Etienne Balmer (AFP)
Koshu, Japan ●
Mon 17 October 2022
At a Buddhist temple on a forested hill in Japan, grapes and bottles of wine are offered as offerings, and the head monk is also honorary president of a wine cooperative.
Officially, it is known as Daizenji, but it has been dubbed the “Grape Temple” due to its deep ties to the country’s grape production history.
Daizenji is in the Yamanashi region, about 100 kilometers (60 miles) west of Tokyo, famous for being home to Mount Fuji and, more recently, as Japan’s premier wine destination.
“In other temples, they offer sake, but here we offer wine. It’s unique in Japan,” said Tesshu Inoue, 75, the chief monk, telling AFP the mythical origins of his temple.
In 718 AD, a famous Japanese Buddhist monk and traveler called Gyoki is said to have encountered the Medicine Buddha, known in Japanese as Yakushi Nyorai, in a dream at the location where the temple now stands.
In his hand, Nyorai held a bunch of grapes – inspiring Gyoki to found Daizenji and establish the local wine culture, teaching the people of Yamanashi how to make wine for medicinal purposes.
A different legend claims that farmer Kageyu Amemiya was the first to start growing grapes in Japan, in the same region but more than 450 years later, in 1186.
DNA analysis has revealed that koshu – the oldest grape grown in the mountainous region – is a hybrid of a vine species originally grown in Europe and a wild Chinese vine.
This suggests that he may have followed the Silk Road to Japan, similar to how Buddhism established itself in Asia.
The Yamanashi “koshu valley” website, supported by the local chamber of commerce, suggests that seeds or vines from China may have been planted within temple grounds and rediscovered by chance much later.
However, it wasn’t until the Meiji era from 1868 to 1912 – a period that saw an explosion of interest in the Western world – that wine production began in Japan.
With its fertile soil and long history of viticulture, Yamanashi was the obvious choice for early vineyards, and even today Daizenji is surrounded by grapes grown on pergola structures.
At the altar, grapes and bottles are offerings, while a small shrine hides an ancient cherry-wood statue of Yakushi Nyorai with his famous bunch of grapes.
The lacquer sculpture, decorated with gold leaf, is a precious artifact belonging to the temple and is shown to the public only every five years.
Daizenji also sells its own grapes and bottles of wine bearing the temple’s name.
“Growing vines, making wine, it’s a good deed,” says Inoue with a smile.
“It’s good karma.”