Winemakers plant seeds of tourism in Japan’s disaster zone

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Making wine is difficult anywhere in Japan, but try doing it in a part of the country that has been rocked by an earthquake and tsunami, and spurned because of a nuclear disaster.

Akiu Winery, near Sendai, the capital of Miyagi Prefecture that’s about 300 kilometers north of Tokyo, isn’t deterred by those challenges. Opened in December with financial help from the Mitsubishi Corp. Disaster Relief Foundation, it aims to pioneer a wine tourism-led revival in Japan’s northeast, which was already one of the country’s most economically depressed regions even before catastrophe struck.

Like many other regions in Japan, Miyagi lacks an abundance of stony, limestone soils and dry weather favorable for grape-growing. Yet interest and demand for locally made wines is growing, thanks in part to the successes of vintners in Hokkaido and Yamanashi Prefecture.

Akiu Winery hopes to create a “Napa” in Japan’s far north bolstered by a commitment from the government to inject money into areas affected by 3/11, many of which are still floundering five years after the Great East Japan Earthquake. Wine is seen as a way to not only return abandoned land to productivity, but bring back another economic linchpin largely absent since the March 11, 2011, disaster: people.

“If you make one winery, there is a ripple effect,” said Akiu Winery operator Chikafusa Mohri, an architect who has spent his career designing hot-spring baths. “People come and support the local restaurants and industries. Especially right now, when Japan is undergoing a wine boom.”

Sales of sparkling and still wine made from grapes reached ¥324 billion ($2.9 billion) in 2014, a 35 percent jump on 2009 levels, market researcher Euromonitor International reported in October.

In 2013, sales of domestically produced wine hit a 10-year high and consumption of imported wine also reached a record, according to a study published by Kirin Holdings Co. last year. These increases have prompted a flurry of corporate interest.

Asahi Group Holdings Ltd. agreed to buy wine seller Enoteca Co. in February 2015, creating Japan’s second-largest wine group with $290 million in annual sales. Sapporo Holdings Ltd. expanded sales of its domestically produced Grande Polaire wines last year. Over the past few years, Suntory Holdings Ltd., which first made wine in Japan more than a century ago, has promoted its “Tomi no Oka” series as being made from 100 percent Japanese grapes.

Akiu’s winery and vineyard, which will total 3 hectares, is nestled beside a forest on former tobacco-growing land. Pinot gris, merlot and gewurztraminer grape varieties were planted in 2014 and 2015, and will start being picked in September.

While Akiu’s plot wasn’t directly hit by the tsunami that followed the magnitude-9 earthquake, some of the most shocking images of the calamity were taken 15 km away in the city of Natori. Homes, farms and buildings were swept up by 9-meter-high waves and the city was turned into a wasteland.

The epicenter of the March 11 temblor that triggered the tsunami and killed almost 16,000 people was off the coast of Tohoku, the northeastern region of the main island of Honshu that includes Miyagi and Fukushima.

In Miyagi, the prefecture where the economic impact was worst, 134 businesses had gone bankrupt as of last month due to the disaster, data compiled by Tokyo Shoko Research show. According to official reports, profit at most of the region’s companies is still below March 2011 levels.

The Japanese government spent ¥25.5 trillion from 2011 to 2015 trying to revitalize the region, according to the Reconstruction Agency, and another ¥6.5 trillion is earmarked for spending by 2021.

Just last year, business from overseas visitors to the Tohoku area finally came back to levels seen before the disaster. But the area is still losing out on a boom that much of the rest of the country has enjoyed: From 2010 to 2015, the number of tourists visiting Japan more than doubled, thanks in part to a weaker yen and relaxed visa rules.

Despite there being no noticeable increase in airborne radiation in Miyagi since the meltdown, the prefecture is plagued by stigma from the Fukushima disaster. The meltdown at the nuclear power plant that followed the earthquake and tsunami led to 160,000 people being forcibly evacuated. Today, most of the evacuated areas remain uninhabitable.

Gen Amano, the head of revitalization for Sendai, Miyagi’s capital, says the Akiu Winery, located more than 100 km from the wrecked nuclear power station — and far beyond the evacuation zone — may be a remedy for that.

“There is a problem of tourists not coming to Sendai, Tohoku or any region affected by the earthquake and tsunami, and it has to do with rumors of danger from the nearby nuclear disaster,” Amano said in a telephone interview. “I want to promote the region through Akiu’s wine, and dispel these rumors.”

Akiu, 14 km from Sendai, is known for having some of Japan’s oldest hot springs, dating back at least 1,400 years. In May, the town will host a ministerial meeting of G-7 nations.

Tucked in a forest surrounded by waterfalls, the town attracts mostly tourists over the age of 50, according to Tsukasa Satoh, an official at the Akiu Association of Hot Springs and Ryokans. He worries that without luring younger people, Akiu could be forgotten.

“Fewer tourists are coming to Tohoku, and even fewer are coming to Akiu,” he said. With Tohoku predicted to lose a quarter of its population by 2040, there is an urgent need for new industries, businesses and ideas.

That’s where the Akiu Winery comes in.

Its first wines were made from grapes grown in other areas of Tohoku and sold through local restaurants, markets and hotels. Some liquor stores have started carrying the wine, which goes for ¥2,200 a bottle.

“Many customers have been asking about the wine, and some hot springs are selling it,” Satoh said. “There is real opportunity for Akiu to become a wine town.”

The winery will help train others interested in entering the wine business. Yuto Hayasaka, who lives nearby and owns swaths of unused farmland, aims to begin planting grapes this year with the goal of opening his own winery with his father, he said.

“A winery isn’t only a place for wine-making — there is a special charm that people come for,” said Hayasaka. “When I studied abroad in the U.S., I went to Napa Valley and was affected by its charm. After the March 2011 earthquake and tsunami, I knew I had to make a winery in Miyagi Prefecture.”