Of Japan’s many culinary delights, wine may not be the first thing to come to mind – but in recent years, it’s become one of the top reasons to visit northern Japan. Here’s your ultimate guide to exploring wine country.
Furano, in the centre of Hokkaido, has been producing wine since 1972 and is now one of the most notable cities in Japan for its wine, with unique blends and even local festivals dedicated to the drink.
Arriving in Furano and seeing its expansive lavender fields, vineyards, rolling hills and scattered hay bales, you could be forgiven for thinking you had stepped into rural France – that is, if it weren’t for the imposing mountains of the nearby Daisetsuzan National Park in the distance. Furano is located in Hokkaido, which, along with its fabulous skiing and excellent onsens, has very quickly become one of the top wine-producing regions in Japan. This is thanks to its low-humidity climate, which is ideal for winegrowing.
This beautiful part of the world really is best enjoyed with a glass of wine in hand, so here’s how wine lovers can make the most of everything Furano has to offer.
The first stop on your wine adventure should be Furano Winery, which is set in an attractive spot with sweeping views over the town and fields below, as well as the towering Tokachidake. The vista is particularly spectacular in summer when the lavender is blooming. Explore the vineyard on a guided tour with tasting, during which you’ll be able to try some of their 18 different wines. While touring, you will also be able to see the wine at different stages of production and maturity and learn about techniques unique to Hokkaido. One of the best souvenirs you can pick up here is a bottle of their unique lavender-infused wine, which is blended with the flowers of the adjoining lavender field, but there are many other products made using Furano’s wine to indulge in.
In nearby Kamifurano, you can visit the beautiful Tada Vineyard and Farm, owned by Mr Tada, who manages the property with his wife. It’s a popular winery to visit – take a walk around the fields of crops and the vineyard while soaking up the traditional atmosphere of the farmers tending their crops by hand. While there you can try their speciality wine made with wild yeast, which gives the drink a rich, earthy flavour. Tada Vineyard also rents simple rooms in the traditional Japanese farmhouse, giving visitors the opportunity to experience waking up under the mountains on a Japanese farm. Guests can enjoy access to their farm café, where the team serves rich breakfasts, farm-grown meals and, of course, wine. It’s a tranquil escape and an ideal homestay for wine lovers visiting Furano.
Situated within a vineyard, but providing a place to relax with something other than a glass of wine, this Campana Rokkatei tea room serves delicate sweets from Rokkatei (a popular Hokkaido-based confectioner) and cheesecake. Enjoy the laid-back atmosphere and admire the glorious views from inside its huge windows, or take your tea or coffee outside on the terrace and feel like you’re dining among the vines. They also serve some light savoury meals and sell their beautifully presented sweets by the box to take away.
Furano Wine House is a perfect spot for lunch that overlooks the Daisetsuzan mountains. Customers can indulge in locally produced wines, enjoy seasonal meals and Japanese barbecue, and taste Furano’s famous cheese fondue made using local cheese, which comes as part of most meal sets or can be ordered separately. Fondue isn’t something that’s easy to find in Japan, but since Furano is a centre for cheese making (cheese lovers can even enjoy the local Cheese Factory), you can enjoy the creamy speciality here. As it’s located near Furano Winery, this is an ideal stop on the way to or from enjoying the vineyards, but they also have a shop where you can purchase bottles of wine and souvenirs made with wine and grape juice, as well as locally made lavender products. As you might expect, the wine list is extensive, with a wide range of prices and flavours.
This new boutique café and tasting room, which also has a small vineyard and goat farm, has a wonderfully rustic feel with views of rolling fields in sight in the background. Domaine Raison is a great place to relax and try some of their homemade wine alongside homemade cheese, ice cream and chocolate. The staff are enthusiastic about their products and are happy to provide samples to try before you buy. They’ve worked hard to create a sustainable environment where, as they say, “humans and nature can coexist together”, by keeping all of their products organic and using sustainable packaging where possible. They also let their animals roam freely and use natural fertilisers from their own farm. Out and about, Domaine Raison wine can be recognised by its charming label, which features a goat floating off tied to some balloons. If you’d like to learn more about sustainable farming, Domaine Raison offers tours where you can get involved with dairy farming and harvesting vegetables and grapes.
Make sure to take a walk through the winding forest and shopping cabins of Ningle Terrace to reach Soh’s Bar. Ningle Terrace is one of Furano’s top attractions, and local creators’ products are showcased in its log cabins. It’s open from noon daily but is particularly stunning at night when the trees and cabins are lit up with fairy lights. This is a perfect time to meet local creators and purchase artisanal products, which vary from food and drink (including wine) to handmade fashion accessories and ornaments. Ningle Terrace was also featured in the popular Japanese drama Kita no Kuni kara (From the North Country). The walk up to Soh’s Bar certainly whets your appetite, and the wine list, once you’re there, doesn’t disappoint, with a number of local red and white wines to choose from as well as some special drinks such as red wine sake. You can pair your drink with light meals such as pizza, fried rice, omelette with rice or bar snacks.
Furano holds a large annual wine festival that, alongside wine tastings, allows people to get involved with some of Furano’s winemaking processes, try grape stomping with their feet and, for the particularly energetic, have a go at wine-barrel racing. It’s a merry festival and people come from all over Japan to attend. Wine is free-flowing and can be enjoyed for just ¥200 (£1.50) a cup. Some great food is also served, which pairs well with wine, and there’s also grape- and wine-infused food. The festival gets heated when the Domestic Wine Competition starts, which brings together local winemakers to compete against one another. The festival is held during the autumn months each year and is well worth attending, whether you’re a wine lover or just want to enjoy one of the biggest festivals of Furano’s year (the other major celebration is the annual ‘belly button festival’).