To the south of Kyoto lies Fushimi: a famous center of sake production. Michael Lambe guides us through this picturesque area to sample the delights of sake culture and explore its tree-lined canals, historic sites and beautiful wooden brewery buildings.
The Okura Kinenkan: a preserved brewery building in Fushimi – image © Michael Lambe
The Waters of Fushimi
Fushimi. Say it aloud and the very sound of those soft syllables seems refreshing. This is not inappropriate. The name originally meant “underground water”, and Fushimi is famous for its springs.
A boat cruise on a Fushimi canal – image © Michael Lambe
The water from these underground sources is soft, mellow and is held to be particularly delicious – perfect for sake production. Many sake breweries thrive in this area and Fushimi sake is renowned as the perfect complement for Kyoto cuisine.
Just a few of many Fushimi sake brands on display at the Fushimi Yume Hyakushu Café – image © Michael Lambe
Historically the waters of Fushimi also made this area an important hub of transport and trade. Here the confluence of three rivers, the Uji, Katsura and Kamo, and an intricate network of canals were put to good use, sending rice, sake and other goods between the cities of Kyoto and Osaka.
A diorama of Fushimi’s waterways at the Misukomon Museum – image © Michael Lambe
However, before we cruise Fushimi’s waterways, or sample its famous rice wine, let us first pay our respects to the deity of rice!
In 2014 TripAdvisor ranked Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Japan’s top tourist attraction – image © Michael Lambe
Fushimi is a big district but its most famous and popular location is Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Shrine. Tourists flock to visit this site dedicated to Inari, the god of rice. Climb through the endless corridors of vermilion torii gates that line the paths of Inari Mountain and you will be rewarded with spectacular views over the city. In 2014, TripAdvisor users ranked Fushimi-Inari-Taisha Japan’s top tourist attraction.
The view from Inari Mountain – image © Michael Lambe
Fushimi-Inari-Taisha can be accessed via JR Inari Station or Keihan Fushimi Inari Station. If you go, be prepared for crowds. However, if we follow the train lines south and venture deeper into Fushimi, we can discover a quieter, but no less fascinating area of quaint back streets and tree-lined canals, steeped in history and sake culture.
Take the Keihan line south from Fushimi-Inari Station and get off at Chushojima. You are now at the heart of Fushimi’s sake-brewing district. Walk north till you reach a canal and Choken-ji Temple. You will recognize it by its red walls and massive gingko trees.
The entrance to Choken-ji. Note the Gekkeikan company’s sake barrels at either side of the entrance – image © Michael Lambe
The temple is dedicated to Benzaiten, the only female member of Japan’s seven lucky gods. Originally an Indian river deity, her Japanese incarnation is primarily a patron of water courses and those who ply their trade on the river.
Inside the Choken-ji Temple grounds – image © Michael Lambe
However, by extension she is also held to be a deity of everything that flows: words, music, knowledge and, of course, sake. Artists and musicians pray at this shrine to keep their inspiration flowing and local businesses pray here that their profits keep flowing too.
This temple is open from 8am until 5pm daily.
The Maria Lantern – A Relic of the Hidden Christians
In a corner of Choken-ji’s grounds is a lantern. If you look closely at its base you can see a figure which represents Mary, the mother of Jesus.
The Maria Lantern at Choken-ji. Lanterns such as this are very rare – image © Michael Lambe
During the Edo period (1603 – 1868), Christianity was outlawed by the shogunate under pain of death. However, here and there some pockets of hidden Christians kept their beliefs alive. Many Christian families would hide Christian religious images within outwardly Buddhist statues, or as we see here they would carve a religious image at the base of a simple garden lantern where it could be easily concealed. A wooden sign by the lantern gives some information about the lantern’s origins.
This seemingly innocuous image could have put its owner at risk of torture and execution – image © Michael Lambe
Apparently, the lantern was found in the garden of a 19th century tea-house, named Beni-ya. This was a high class business in the local pleasure quarter, whose girls would entertain members of the Imperial Court, and local hero Sakamoto Ryoma was also a customer. Beni-ya had a special hidden room for secret assignations, and attached to it a small garden in which they kept this lantern. How this religious item ended up in the secret garden of a tea-house is not explained. However, before being made illegal in 1614, Christianity had flourished in Fushimi. There was a church here (now the site of an elementary school), and Takayama Ukon (1552 – 1615), a powerful Christian samurai lord, had a home here. Doubtless some Christian families in Fushimi continued to keep their faith in secret.
Jikkokubune Canal Cruise
The boat launch for Jikkokubune canal cruises – image © Michael Lambe
There is a bridge over the canal directly outside the entrance of Choken-ji temple that will take you to the boat launch for jikkobune canal cruises. The jikkobune are the flat-bottomed boats that once carried rice and sake to and from Fushimi. Now they are fitted out with seats for a very enjoyable 15 passenger cruise down to the harbor and lock gate that joins the canal to the Uji-gawa River.
The Misukomon harbor and lock gate – image © Michael Lambe
Here there is a small museum
A diorama of Fushimi at the Misukomon Museum – image © Michael Lambe
Another boat will then arrive and pick up the passengers for the return journey. The canals are lined with willows and cherry trees, so at times you feel as if you are floating through a green tunnel. It is a delightfully relaxing experience that I would highly recommend.
Spring green along the canal. It is even more beautiful when the cherry trees are in bloom – image © Michael Lambe
These tours last for 55 minutes and cost 1000 yen (500 yen for children under 12). When you buy a ticket for the next available tour, you will be asked to come back at least ten minutes before the tour departs as it takes time for everyone to board the boat and get ready. There is also another tour in a larger 30-seat boat that starts at a launch point near the Teradaya Inn, and that lasts 40 minutes. Jikkokubune canal cruises are only available from April 1st until November 30th and the schedule changes according to the season. Check the website
At float on Fushimi’s waters – image © Michael Lambe
Sake Tasting at the Gekkeikan Okura Kinenkan
Gekkeikan is the most famous of Fushimi’s breweries, and is also one of the world’s oldest companies having been founded here by Jiemon Okura in 1637. The Okura Kinenkan is a former sake warehouse that has been converted into a museum. It is a beautiful old building situated conveniently, right behind the launch for the Jikkokubune.
The Gekkeikan Okura Kinenkan as viewed from the canal – image © Michael Lambe
Whichever way you look at it, the 300 yen entry fee for this museum is an absolute bargain. The admission fee not only includes entry to the museum but also includes a free tasting of sake and plum wine. You also receive with your ticket a small plastic bottle of sake to take away with you. It’s excellent marketing of course. I enjoyed all the sake I sampled there and I liked the plum wine so much, I bought a bottle to take home with me.
The Okura Kinenkan entrance – image © Michael Lambe
The museum features tools and artifacts that explain traditional sake making methods as well as items related to the history of the company. English explanations accompany the displays and as you wander about the exhibits you can listen to recorded folk songs from the pre-Industrial era that workers in the breweries would sing to accompany their labors.
Displays explain the traditional sake brewing process – image © Michael Lambe
Check the museum website for details of its opening hours and an access map.
The museum gives a real taste of sake culture – image © Michael Lambe
You can pick up a free English pamphlet here which contains a detailed map of the local area. This will prove particularly useful in finding our way to the next location on our tour – The Teradaya Inn.
The Teradaya Inn
The Teradaya Inn – image © Michael Lambe
Following the map you received at the Okura Kinenkan, go north and then west to reach the Teradaya. In the 19th century Fushimi was a thriving river port and people would stay at this inn when traveling by boat between Osaka and Kyoto. It is still a working inn today as well as being a museum dedicated to its most famous guest: the legendary samurai, Sakamoto Ryoma.
A statue of the famed revolutionary Sakamoto Ryoma and his wife, Oryo can be seen on the banks of the Fushimi canal – image © Michael Lambe
Ryoma is a hugely popular figure in Japan. In a time when Japan was still ruled by a feudal military government, he was working with other revolutionaries for his vision of modern democracy. In March 1866, Ryoma was staying at the Teradaya Inn when it was suddenly attacked by pro-government forces. A girl, named Oryo, who was having a bath on the ground floor, ran naked up the stairs to warn Ryoma that he was under attack – and only just in time. Ryoma received sword cuts on his hands but with another comrade he managed to fight off superior numbers with his revolver and made his escape. Later Ryoma and Oryo were married and departed on their honeymoon from this very Inn. This was the first honeymoon ever taken in Japan.
Among the Ryoma memorabilia on display at the museum are examples of his calligraphy and replica of his revolver – image © Michael Lambe
Unfortunately, the displays at the Teradaya do not have accompanying English explanations. However if you are a history buff then a visit to this site is a must, if only to see the notch on a wooden pillar that is said to be a sword cut from that death-defying skirmish! Local business has done much to capitalize on the association with Ryoma, and his image is everywhere about Fushimi. A life size cutout figure of the burly samurai greets you as you step off the train at Chushojima, and a nearby shopping street has been renamed Ryoma-dori Street in his honour.
A store close by the Teradaya sells “Ryoma Beer” – which is actually pretty tasty! – image © Michael Lambe
Address: 263 Minamihama-cho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto City
Opening hours: 10:00a.m.-4:00p.m. (entry until 3:30p.m.). Closed on Mondays.
Entry to the Teradaya Inn is 400 yen. To read more about Sakamoto Ryoma and the history of those times read my Kyoto Samurai article.
Fushimi Yume Hyakushu Café
Inside the Fushimi Yume Hyakushu Café – image © Michael Lambe
Head back eastward from the Teradaya and then turn right to find the black walls of the Fushimi Yume Hyakushu Café. This is another converted Gekkeikan building dating from 1919. The café inside makes for a pleasant rest stop, and there is also a souvenir shop selling sake and various sake related products.
Treat yourself to some sake flavored sponge cake – delicious! – image © Michael Lambe
Address: 247 Minami Hama-cho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto City
Opening hours: Weekdays from 10:30am to 5pm
Closed on Mondays (except National Holidays)
The Fushimi Sake Festival
Fushimi Yume Hyakushu Café played host to the spring sake festival last March – image © Michael Lambe
Each spring a sake festival is held in Fushimi. The main events at the festival are sake tastings at two separate locations in which you can sample over 30 different varieties.
Sake tasting at the Fushimi Sake Festival – image © Michael Lambe
This is an annual event, but the date (usually in March) is not fixed and tickets for the main sake tastings, which are sold in advance, are limited to just 800 people. Naturally these sell out quickly. If you can’t speak or read Japanese and you don’t live locally, then this makes the event very difficult to plan for. However, unless you are a real sake connoisseur, you don’t really need to taste over 30 different varieties! Many local shops and breweries hold smaller sake tastings on the same day that you don’t need special tickets for.
The Gekkeikan Okura Kinenkan also hosts a small sake tasting during the spring sake festival – image © Michael Lambe
The streets are also lively with stalls selling food, ceramics, and other sake related goods. In recent years Fushimi has also held a Jazz festival on the same day at several locations around the town. So if you happen to be in Fushimi on the right day in March, you can still take part and enjoy this cheerful local festival.
Local jazz band, Fujiya Mountain, entertain the crowds from inside a sake warehouse – image © Michael Lambe
For news of the sake festival and other sake related events, check the Fushimi Brewers’ Association website in Japanese and their very useful and informative English language website.
Kizakura Kappa Country
After a hard day’s touring you deserve a good meal. Head north from the Fushimi Yume Hyakushu Café and then turn left on Aburakake-dori Street. A little further to the west is Kizakura Kappa Country, another converted sake brewery. This building houses a museum, souvenir shop and restaurant. It is the restaurant that we are interested in. This is actually one of my favorite places to bring guests to Kyoto, as it is so much fun.
Kizakura Kappa Country at night – image © Michael Lambe
The Kizakura company makes a range craft beers as well as sakes, and you can try them both out here in little taster sets.
A sake taster set. From left to right: Junmai (pure rice wine), Ginjo-shu (fortified sake), and Nigori (an unfiltered sweet sake) – image © Michael Lambe
Once you have found the drink that suits you, you can then order that particular tipple and quaff it to your heart’s content.
A craft beer taster set . From left to right: a Kölsch, Altbier and “Kura no Kahori” which is made with sake yeast – image © Michael Lambe
The food here is pretty good too. They have the usual izakaya style pub-restaurant fare, but also some unique dishes made with the local brews. Beef stewed in beer with mashed potatoes for example, or sake flavored cheesecake.
Sake flavored cheesecake washed down with a locally brewed beer? Why not! – image © Michael Lambe
And if you really like any of these drinks you can purchase them at the souvenir shop on your way out. Cheers!
Address: 228 Shioya-machi, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto City
Opening hours: Open seven days a week.
Check the official website for opening hours, access details and a coupon!
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