A Town of Pure Water and Sake: A One-Day Tour of Fushimi, Kyoto

The Fushimi area of Kyoto is 15 minutes by train from the Fushimi-Inari Shrine, famous for its thousand vermillion gates, and 30 minutes away from Uji, well-known as a green tea capital. The town is blessed with excellent sake and food, as well as photogenic scenes such as its narrow streets lined with sake cellars and pleasure boats running along its canal. History buffs are sure to love the stories featuring famous warriors and statesmen that took place here. In this article, we will recommend a one-day itinerary for exploring this delightful town!

Fushimi, town of sake.
It’s often said that the town is blessed with exceptionally clear groundwater.
Military ruler Hideyoshi Toyotomi, who kept his castle here, is said to have dug a well and used the water for his tea ceremonies.
The water from the area’s Gokonomiya Shrine was designated as one of Japan’s 100 purest waters;
Not to mention the countless sake distilleries that use the area’s water.
Makes sense, given how delicious and soft the water tastes.

Fushimi, town of history.
The sites of several historical moments dot the area, featuring characters like Hideyoshi Toyotomi and Sakamoto Ryoma.
In order to construct his castle at Fushimi, Hideyoshi ordered massive flood-control projects including the Uji River and Lake Ogura, and the outer moat would later become the Hori River. This river, later the site of Fushimi’s port, would become an important midway point between Osaka and Kyoto, contributing to the city’s development.
On this river stood the Teradaya Inn, where Meiji-era reformer Ryoma Sakamoto was a frequent guest. In 1862, in this inn, an attempt was made on Ryoma’s life, in what became known as the Teradaya Incident. The assassins would have succeeded in taking Ryoma’s life, too, were it not for the quick thinking of his partner Oryo. Instead, Ryoma was able to escape to safety. Today, close to the site of the Teradaya Inn, we can find statues of Ryoma and Oryo.

Let's not forget about the scenery by the canal.
The canal, flowing from the great Lake Biwa, snakes through a jumble of nameless winding alleyways that are lined with old, wooden houses and cellars.
It’s a small, quiet canal, brimming with water, reflecting the white clouds in the sky, as small boats float along to and fro. Standing in the middle of this romantic, nostalgic scene, we feel as though time has paused.

Adding to its appeal, Fushimi is quite accessible: the town center is just a short distance away from such tourist favorites as the Fushimi-Inari Shrine and the town Uji. It’s very doable to start your day with a visit to the Byodo-in Temple in Uji, enjoy a break with some green tea, then hop on the Keihan Line for 15 minutes to Chushojima Station for a tour of Fushimi. Then afterwards, you could pay a visit to the Fushimi-Inari Shrine and return to Kyoto in the evening.

More than anything, Fushimi is exceptionally photogenic - you could photograph basically anything and it will be sure to be Insta-friendly.

Let's embark on our one-day tour of Fushimi, filled with clear water, delicious sake, and historical sites. Here we go!

A Boat Ride on the Jikkoku-Bune

Jikkoku-bune were originally a type of cargo boat used to ferry rice and sake to Osaka that carried passengers as well. In fact, Ryoma Sakamoto is said to have taken a ride on one of these boats for his honeymoon. These boats became a rarer sight at the turn of the 20th century, but made a revival as sightseeing boats in 1997. Nowadays these cruises have exploded in popularity, to the point that reservations can be difficult to come by.

With the help of a strong but kind boatsman, we set sail! The engine sound echoed along the water, which reflected sparkles from the sunlight. The surface felt remarkably close by. The boat ambled along slowly as the boatsman gave his humorous tour-guide speech about local history. It was just the time of year when cherry blossoms were beginning to bloom. The sound of the breeze, of the gently flowing water, and the sight of the cherry blossoms along both banks of the canal combined for a beautiful sight.

And then, a brief visit to the archives at the Misu Locks. We were given 20 minutes of free time, during which we explored the archive’s free exhibit about the history and construction of the locks, and strolled along the plaza at Fushimi Port. The locks are there to separate the canal from the Uji River, which have different water levels, and to function as an “elevator” of sorts for boats that seek to move from one to the other. It was here that our boat turned back. After our brief break, we boarded the boat again, to be ferried back to where we originally boarded.

A boat ride carrying the scent of the trees, the sound of the water, and the atmosphere of the Edo era.

Along the way, we were able to see not only beautiful scenes of willows and cherry blossoms, but also the Sake Museum of famous distillery Gekkeikan, as well as the Teradaya Inn where Ryoma was nearly assassinated. Before we knew it, the hour-long ferry ride was over! We were told the ferry is an excellent way to watch the town change complexion between the seasons, so perhaps we'll return in the autumn, this time to admire the fall foliage.

Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum: Brimming With History and the Aroma of Sake

Gekkeikan traces its history back to 1637, when Okura Jiemon set up a distillery in Fushimi known as Kasagiya, named after his hometown of Kasagicho. The Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, which bears the name of him and his descendants, presents to the public the history of the company as well as the wider sake-brewing culture in Fushimi.

The museum’s romantic exterior draws us in.

The building, made of wood and with white walls, has been remodeled since it first opened in 1902 as a sake cellar. The whole place, as the origin of this centuries-old company, has a mystical air to it: being there makes us feel like characters in a historical mystery novel.

We start by getting a taste of “saka-mizu” from a well, which is 50 meters deep and still reliably produces groundwater to this day. This water has been used for Gekkeikan's sake brewing, and is known as “saka-mizu”. The origin of the name of this water was apparently derived from a once-used word for sake, "sakae-mizu", or "water of prosperity". The water is delicious by itself: refreshing and slightly sweet!

Now to the courtyard, where we get a glimpse of the life of the sake artisan.

By the courtyard, we see a few wooden barrels. Back when the building was still active as a distillery, these were used during the fermentation process. The courtyard was where these barrels would be washed and then dried in the sun.

Next up is the “sake-kobo”, a mini-factory where we observe the traditional sake-making process.

Stepping from the courtyard back into the building, we immediately notice the sweet fragrance of rice. Here we find the sake-kobo, a sake workshop in miniature, where a veteran brewer produces sake according to traditional methods. The workshop, we're told, produces about 40,000 liters of sake per year, about as much as the whole company made early in its history, back when it was known as the Kasagiya. If you arrive at the right time, you can watch the process happening in front of your eyes.

We move onto the exhibition hall, for a bit of history on sake-making in Fushimi.

There were panels showcasing the methods and daily lives of sake artisans, as well as explanations of the history of sake and of Fushimi’s history as a sake-making city. The panels were easy to read and were accompanied by photos and illustrations. Lastly, there was a collection of pails, barrels, and paddles used in production, all of which the City of Kyoto has designated as objects of cultural significance.

Lastly some sake-tasting, where we sampled three very distinct sakes.

There was the Retro Bottle Ginjoshu, with a solidly sweet flavor, the more elegant and understated Tama no Izumi Daiginjo, and a delightfully sweet plum wine. All three went down quite easily, with the result that our time sipping sake and listening to the guide left us somewhat tipsy.

Torisei: Sake and Grilled Chicken at the Site of an Acclaimed Distillery

Torisei’s main branch is a yakitori (grilled chicken skewer) restaurant operated by the Yamamoto Honke distillery, which has produced sake in Fushimi for over three centuries and makes the popular sake Shinsei. The store is well known far beyond Fushimi, and fans travel a long way to pay a visit. For this reason, the restaurant is constantly filled with customers, creating a lively atmosphere. The restaurant, which was converted from part of a sake cellar, is an excellent choice for those looking to enjoy sake and chicken cuisine in Fushimi.

Before the sake, however, comes some famous water.

The water served as the restaurant is also the water used to make Shinsei sake, and is known as shiragiku-mizu (white chrysanthemum water). It is well-known as one of the seven great well waters of Fushimi. Tasting the mild, refined water, it’s easy to see how Shinsei is as delicious as it is. This water is freely available for those in the waiting area as well.

A must-order item is the “Yakitori Six-Skewer Set”.

The six-skewer set combines standard yakitori, torinegi (chicken and green onion), ground and salted chicken, and chicken heart and skin. The outside is crunchy and fragrant, while the inside is juicy and tender; it’s perfectly seasoned as well. Our recommendation is to start off with this set and then order your favorite items afterwards. Aside from their yakitori, we’d also recommend their chicken-skin gyoza dumplings and chicken croquettes. They also have lunch menus and full-course meals, making Torisei a good choice for many occasions.

And of course, everything pairs well with their in-house sake.

Naturally, we had to start by trying the Shinsei sake, made entirely from Iwai ("celebration") rice grown in Kyoto. It had a soft taste that was easy on the palette. In addition, we tasted Matsu no Midori ("pine green"), a sake that had a stronger aroma and taste. A prominent master of the Japanese tea ceremony is said to love this particular sake and to use it during his tea gatherings.

We were struck by just how perfectly the sake and food paired together: it’s an obvious point, of course, since the restaurant was founded precisely so that customers could enjoy the two together, but we thought nonetheless that they’d done an excellent job!

Fushimi Sake Village: An Attraction Featuring 18 Different Distilleries

The Sake Village, which opened three years ago, is a stop where visitors can enjoy over 120 types of sake sourced from the 18 distilleries of the Fushimi Sake Brewers’ Association, making this a must-see for sake enthusiasts. There is an entrance from the Nayamachi shopping street, but we’d recommend entering from the back, as by the door you can find 18 colorful sake barrels in a row: definitely an Instagram worthy sight!

Definitely recommended is the “18 Sake Testing Set”.

Those coming for the first time should definitely start by ordering the 18 Sake Testing Set. As the name suggests, it includes 20 ml each of 18 different sake, all produced by one of the village’s distilleries and carefully selected by a sake sommelier. We’d recommend starting off with the tasting set and then ordering a full glass of the ones that you most enjoyed.

Some fresh fish grilled right on the spot!

The counter also offers a selection of food, among which the most popular choice is their grilled fresh fish. Fresh ray fin, firefly squid, and other fish are cooked on a shichirin (charcoal grill) right in front of the customer. The texture and aroma of the grilled fish is a perfect match for the sake, and the restaurant also offers a set including both of them.

Go stall-hopping and enjoy a variety of foods.

The Sake Village somewhat resembles a food cart fair, in that numerous different eateries (24 in total) offering different cuisines are lined up one after another: here you can find sushi, obanzai, and oden (dishes of stewed vegetables), ramen, and even Italian cuisine. A fun idea is to hop between the various stalls and try something from each. It is possible to stay at one place and order other stalls’ items, but this isn’t the case for all menu items, so it might be worthwhile to go stall-hopping!

With help from sommelier Ms. Fushimi!

The sommelier who guided us through the sake-tasting process was, amazingly, a lady by the name of Sanae Fushimi! “It was fate that brought me to work here,” she says. According to her, she hadn’t been a huge fan of sake early on, but it was her time waitressing during university that led her to love it. Her passionate explanations of the various types of sake allowed us to appreciate the tasting experience so much more!

What do you think of this one-day trip?
Fushimi, town of sake.
Fushimi, town of history.
A delightful experience off the beaten path. We encourage you all to “Find your Kyoto” and give Fushimi a visit!

(Date of publication: April 26, 2019 / Reporting: ENJOY KYOTO)

Route Map

Points B-E in the article correspond to points B-E on the map below.

Point A  Chushojima Station (Keihan Line)
Point B  Jikkoku-bune
Point C  Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
Point D  Torisei
Point E  Fushimi Sake Village
Point F  Fushimi-momoyama Station (Keihan Line)

The images and content of this article were taken with permission from "Hidden Gems of KYOTO Project" (Japanese page).

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Kansai Feature

The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.

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