Fushimi: The Town where Gekkeikan was Founded

Fushimi: The Town where Gekkeikan was Founded

Fushimi lies at the southern end of the Kyoto Basin. It has always been blessed with good quality groundwater, and a rich natural environment even to this day. The city retains the atmosphere of the olden days, and is enjoyed by many as a city which breathes history.

Fushimi became a major castle town at the end of the 16th century, when Fushimi Castle was built. During the 17th century, in the Edo period, progress was made on the construction of a canal, making Fushimi into a center of transport between Kyoto and Osaka. In 1637, when Gekkeikan was founded, the sankin-kotai system of alternate-year residence by daimyo (feudal lords) in Edo had started just two years before, so daimyo would stay here, so Fushimi thrived as both a riverside trading town and a post town, filled with boathouses, timber wholesalers, and transportation wholesalers.

The land divisions and the canal used as the castle's outer moat are largely unchanged since the Edo period. About 7 km south of Kyoto Station, Fushimi offers streetscapes that still retain this historical appearance, and visitors can stroll around the Horikawa River, which formed the outer moat of Fushimi Castle and admire the white earthen-walled sake breweries beyond the willow trees lining the river.

Fushimi: A Historical Town that Developed as a Castle Town, a Post Town, and a Riverside Trading Town

In 794, an area about 4-5 km square centered on the northern part of the Kyoto Basin was divided into a grid using the old jo/ri grid system, on which the Emperor Kanmu founded the new capital of Heiankyo. Court culture developed in this area, and numerous shrines and temples were established in order to enshrine the Buddhist deities and Shinto spirits that would guard the capital. In 1336, when the Ashikaga Clan commenced ruling Japan from their shogunate in Kyoto, thus ushering in the Muromachi period, Kyoto reached its greatest glories as a city. The economy developed, creating a commercial city in which important local businessman became prominent, and culture also became mature.

The center of Heiankyo was termed “Rakuchu” or “inside the capital,” with the area surrounding it called “Rakugai,” or “outside the capital.” Fushimi, in the Rakugai region, was located at the southern end of the Kyoto Basin, and was used by nobles in the Heian period to construct their villas, thanks to its scenery and lovely views of Ogura Pond. On Shigetsu Hill (currently Momoyamacho Taichoro, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto) in 1592, Toyotomi Hideyoshi constructed Fushimi Castle. When Hideyoshi was master of Japan, Fushimi was the center of government and flourished as the de facto capital of Japan, and saw numerous political struggles for control of the country until the Tokugawa wrested control, ushering in the Edo period.

Fushimi: A Historical Town that Developed as a Castle Town, a Post Town, and a Riverside Trading Town

The two major building periods of Fushimi Castle, in 1594 and 1597, created a castle town 4 km east-west and 6 km north-south in extent. The development of the castle town also saw the population swell to tens of thousands, making it the largest city after Edo, Osaka, and Sakai. During the Edo period, Ieyasu himself, as well his son Hidetada, the second shogun, and his grandson Iemitsu, the third shogun, received the title of Sei-I Tai-Shogun at Fushimi Castle, showing how important the place was as a political center.

Central Fushimi was a neatly laid out cityscape of samurai residences belonging to various daimyo encircling the castle. Along with the development of the castle town, the banks of the Uji River were rebuilt and roads laid out, while the outer moat was dug through the town and embankments constructed, linking the Yodo, Uji, and Katsura rivers and allowing the city to develop as a riverside trading town. Roads were built along the tops of the banks, with the Kyo-kaido Road built on the Bunroku Bank linking Fushimi with Osaka Castle, and other major roads like the Saigoku-kaido, Yamato-kaido, and Otsu-kaido roads, as well as the Takeda-kaido and Fushimi-kaido roads leading to the capital, all passed through Fushimi. Thus, Fushimi became the gateway to Kyoto as well as a major land and water transport hub connecting Nara and Osaka.

Fushimi Castle

The area to the west of the samurai residences was home to merchants and artisans, who obtained official appointments to supply items to the samurai. Sake brewers also flourished in this area, supplying the castle town with the sake it demanded. This is when the roots of Fushimi as a sake-brewing town were established.

Then, in 1624, Fushimi Castle was abandoned, and the political center in the area moved to Osaka Castle. This had the result of temporarily stopping Fushimi's urban development. However, with the establishment of the sankin-kotai system in 1635, all daimyo from western Japan would stay in Fushimi with their retinue on their way to Edo. Special inns for daimyo to stay (honjin) and subsidiary inns for the vassals (waki-honjin) were constructed in Fushimi Minamihama, which filled with other inns and boathouses, and a wide range of transportation operators set up shop here. Fushimi was once again full of people as a post town and riverside trading town, and also saw a huge increase in goods distribution.

Development of Fushimi as a Sake Production Site

Through its regeneration into a transport and trading hub , the demand for sake also increased, with numerous brewers setting up shop. Right after this, in 1637, Gekkeikan (called Kasagiya at the time) was founded in the Minamihama area, facing the outer moat of the castle town. In 1657, there were 83 breweries in Fushimi, producing some 2.7 million liters of sake.

In the Edo period, Fushimi sake was drunk mainly by travelers and locals as a local brew, but, following the turmoil of the Restoration and the start of the new Meiji era, Fushimi became established as a major production area on a national scale. Railway lines were laid down between Fushimi and Kyoto, Osaka, and Nara, which it had been connected to previously via water, with the completion of the Osaka-Kyoto section in 1877 and the Tokaido Line in 1889 becoming major assets. In the 20th century there was a rapid shift from water-borne to rail transport by sake producers, who started the path to development, aiming at penetrating the Tokyo market.

Later, in 1909, the Fushimi Sake Brewers Association Research Institute of Brewing was formed, paving the way for the introduction of scientific techniques in sake brewing and improving its quality, leading to Fushimi sake taking some of the top prizes in national competitions and enhancing its reputation. Work was also done on the sales side, such as when Gekkeikan started selling bottled sake with drinking cups at stations in 1910, which spread word of the brand around the country as the railway network spread wider and wider.

As a town of merchants, who would welcome all comers, there was a high rate of transiency among the populace, bringing a diversity of viewpoints and a free and vigorous atmosphere, which in turn had a considerable effect on the Fushimi sake brewers. Being in a major city allowed the astute, quick-witted enterprising quality of Fushimi brewers to be cultivated and polished amidst the constant waves of new residents and visitors alike.

Development of Fushimi as a Sake Production Site

Small Sake Bottles with Cups

Revival as a Town of Water, History, and Sake

Fushimi's traditional position as a sake-producing town remains alive today. The Fushimi Sake Brewers Association includes more than twenty brewing companies. Some of the oldest remaining merchant's houses and sake breweries were build back to the first half of the 19th century to the early 20th century, and visitors are able to enjoy the traditional streetscapes and atmosphere of the time. Sake production has also continued without interruption. During the depths of winter, when winter-brewed refined sake production reaches its peak, rice is steamed and the “moromi” main mash is fermented, filling the air with its aroma in a way that lets people know that this is a sake town. Many companies use old sake warehouses as museums or shops, and visitors can enjoy sake tasting and visiting breweries. Where we are, the roads have been paved in a color close to the natural earth, with walking paths and retro-style streetlamps, and overhead wires have been buried to create an attractive streetscape where visitors can experience the elegant atmosphere created by the traditional townscape.

Revival as a Town of Water, History, and Sake

As a town of water, a town of history, Fushimi has even more to offer. The Gekkeikan Uchigura Sake Brewery viewed from the Horikawa River, which formed the outer moat of Fushimi Castle, is a beloved landmark in Fushimi tourism. The banks of the river have been developed into walking paths, and near the sake breweries, willow trees, weeping cherries, Somei-Yoshino cherries, Thunberg's meadowsweet, and hydrangeas change throughout the seasons, bringing pleasure to people. There are many historical places to see, and visitors can explore the local historical sites as they stroll around the water. This area also includes the site of the Terada-ya Inn where Sakamoto Ryoma stayed, the Gokonomiya Shrine, which houses the local tutelary deity, and the remains of the Fushimi Magistrate's Office, who was responsible for administration and law during the Edo period, recalling the days when Fushimi was the center of power.

From spring to autumn, tourist boats, known as Jikkokubune and Sanjikkokubune (traditional small or medium boats for transporting goods and people), operate on the river. The smaller Jikkokubune depart from the west side of the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum, and turn back at the Misu Lock Gate, which has been restored as part of a park. (Misu Lock Gate: This short section of canal was developed to allow vessels to transit the 4.5 m difference in water levels between the Uji and Horikawa rivers. It was built in 1929, and was in use until the 1960s).

With Keihan, Kintetsu, and JR railway lines, as well as main roads passing through, this area is a modern-day transport hub, making access easy. From Kyoto Station, it's just a dozen or so minutes by JR Nara Line (Momoyama Station) or Kintetsu Kyoto Line (Momoyama-Goryomae Station). Keihan Electric Railway runs rapid trains that cover the distance between Chushojima and Temmabashi stations, equivalent to the distance the larger Sanjikkokubune covered, in just over half an hour.

When you come and visit Fushimi, we hope you will take the time to taste the local sake and relax and enjoy yourself.

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