Off-the-Eaten Path Food Experience in Japan. "Meet the People and Places behind your Plates! "

Tuesday 24 December 2019

Walking the Sreets of Fushimi Sake Town

by Yuka Tsukahara

When you hear the name Fushimi town in Kyoto, what comes to mind? To mention a few, it is a town well known for the thousands of vermillion “Torii” of Fushimi Inari Shrine, a destination for Japanese saké connoisseurs and lovers, and noted for its street names taken after famous warlords in Japanese history. For centuries, locals and visitors alike would gather during the New Year holidays at Fushimi Inari Shrine to pray for peace and prosperity.

Mornings begin early in Fushimi. Even before sunrise, white smoke can be seen rising from saké breweries. That's when we know that saké production is in progress and as the aroma fills the air. For the residents of Fushimi , "Saké" is a part of life as well as livelihood. Many of the parents whom we befriended during our children's kindergarten and primary school years worked for saké companies. Every early winter these parents would share “Saké Kasu” 酒粕 (lees from saké production) made by the different nearby breweries. At a glance, “Saké Kasu” may look similar. The truth is each has its own unique flavor crafted by the brewery that produces it.

 Generally speaking, it takes a few years of tasting experience before one can tell by which brewery a saké kasu is made. Additionally, we have been very fortunate over the years to receive the gift of fresh chestnuts in the fall from "Toji 杜氏" brew master in Tamba area (丹波、Hyogo Prefecture). "Saké Kasu" is a so -called the “left over”, but it is nutritious and and delicious and is indispensable part of our cooking and making desserts such as “Saké Kasu” jelly. Children in the neighborhood would play in the streets of saké warehouses. Such streets were their playground for hopscotch and rubber band jump rope after school. Today, this is no longer possible because there are more cars on the streets.

Geographically, the city of Kyoto is surrounded by mountains which makes it possible to collect water from the mountains. Fushimi is located in the sourthern part of the city and enjoys abundant underground water. In fact the original name "Fushimi (伏水)" is derived from Chinese characters meaning running underground water. Given the resource, it was inevitable for the locals to become producers of Japanese saké.

The production of saké began in the 8th century, but the long history did not always guarantee the stability of the town and business. Fushimi experienced turbulent times and by mid 19th century, Fushimi had only two saké brewery houses. Today we have 24 brewers including both small and large scale brewers registered to Fushimi Saké Brewers Association. Coupled with the growth of popularity of Japanese cuisine, large scale brewery houses such as Gekkeikan and Kizakura have gained popularity around the globe and have adopted modern technology to produce saké.

On the other hand, Fushimi is a home to much smaller scale saké house such as Fujioka Shuzo. Its owner not only produces saké by using saké rice(less sticky, less protein and fat, more water absorbency than table rice) but ventures to use table rice for producing his original saké. He grows his own table rice in his own rice field in Ohara, located in the northern part of the city known for producing local vegetables.

In Fushimi, we live in the mixture of touristy and local life. There are shops focusing on tourists but there are many family owned shops specializing in all kinds of things where the locals frequent. To name a few, we have shops for fish, eel, pickled vegetable, lantern, traditional betrothal gift, tatami mat, traditional sweets and tea.

During cherry blossom season in the spring, nearby bamboo shoot farmers would bring their freshly harvested bamboo shoots and boil the shoots in a giant pot on the street to sell. We also have one of the largest Kyoto CO-OP store, which provides fresh seafood, meats and produce from the local farmers. 

What makes this town vibrant and authentic is the energy of the women working in these shops. The proprietresses of these family-owned shops are candid and have no trouble laughing out loud. They would engage in a small chat whenever they see each other on the street and exchange thoughts. 

The proprietors also form strong bonds and annual autumn festival of the local shrine is the occasion when they will prove their leadership. It is also a happy occasion for children to carry flower decorated umbrella and dance in the street in groups. 

Fushimi is a free spirited but well balanced town and I hope you will visit us!