November 10, 2018

Hidden Yamanashi Revisited

Yamanashi is a cornucopia of allures that range from the sacred Mt. Minobu and the ruins of the Koshu domain to the wineries of the Koshu Valley.

A statue of the Buddhist monk Nichiren on Mt. Minobu in Yamanashi Prefecture

Welcome back to the second installment in my in-depth series on Yamanashi Prefecture’s hidden destinations. As explained in part one, Yamanashi is a location that holds quite an unique predicament when it comes to attracting foreign visitors. You see, the prefecture is widely well known overseas thanks to the presence of Mt. Fuji and Kawaguchiko. At the same time though, the remainder of its attractions have little to no representation on the digital map. As if this weren’t enough of a challenge for inbound tourism, the mountainous landscape means that the prefecture also has poor interconnectivity. Is it any surprise that Mt. Fuji is the default option?

Luckily though, the local tourism organization is aware of these massive challenges and is working hard to remedy the situation. Quite frankly, their proactive approach and openness to change is a real breath of fresh air in what can often be a stagnant and stuck up industry. Presently, Yamanashi Prefecture is working to put together a number of exciting tours that solve for the glaring awareness and connectivity issues. By including transportation and supplying the missing narratives, these tours are able to evoke Yamanashi’s rich historical pedigree in ways that all but the most adventurous of explorers would miss.

In the remainder of this article, I’ll detail three additional tours put together by the prefecture’s tourism board. At the end of each section, I’ll also conveniently include a link so that readers who are interested in taking any of the tours can easily make a reservation.

Getting to Yamanashi Prefecture

A ticket to Yamanashi Prefecture’s Kofu Station from Shinjuku in Tokyo

Before getting started, let’s pause for a quick Yamanashi geography lesson. After all, while famous for Mt. Fuji, I’m sure a good number of tourists would be hard pressed to find the prefecture on the map. Essentially, all you really need to know is that this landlocked prefecture is located approximately 100 km to the west of central Tokyo. To get there, you can either take a handful of local trains or hop on any of the express trains departing from Shinjuku. Travelers with coin to spend will want to opt for the faster means of transportation whereas those looking to save a few thousand yen should seek out the slower trains. As always, refer to Hyperdia or a similar service to calculate the best routes for you.

Note that for the tours I’ll be introducing, you’re going to want to make your way to Kofu Station and NOT Yamanashi-shi Station. While the latter has a great onsen and campground, it’s just not where the meet-up spot is located. Avoid making this blunder and book your train reservations to Kofu Station!

Yamanashi Prefectures’s Mt. Minobu

A traditional Japanese artist’s rendition of the Buddhist monk Nichiren standing on a small rock in the ocean

Are you a fan of mountaintop Buddhists enclaves like Mt. Koya or Mt. Takao? Well then, I have just the place for you! Known as Mt. Minobu, this sacred site is the subject of the first tour that I’ll be introducing today. Firmly situated off the beaten path, the Mt. Minobu complex rarely welcomes the likes of foreign tourists. This is simultaneously both a blessing and a curse. While the lack of visitors from overseas certainly induces higher levels of authenticity, Mt. Minobu is not exactly an easy site to reach. Nevertheless, the Yamanashi Tourism Organization has devised a way to circumvent these challenging deterrents by providing the missing transportation as well as a skilled bilingual guide.

Before getting into the meat of the itinerary, allow me to briefly explain what distinguishes Mt. Minobu from other similar sites. While I don’t want to confuse you with unnecessary information about the varying sects of Buddhism in Japan, it’s important that you understand a little of the background for context. Simply put, Mt. Minobu and its primary temple of Kuon-ji are known for being the head establishments of the Nichiren sect. Founded by the Buddhist monk Nichiren during the Kamakura period (1185–1333), adherents believe that the Buddha nature manifested by Siddhartha Gautama is something that ALL PEOPLE can potentially attain. As such, unlike with other sects, Nichiren Buddhists place their focus on attaining enlightenment in this world rather than retreating into asceticism.

Confused yet? Don’t worry, even I have trouble keeping up with all the various sects of Buddhism. Thankfully though, you don’t really need to know anything about the nuances of Nichiren Buddhism to enjoy a visit to Mt. Minobu. While the additional context certainly helps one appreciate the historical and religious significance of this important site, it is by no mean necessary. If you’re put off by the religiosity, fret not. Much like any other shrine or temple site, it’s enough just to relish in the splendor of the location itself. That said, if you’d like a quick primer on what sets Nichiren Buddhism apart from other schools, I suggest you head on over to YouTube to do a bit of digging.

Sano Akinobu, a tour guide for Mt. Minobu in Yamanashi Prefecture

OK, without further ado, let’s get to talking about the tour itself. Your guide for this one will be the friendly and knowledgeable Sano Akinobu . A member of the Yamanashi Tourism Organization himself, Akinobu just happens to also be a follower of Nichiren Buddhism. After meeting up, your first order of business will be making the rather lengthy trek from Kofu station to Kuon-ji temple. Once you’ve completed the hour-long drive, you’ll soon thereafter be greeted by the complex’s mammoth Sanmon gate. Standing around 21 meters high, this impressive structure is one of the three largest such gates in Japan. Allegedly, it symbolizes the three gates of liberation (emptiness, formlessness, and desirelessness) that one encounters on the path to enlightenment.

Once you’ve finished being awed by the girth of the Sanmon gate, it will be time to prepare yourselves mentally and physically to ascend the Bodai-tei. This imposing set of 287 stone steps is located between Kuon-ji’s main area and the Sanmon gate. The nearly 300 steps are divided into seven sections which represent the syllables of the Daimoku, an important chant in Nichiren Buddhism. Despite these minor reprieves along the way through, the Bodai-tei are almost a straight vertical ascent of over 100 meters. Hell, you can’t even fit the bloody thing in the camera frame. While some places like Yamagata Prefecture’s Yamadera may have more stairs to climb in total, never in all of my travels have I encountered a challenge like the Bodai-tei.

From what I’ve been told, the Bodai-tei derives its name from the path to Buddhahood. Allegedly, reaching the top of the torturous 287 stone stairs is representative of achieving enlightenment. Having made the climb myself, I’d be willing to bet that any feelings of “eternal bliss” likely stem instead from a lack of oxygen in your blood. You should be expecting to be huffing and puffing the entire way up, especially if you’re not a regularly active person. Note that for those whom are physically impaired, there is a service elevator on the back side but if you’re able, I highly suggest that you attempt the Bodai-tei. I guess you can just chalk it up to part of the Kuon-ji experience.

A lantern with the crest of the Nichiren Buddhism sect at Mt. Minobu’s Kuon-ji in Yamanashi Prefecture

Anyway, supposing you survive your arduous ascent of the Bodai-tei, you’ll soon find yourself at Kuon-ji’s main area. There are many structures around here to explore and your guide Akinobu will take you to each of them in turn. There’s a beautiful five-storied pagoda to see as well as a number of stunning prayer halls to examine. I don’t want to steal Akinobu’s thunder so in the interest of brevity, I’ll not go into too much detail. That said though, I implore you to keep your eyes out for the giant five-fingered dragon on the ceiling when venturing into the main hall. These creatures are known to be guardians of the devote in Buddhism and the eyes of this serpent have been painted in such a way that they follow you about the room. Spooky!

One of the cool parts about Akinobu’s tour is that you’ll also get a chance to participate in the daily Buddhist noontime services at Kuon-ji. While I realize that some readers may be put off by the perspective of a religious ceremony, I highly encourage those who have no conflict with their faith to give it a try. Do note that the method of paying one’s respects at temples differs greatly from that of Shinto shrines. Akinobu will walk you through what to do but do be sure to ask for clarification on anything you don’t understand. After all, the last thing you want to do is make a fool of yourself.

A pair of girls wear kimono at Mt. Minobu’s Kakurinbo pilgrimage lodge in Yamanashi Prefecture

Moving right along, following the noontime services, it will be time for lunch and luckily for you, Akinobu has something special in store. Under his guidance, you’ll make your way over to a neighboring temple lodging called Kakurinbo. It’s one of twenty such establishments that reside on Mt. Minobu but this place distinguishes itself from the other temple inns by being accommodating to non-Japanese speaking clientele. At Kakurinbo, you’ll have the chance to experience some deliciously prepared dishes that are largely based on Buddhist Shojin Ryori (vegetarian cuisine). In addition to the great food, Kakurinbo also has a number of authentic kimono that you can try on for free. These make for great Instagram shots so be sure to take advantage of this rare opportunity.

After lunch, Akinobu will guide you back to Kuon-ji’s main area. Thereafter, you’ll make your way towards an area called Okuno-in at the top of Mt. Minobu. Standing well over 1,150 meters, this crag can be reached by ropeway in around seven minutes. The summit guarantees great views of Mt. Fuji as well as the Southern Japanese Alps. Moreover, these upper areas of Mt. Minobu were once beloved by Nichiren himself over 800 years ago. During his nine year stay at Kuon-ji, he would often seclude himself atop this crag to contemplate the Lotus Sutra, the most important document in Buddhism; well, at least according to Nichiren.

Once you’ve had some time to explore the Okuno-in area and its spectacular Shishin-kaku hall, it will be time to think about wrapping up the tour. Before leaving though, Akinobu will take you to a few final spots of interest. The first of these is Kuon-ji’s treasury house were you can see some artifacts related to Nichiren and practice copying the sutras yourself. Next, you’ll visit the grave of Captain James, a Westerner who help establish the Japanese navy at the turn of the 20th century and later converted to Buddhism himself. Finally, at exactly 5:00 PM, you’ll get to watch one of Kuon-ji’s monks ring the massive temple bell. Talk about a magical way to end the tour!

You can book a tour with Akinobu via the links below…

  • GoWithGuide
    Experience the history, nature and food of the sacred grounds of Mt Minobu
  • Veltra
    Mt. Minobu Private Nichiren Buddhism Temple Tour (English Guided)

Kofu City’s Historical Relics

A statue of Takeda Shingen outside of Kofu Station in Yamanashi Prefecture

The second tour that I’d like to introduce is well suited for fans of hidden urban histories. Ghost stories aside, if you enjoyed my Haunts of Yotsuya piece, then the following itinerary is a great match for you. Led by Miyako Nakamura from the Yamanashi Tourism Organization, this tour will walk you through the hidden history of Kofu, the capital of Yamanashi. While one would be hard pressed to tell at a glance, the modern facade of this mid-sized city belies a wealth of forgotten tales from ages gone by. Unfortunately, much like with Tokyo, Kofu was nearly bombed flat during World War II meaning much of its cultural legacy exists in less obviously corporeal forms.

So, what makes Kofu so special? Well, for starters, the city bisects the Kofu Basin and is rimmed by mountains on all sides. Despite being landlocked though, Kofu and the surrounding area were once the base of power for the Warring States period (1500–1603) warlord Takeda Shingen. Though his push for dominance was ultimately quelled by rival forces, the Takeda clan’s ferocity in battle continues to be revered today. Following the advent of the Edo period (1603–1868), Kofu evolved into a critical post town along the Koshu Kaido, an important highway that connected Yamanashi Prefecture with the shogunate’s seat of power. Thereafter, as Japan moved into modernity, Kofu became an important industrial town.

Anyway, as it just so happens, Miyako’s tour begins at Kofu station’s famous Takeda Shingen statue. Much like the relief of the faithful dog Hachiko in Shibuya, the effigy of the famous warlord serves as a popular meeting spot. Here, Miyako will prime you on the history of Kofu and the neighboring lands. As you listen to her explanation, you’ll learn a wealth of juicy historical tidbits that help to weave a contextual narrative. One of my favorite takeaways has to do with the regions’ numerous hot springs. Apparently these were dug at the behest of Takeda Shingen so that the warlord’s soldiers could bath in their rejuvenating waters. How cool is that?

The original stone walls of Kofu Castle in Yamanashi Prefecture’s capital of Koshu City

Following the historical preamble, Miyako will take you on foot to nearby Koshu castle. Though much of the 400 year-old structure was torn down as Japan entered the Meiji period (1868–1912), many of the original stone walls remain today. As you gaze up at what remains of this former fortress and contemplate what it would have been like in its glory days, Miyako will share additional historical background. Her explanations add further layers of nuance to what otherwise would be lost and easy-to-miss fragments of history. Note that today, much of the castle’s former grounds have been transformed into a public park but that shouldn’t stop you from appreciating its former grandeur.

Once you’ve finished exploring the castle, Miyako will guide you towards the next destination. En route, you’ll pass a number of unassuming spots that offer clues to Kofu’s past. One such site is a church that dates back to before the World War II era. How do we know that the building survived the ravages of war? Well, as Miyako will point out, there are visible scars on the premises from where the Japanese government confiscated metal for the purposes of making ammunition. I don’t know about you but I love finding little bits of evidence like this that connect historical narratives to place!

Gomi Shoyu’s miso making workshop space in Kofu City, Yamanashi Prefecture

The next stop on the itinerary will be the Gomi Shoyu’s miso making workshop space. Here you’ll learn all about the history and importance of miso to the Japanese diet. Quite frankly, I was completely blown away by the level of detail and walked away with a better understanding of how miso is made. As if this weren’t enough already to be excited for, the multi-generational family that runs Gomi Shoyu does a superb job of adding local geography to their descriptions. No doubt, this adds further layers of authenticity to the experience. You’ll learn how the mountainous terrain of the Kofu basin has made rice production a challenge, thereby giving rise to a hybrid type of miso. Of course, there’s also ample opportunity for taste testing too!

After the workshop, Miyako will take you by the next stop on her itinerary, the Yamanashi Chuo Bank Financial Data Museum. Now before you start leaving in droves, hear me out. This place, counter to what you would expect, is actually pretty darn cool. The museum’s wide, singular hall is divided into a handful of exhibitions each with their own theme. On display are many valuables such as some of the first ever banking books as well as a pair of Wado Kaichin, Japan’s first natively minted coins. Moreover, the exhibit also showcases how the financial systems set up by Takeda Shingen were later inherited as the basis of the Tokugawa shogunate’s currency system. I never thought that banking could be this interesting!

A lunch plate at Naomi Camp in Kofu City, Yamanashi Prefecture

By this point, with all the walking you’ll be doing, you’re bound to have worked up quite the appetite. Thankfully, for the final destination on Miyako’s tour, she’ll take you to an awesome place for lunch. Known as Naomi Camp, this restaurant is super popular in Kofu. In fact, I’ve heard that it’s often so popular that you don’t have a prayer in hell of getting a seat without a reservation. Built out of a 70 year-old former tool workshop, Naomi Camp uses the very finest local ingredients to concoct its scrumptious but healthy lunch plates. I mean just look at the above shot and tell me that doesn’t make your mouth start watering!

All in all, Miyako’s tour may not look like a “must-do” at first glance but don’t let that deceive you. I have a far greater appreciation of Kofu and its central role in Japanese history after taking Miyako’s tour. If you’re a fan of urban discovery and like learning obscure bits of history, then I cannot more highly recommend that you consider booking this tour. It’s especially good for backpackers and other travelers who like to take it slow while learning more about their destinations of choice.

You can book a tour with Miyako via the links below…

  • GoWithGuide
    Learn about the Warring States Period in Kofu, Yamanashi
  • Veltra
    Kofu Historical Warring States Period Walking Tour with English-Speaking Guide

Wineology in Yamanashi Prefecture

Wine grapes at Yamanashi Prefecture’s Koshu Valley

Calling all wine fanatics! While this final tour is a bit of a bonus round and still in its beta phase, the itinerary is nothing short of a dream-come-true for alcohol lovers. What’s Yamanashi got to do with wine you ask? Well, as it turns out, a hell of a lot actually. You see, one of the major local specialties just happens to be a special type of grapes. This means that the prefecture makes some killer wines. In fact, Yamanashi, is often hailed as the cradle of Japanese wine culture. The craft dates back to the end of the 19th century Surely there is no further need for evidence of the Japanese ability to mimic and arguably even surpass the West at their own game than the wine Yamanashi produces today.

As mentioned, this tour is still very much a work in progress. When I participated at the behest of the Yamanashi Tourism Organization, it was conducted by none other than the Yamanashi Tourism Organization’s secretary general himself, Tatsushi Arai. As the tour is solidified into an adventure that is ready to be marketed, the number of guides on call will likely increase. Given the attention to detail that the local tourism organization has invested in its tours though, I’m sure that you’ll be in good hands regardless of who your guide is.

Anyway, as of right now, there are a total of three stops on this tour. For starters, you’ll begin by meeting up at the Takeda Shingen statue. From there, your first order of business will be to visit the Fujico Winery. Here you’ll learn tidbits about how the company makes its wide variety of wines. Soon after, you’ll be taken upstairs where you’ll have the opportunity to sample a wide selection of Fujico Winery’s best and maybe even purchase a bottle to take home too. Word to the wise here though. While the taste testing cups are indeed small, this is a pour at your own discretion type of place. It’s very easy to get caught up in savoring all the different flavors only to end up feeling a little bit too tipsy for the rest of the tour.

Yamanashi Prefecture’s Chateau Merican in the Koshu Valley

The second destination on this wino wonder trip will be a joint called Chateau Merican. Thankfully, this one isn’t as much as an all-you-can-drink sampling bonanza. Instead, you’ll discover a great little museum that details part of Koshu’s wine history. Unfortunately, everything is in Japanese only however you can likely grasp the basic gist simply by admiring what’s on exhibit. For further reference, see Chateau Merican’s official site which offers an English translation highlighting the main points. Unlike with your visit to the Fujico Winery, for the most part you’ll be allowed to wander at your own leisurely pace. Though time is a bit limited, I’d urge you to at least do a quick perusal of the museum before continuing to sample the local wines, albeit this time on your own dime. While I’m sure their wines are great, don’t get too wrapped up in JUST the drinking!

Moving along, the final winery that you’ll visit on this tour is called Lumiere. Established way back in 1885, this family-owned vineyard has over 130 years of unbroken history behind its name. Popular both in Japan and overseas, Lumiere has been awarded numerous medals in some of the top European competitions. As if this weren’t enough already to be excited about a visit, Lumiere also has a killer French style dining restaurant that uses locally sourced ingredients. Like with Fujico Winery, you’ll have an opportunity to view Lumiere’s behind-the-scenes wine production. Thereafter you’ll be taken to the store were you can snag yourself a bottle of their prized wine. Alternatively, Lumire also has a cool corner with a pay-as-you-sample pre-paid system. You can order anything ranging from just a taste to a full glass. Though I’m a teetotaler myself, I must say that I greatly enjoyed my visit to this winery.

You can book this boozy tour via the link below…

  • Veltra
    Koshu Wine Tasting and Vineyard Sightseeing Private Tour in Yamanashi

There’s Still More to Yamanashi Prefecture

A statue of a Fujiko climber about to ascend Mt. Fuji at Yamanashi Prefecture’s Kitaguchi-Hongu Fuji Sengen Shrine

Yamanashi Prefecture of course has a lot more than just what I’ve covered here. If you’re a fan of nature or are interested in learning about the religious side of Mt. Fuji, head on over to my other article on the Yamanashi Tourism Organization’s tours. Alternatively, if you’d like a good suggestion for a hidden gem, why not consider visiting Aokigahara. Sadly, this place has been labeled as the so-called “suicide forest” and is sorely in need of rebranding.

Until next time travelers…