strengthen the taste if you liked. The bowl it came in was more like a pot; I guess farmers would need to eat a lot after spending the day in the fields.

Mann’s Winery

Next we got directions to a local winery called Mann’s Winery, which it turns out is owned by the soy sauce giant Kikkoman. There was a tour just starting, and we walked in at the beginning of a video presentation. In the hall, there was a big Kikkoman logo, with their various brands like Manjou (mirin) and DelMonte, next to the one for Mann’s. KikkoMAN, MANjou, MANN’s wine: maybe they should change DelMonte to DelMANte.

Photo - Manns Winery Sign
Photo: Manns Winery Sign
Photo - Manns Winery Sign
Photo: Manns Winery Sign

The winery tour was rushed, as though the young gal leading the tour was learning to speed read (or, had to pee). When they were ushering us up and out of the basement room with the barrels (oaken, where red is aged about 2 years and white about 6 months), she gave us a sort of “here endeth the lesson” and shut the lights off on us, as we were all exiting the basement. Everyone started to laugh it was so abrupt.

Up the stairs we all went, right into the shop. At the entrance, drivers get a badge to wear around their necks, a kind of “scarlet letter” for those who won’t be partaking of the samples. Akiko is not a big wine fan, but she gamely tried a few samples while I had grape juice. At least I got to sniff them. We bought a couple bottles of their award-winning wines, a red called “Solaris Juventa” and a sparkling white, along with a less-expensive barrel-aged red.

By this time we decided we’d rather not try driving back, so Akiko reserved a hotel online at Rakuten Travel. It was cheap, almost too much so, but there were open rooms so we took it. More on that later.

The Onsen

Next we drove over to “Isawa Kenko Land”, a 24-hour onsen spa run by the Kur and Hotel Group. It’s a hot spring facility connected to a hotel, where a day ticket costs about JPY 2000 per person usually, but was included in the cost of our hotel. You can do various things right there, and they had 20 or so types of baths and saunas to try, and some rooms to watch TV or rest in afterwards.

If you’re not familiar with Japan’s onsens, you get naked, get washed, then soak in the bath or sit in the steam. This place had little stalls to get washed in, so it had a bit more privacy than other places I’ve been to, where you’re kind of sitting facing a faucet and mirror, aside more naked people to the left and right. Not entirely closed off but, at least you’re not bumping knees and elbows with the bloke next to you. Also, they had a selection of various special shampoos or soaps to use, which was pretty cool.

Akiko said the women’s side was full of kids running around, and the baths were too crowded. The Japanese slang for that is “imo arai” - potato washing, like potatoes floating in a tub. The men’s side was a little less crowded, and I tried various baths (nano bubbles, jacuzzi jets, tea soak, electricity zap, outdoor barrel-bath and a couple more), and a couple of saunas (extra hot, and salt).

Steak house

We had an “interesting” dinner after the onsen. We were getting hungry, and keeping our eyes open for somewhere to eat. We passed a nice looking steak place, and Akiko perked up her ears. So we turned around and went into “Restaurant Bordeau”.

It was a fairly high-end place with a beautiful interior, we found out when we got in and sat down. Other patrons were all dressed up in their finest linens, looking crisp, but we felt like intruders with me in shorts and a loud shirt, she casual with no makeup. At first we were feeling totally out of place. We nervously ordered from the expensive menu, each getting a small steak with the course.

We got a little hint of what was to come when the waiter plonked a cheap mineral water down on the table, something you buy in bulk at Costco. What then came out was a comedy of errors. The salad was drenched in stock thousand island, the soup was surely Campbells, our medium rare tenderloin steaks were soggy, drowned in butter topped with a lemon (?!), with a side of baked potato smothered in paprika (your lips are orange, dear). Then to finish, the dessert was generic ice cream like you get from 7-11 but dressed up with what looked like half a Pocky, with extra hot coffee, tart from being so stale.

The waiter was a young guy, probably ad libbing, and he had put the silver backwards, outside to inside, so it encroached, unwelcome, across the placemat. They even threw in disposable chopsticks just in case. He instructed us to eat with the inner utensils first. :-/

There’s this Japanese-French joint that we frequent called “Petit Papillon” in Shonandai, near our house, which does not look like much on the outside, with an average interior, but the chef is a genius. It’s cheap and great; every course a work of art. We practically apologize for not paying enough when we walk out of there sated.

Restaurant Bordeau’s beautiful interior was “lipstick on a pig” if we ever saw it. Ah, for a meal at Papillon!

The Pickup

From there we went to pick up Ky after her concert, and ironically there were many other restaurants along the way. She was there with friends, and we gave them a ride to the station. It was indeed pretty far as she had said, and raining. Glad we could help.

Kofu “Prince” Hotel

Photo - 1970s-esque Kofu Prince Hotel
Photo: 1970s-esque Kofu Prince Hotel
Photo - 1970s-esque Kofu Prince Hotel
Photo: 1970s-esque Kofu Prince Hotel

When we three arrived at the hotel (daughter 2 Julie is off at Rock Band Camp at this time), it was pretty, ahem, “interesting”. The interior was like something out of a David Lynch film, maybe Twin Peaks. The décor was old 1970s - all velour and naugahyde with touches of marble and brass fittings - and the room had kind of an “eau de Karaoke bar” smell. We even had gender-separated hangers (maybe a woman complained about getting “man smell” on her clothes?). I noticed after I hung my shirt up on the female side.

For 4000 yen per person, the “Kofu Prince Hotel Asahikan” included tickets to the above-mentioned Isawa Kenko Land, and even included a Japanese style breakfast. So although it was past its prime (far, far so), and the exterior was comically dingy, the room was clean and overall, it was a really good value.

Heading Home

The next morning after breakfast, Ky guided us to Kofu Castle, also known as “Maizuru” castle. It’s a beautiful set of structures, up on a hill, with great steep steps to climb. It’s been destroyed and rebuilt since its initial construction in 1583, and we wondered how they got the stones in place back then. If the weather was good, we would have been able to see Mt. Fuji, and the various surrounding mountains.

Photo - Shingen-mochi Parfait
Photo: Shingen-mochi Parfait
Photo - Shingen-mochi Parfait
Photo: Shingen-mochi Parfait

We went back to the Kofu station area to get a (very wagashi) “Shingen Mochi” Parfait, at “Japanese Café Kuromitsuan Kinako Tei”, a little shop specializing in kinako-based treats, on the fashionable “Tamaya Koshuyumekouji” shopping street. The shop itself is warm and inviting, the parfait delicious. Shingen mochi is a powdery-caramelly, pounded rice sweet, that takes its name from Takeda Shingen, the famous warlord and tactical genius, from the Takeda family who ruled that region in the 1500s. They probably didn’t have parfaits this good back then.

I want to go back to this shopping street sometime when I don’t have to drive. They had a beautiful-looking wine shop, and a Korean food place that looked fantastic.

The drive back was uneventful except for the rain and a traffic jam caused by a car getting totaled after hitting a truck (guy was unbelievably fine, but his car was shaped like a U), and we were back in Totsuka in about 3 hours total.

All in all, this area is a great getaway, that is also accessible by train from Tokyo in about 2 or 3 hours.


The banner photo is a monochrome version a panorama I took from atop Maizuru Castle, facing east.