A Tour of Fushimi and Its Sake Industry

Ξ August 26th, 2008 | → 0 Comments | ∇ A Day at a Time, International Terroirs, Wine History, Wineries |

Reign of Terroir is pleased to introduce the work of Vinod Vijayakumar, the first author of our new Guest Writer feature. All photos are his. He may be reached through his website.
 
In the tradition of wine, beer and whiskey tours, I had the opportunity recently to visit the Fushimi district of Kyoto, Japan, historically one of the two most important sake brewing areas in Japan (the other being Nada in nearby Kobe).

Kyoto is located on the Kansai plain in south central Honshu, the largest of the four major islands of Japan. Fushimi, situated at the convergence of three major rivers, the Yodogawa, the Kamogawa, and the Katsuragawa, has a long history of brewing sake, some say as far back to the 4th century, though the rise to sake prominence is associated with the Edo period (1615 – 1868). With the Imperial capital’s access to the finest supplies of rice, an abundant and renowned source of underground springwater, and the chilly winters once necessary to control the extraordinarily sensitive brewing process, the sake craft flourished in this small district, measuring no more than 25 square miles.
 
At last count, some 37 separate breweries can be found in the Fushimi district alone. Few facilities are open to the public, although some local shops arrange tours seasonally. Private tours are possible by making special arrangements with the breweries well in advance, though knowledge of Japanese is all but essential to make progress here. Nonetheless, Fushimi is well worth a visit, and for fans of sake it makes for a wonderful full day tour. My wife and I managed on our own, armed only with enough knowledge of Japanese to get us into trouble.
 
We started by paying our respects at the Fushimi Inari shrine, just northeast of the Fushimi sake district, in the Momoyama hills. In the Shinto religion, Inari is, amongst other occupations, the god of rice and sake. The Fushimi shrine is easily the most famous, and probably the most important of the Inari shrines. Visitors won’t fail to notice the some 10,000 vermillion Torii gates that line the trails leading up the hill towards the main shrine, nor the innumerable stone statues of foxes, Inari’s messengers and guardians of the shrine. Caution is warranted, in much the same way as sake beguiles its devotees, the foxes are believed capable of bewitching and possessing humans. Leaving the shrine complex, we sampled some delicious o-cha mochi, tea-flavoured rice cakes, sold on little bamboo sticks. For the more adventurous, barbecued sparrow is another local delicacy.
 
Even though brewery tours are hard to come by in Fushimi, there’s still plenty to see and do. Heading due south from the Fushimi Inari shrine and entering the district from the East, we passed through Fushimi’s covered market and on into the heart of town. Numerous sake shops are located here, selling all the local brands, and even a few selling sake supplies.
 
The breweries themselves are numerous, and easy to spot – around every corner one could see pipework from the breweries, sacks of milled rice, and all the related sundry of the brewing process. One of the first places we stopped in at was Kizakura (one of the top 20 producers by volume), which operates a small museum with a detailed video describing the brewing process and a number of miniature diorama. There was also a spigot to which the locals come laden with jerrycans – the water here was delicious, and free! Across the alley we saw Kizakura’s art gallery, with the whimsical works of Ken Shimizu and Koh Kojima, describing the Kappa, or river imps, mythical sake-loving creatures. Also on the grounds is a restaurant which sells the brewery’s beers, as well as a sake shop with a tasting bar.
 
Another highlight was out on the western edges of the district. Along a large canal flanked by banks of rapeseed is the Matsumoto brewery, a beautiful collection of structures which are worth seeing even if tours of the facilities are not available. At the southern end of the Fushimi district, we stopped in at the Gekkeikan Museum, home to sake’s second largest and probably best-known sake producer (at least in the U.S.) While aficionados may regard Gekkeikan with disdain, they are an important part of sake history and development. And while they may be best known for their mass market products, they are still capable and regularly produce award-winning sakes, many of which are still made on site by hand as it has been for nearly 400 years. A small but interesting collection of traditional sake tools are on display at the museum, and the short self-guided tour is concluded with a complimentary tasting of Gekkeikan wares.
 
As for the sake itself, Fushimi’s soft water generally leads to a smooth and round sake that is thought of as the “feminine” counterpart to Nada’s drier, bolder brews or Tohoku’s light and crisp sakes. Considered an ideal companion to the highly elegant “kaiseki ryori” cuisine of Kyoto, there are numerous restaurants and informal izakaya (like a pub) here where one can get their fill of Fushimi’s sake ( I highly recommend Tama no Hikari, one of my personal favourites. Sadly, the brewery does not accept casual visitors, but their sake is widely available in Kyoto, and has even started appearing in the U.S. and Canada). No doubt, sake lovers on a tour of Japan would be remiss to pass up a visit to Fushimi!
 
Vinod Vijayakumar

 

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