It was a whirlwind four days in Kagoshima in the far South of Japan, where our importer Homboshoten is based. It took over 30 hour’s door to door, and I barely had a chance to take in the famous volcano across the bay as we set off the following morning.

Maiko, took a few days off from her role as Schochu (distilled sweet potatoes) maker and CEO, and interpreted for me. I really enjoyed spending time with her and being able to ‘speak’ with Ueno-san my contact from our first meeting at Foodex in 2014. His focus and attention to detail during my visit was awesome.

Western style wines are a very new arrival to the Asian food and beverage scene, so it is particularly special that our wines have been chosen so early on and Homboshoten have made a lot of effort to place them at a variety of places.

We visited a Japanese department store which had a wonderful display of our wines including Pictus (they enjoyed this wine so much at our dinner, they ordered a further 100 bottles!)

The Den wines are in some of their convenience stores ‘Family mart’ which compete with the local seven elevens and Lawson stores. We visited a wine shop where the sommelier owner is passionate about great wines but also interesting labels and stories, which makes him rather keen on our wines.

It was interesting to visit one of their Schochu production cellars which included a tasting. Similar to our Pictus range, they had a range of their labels with a different artists work on each vintage.

After lunch at a sommelier owned French bistro, with incredible flavours, we set up at Homboshoten head office where Maiko and I gave the first presentation and tasting to their staff. This proved to be very helpful as a trial run for working together the next evening. The tasting was followed by a short social gathering with other importers who would be attending the 20th annual wine show run by Homboshoten the following day, with a tasting of some of the wines in their portfolios. Many of the group went on to dinner at a Japanese style Italian restaurant which stocks our wines. I was glad to discover the Japanese enjoy a beer before moving on to wine, and then for some, Schochu or whisky.

The wine show attracted 300 visitors and I was delighted to see our artwork on the cover of the show’s brochure. They had picked out some wonderful doodles Ashley Wilmot had done for us in 2008 when he joined us to help with the harvest.

Meticulous care had been taken by Ueno-san in the set up for the evening’s presentation and tasting. In my presentation, I showed a film produced by Wines of South Africa which conveys the diversity and beauty of South Africa. The pairing of the food available with our wines wasn’t so easy as there wasn’t time to discover what everything was, so I opened it up as an experiment which people seemed to enjoy. I did manage to surprise people by mentioning a few Japanese dishes – knowledge I had acquired beforehand with the help of Jeremy’s research – the pack teamwork in action!

The following day, Maya joined us as interpreter and we had time to play at being tourists. We started with a visit to a Japanese garden and the traditional house of the local lord in years gone by, finishing with a tea ceremony. After this, we enjoyed a beautifully presented lunch with deep fresh flavours, including some the best sashimi I have ever tasted, much of which is produced by local sustainable fishing.

A short ferry ride took us to the volcano, still active and usually covering Kagoshima with ash but quiet at this time. It was quite a strange sensation to be standing on an active volcano!

Time to freshen up and prepare for the dinner, a French menu with no chopsticks in sight!

A beautiful menu had been prepared showing the bottles and tasting notes printed in Japanese below the row of tasting glasses. I had barely sat down after giving the introductory speech when I was whisked off by the Vice President to say ‘Cheers’ to everyone and shake hands in Western style, interspersed with bowing and numerous photos. They were all extremely enthusiastic and keen to try the pairings.

The last part of the evening involved a game of ‘Rock, paper, scissors’ with much hilarity and several lucky winners of our wines.

The plan for my last day was to visit their whisky distillery, so I was surprised when it was decided that because of my love of nature, they would drive me into the mountain area. I was escorted by Ueno-san and Mon-san, who is clearly a linguist, having studied the Chinese language at university and spoke very good English. We had some extremely interesting conversations during our journey.

We stopped off for a seemingly bottomless bowl of Ramen noodles at the counter of a well-known specialist restaurant, then continued our journey up a winding road with lush vegetation, changing dramatically when we reached the top where it was incredibly dry with a dusting of snow on the mountain. We couldn’t understand why the sides of the road were cordoned off until we saw a sign saying ‘poisonous gases do not get out of your car!’ As you can imagine, with an active volcano on their doorstep, the local area is also well known for its hot springs. The down side is that the small of sulphur pervades some of the areas which are dotted with rocks spouting steam. We were able to visit a shrine on the way back, and I felt honoured that these two busy gentlemen had taken the whole day to show me around.

Saturday was a day to catch up and explore the hotel. I was astounded to find out they had seven weddings at lunch time and another few in the evening, so I sat at strategic places in the foyer and enjoyed some people-watching. Incredible to see the young brides in their western style poufy dresses being followed by the entourage of older ladies in traditional kimonos.

I indulged in a locally brewed Belgian-style beer and completed my evening with a visit to the communal hot tub in the open air, taking in the night lights and the dark shape of the volcano just across the bay

Taiwan travels

And on to Taiwan, where it was a wonderful treat to find two familiar faces waiting for me at Taipei airport. Hilary and Brian, old friends from Paarl, are spending a year teaching English in Taiwan. I found with the return journey that they had made quite a trek to fetch me from their base way out of Taipei City. My suitcase got a ride on their scooter while Hilary and I walked along the road, dodging the myriad of scooters whizzing up and down! We had such a special two days filled with adventures including: eating at a hot pot restaurant which involves cooking seafood, meat, and a huge plate of vegetables ourselves in our individually controlled stock pots; taking the train up into the mountains where we hiked through thick beautiful forest, crossing rope bridges and tasting all sorts of delights at the busy market; riding the fantastic brand new “red bus” to get my bearings and see this city of contrasts – one minute wall to wall buildings with droves of scooters, liberally interspersed with small temples, then hills packed with trees and endless rice paddy fields flooded with water in preparation of planting the new seasons rice.  We stumbled on the best noodle place in town, low key just focusing on the food – it makes sense that you look at the menu and write up your own order, which is brought within minutes!

The next day I was collected by our new importer and his secretary Jill, who has been my contact since we signed them up and who acted as our interpreter. We visited some of their stores, where it was obvious by the entire wall filled with different whiskeys, what the preferred beverage is! Japanese sake and beer come next, with wine, the new kid on the block. With this in mind it is stunning to see the entire top shelf bursting with Painted Wolf Wines! I gave a presentation and tasting to their store managers who flooded me with their enthusiasm and questions. We all went on to the family owned Taiwanese restaurant where they piled the lazy susan with a huge variety of dishes with deep delicious flavours. The evening became very lively as I discovered it was the staff annual function and the boss had a further table join in, all whisky importers.

I walked my socks off on the last day visiting the botanical gardens, very different from ours although a peaceful place with groups dotted around practising their Tai chi.

It was interesting to get a further overview of the city from the bus to the airport as the highways are built as viaducts with a commanding view. In many instances it appeared that the flooded rice fields completely surrounded the blocks of flats and other buildings.

The grande finale was the special pork dish at the airport and a beer!