Cobblestoned streets crisscrossing through the downtown, glossy pamphlets recommending local wineries, snow-capped mountains towering on the distant horizon — the scene looked familiar. It looked like winter in little old Lodi.
Yet, I was about 5,230 miles away, in a cozy valley far from the hustle and bustle of Tokyo, standing just outside the Kofu train station. Famous as the wine capital of Japan, Kofu is also locally known as one of Lodi’s two sister cities.
Growing up in Lockeford, I remember cheering my friends on during their baseball games at Kofu Park, but I never thought much about the park’s name or where it came from. I came to learn about the Lodi-Kofu connection, but never seriously thought much about it until I moved to Japan in 2016 to teach English with the Japanese Exchange and Teaching Programme. Since then, it became my mission to visit Kofu before my time in Japan came to a close.
So, on my final weekend in Japan before returning to the U.S., I visited Kofu. Thanks to Mr. Bill Hinkle, president of the Lodi Sister City Committee, I not only visited the town, but I met with Kofu City Hall officials who took time out of their busy day to show me some of Kofu’s precious highlights.
The weekend started off as I fought my way through morning rush-hour foot traffic and squeezed into one of Tokyo’s infamously jam-packed trains. At Shinjuku Station — which sees over 2 million passengers a day and is known for being the world’s busiest railway station — a series of underground mazes led me to the long-distance highway bus station where I caught the bus to Kofu.
As the bus began to approach Kofu in the late morning, I was surrounded by the familiar sight of a small valley with bare vineyards stretching past old farmhouses as far as the eye could see. After checking into Hotel Free Style, a budget hotel in downtown Kofu, I walked about 20 minutes to the train station to meet the city hall officials I had been corresponding with over email prior to my arrival.
I stood outside of Family Mart, one of Japan’s convenience store chains, and scanned the crowds for the local officials. Given that business suits and formal wear are the standard dress code for a majority of the workplaces in Japan, it made it harder to spot the public officials I was to meet.
After just a few minutes, Mr. Takeyasu Tanaka, previously head of the Sister City department, approached me and motioned to his colleagues to join us. After some short introductions, I also met Mr. Keitaro Wada (who currently oversees Kofu’s Sister City Committee) and Mr. Hideto Kubota, who are also part of the International Exchange office at the City Hall. The three members were accompanied by Ms. Maki, their interpreter, who happened to have lived in Sonoma County for a number of years and was excited to catch up on all things California.
Our group walked over to have lunch at Chiyoda, a quaint restaurant famous for its Ozara noodles, which you dip into a special sauce before eating. As lunch was beginning to wrap up, we exchanged gifts to express our gratitude for our meeting that day. Given that both Lodi and Kofu are famous for wine, it was fitting that both parties exchanged local wines.
After lunch, Mr. Kubota was excited to give a tour of the Yamanashi Jewelry Museum, where I learned that Kofu and Yamanashi Prefecture became famous for mining rock crystals and the unique polishing methods they used to produce beautiful jewels. Throughout the tour, I couldn’t help but think of the California Caverns and all the mining that went on in the foothills during the Gold Rush to produce gem stones and crystals similar to the ones in the Yamanashi Jewelry Museum.
Following the tour, our group circled back to the Kofu City Hall, where we went to the observatory on one of the top floors. Luckily the weather couldn’t have been more perfect, and we could see a prominent Mt. Fuji, surpassing all the surrounding mountains as it soared into the sky.
After posing for some group photos, I bid “goodbye” and extended a heartfelt “thank you” to Mr. Tanaka and Ms. Maki. Mr. Wada and Mr. Kubota then escorted me to Sadoya, one of Kofu’s most famous wineries, where they had arranged a tour and tasting. Unfortunately, both Mr. Kubota and Mr. Wada still had work to do back at the office and were unable to join the tour, so with several bows and another “thank you,” they were off.
Even after having lived in Japan for nearly 2 1/2 years, I was still amazed at the hospitality and kindness the Kofu City Hall members showed me, and the respect they showed for the Lodi-Kofu Sister City relationship.
My visit was in some ways a preparation for Mr. Hinkle’s upcoming return to Kofu at the start of April, when he will represent Lodi at one of Kofu’s biggest festivals and parades celebrating the 500-year anniversary of Kofu becoming a city.