Do you ever have one of those moments when you are travelling, when you stumble upon something truly special. Something that is not in the guide books. A place that captures the town or city that you are exploring. You get almost giddy with excitement. It’s like you’ve captured a Pulitzer Prize winning photo, or seen an elusive animal in the wild. Sometimes it’s even like you have found a portal to the past. You want to tell everyone about it, to share the experience. But then it dawns on you, if I tell anyone then the word will get out and somehow that something special about the place will be lost.
Fujioka Shuzo Sake brewery was one of those places for us. We were out exploring Fushimi in Kyoto, which is one of Japan’s most revered locations for sake, or seishu as the locals call it. The SakeMistress had recommended we visit Fujioka if we had a chance. There was not a lot of info to go on, and we didn’t know quite what to expect, or even if we could find the place. We knew it was small, and likely not well marked, and would be hard to find among the numerous old brewery buildings that line the streets of Fushimi. The chance to spend a few hours wandering around looking at all the old buildings, and peaking our heads into a few, would be an adventure in its own right. Full of exploration, and a bit of seishu, we went hunting. To our surprise, Fujioka was only a few hundred meters from where we had stopped to have some delicious lunch at Torisei Yakitori.
The brewery buildings in Fushimi cluster close to a cherry blossom lined canal, which was used to barge the sake out to a waiting Japanese market. Many of the buildings are several hundred years old and you can feel the history and echos of industry with each searching step. The brewery buildings and storehouses with beautiful whitewashed walls, blackening vertical wood planking, and the occasional red brick chimney, truly harken back to a golden age. These days the streets are quiet as many of the larger scale breweries have moved production out into industrial areas, and have turned their old premises into museums, or restaurants. However, there are still plenty of smaller breweries still using the heritage listed buildings and producing some remarkable sake.
Fujioka Shuzo is one of these smaller breweries. It used to be a much larger producer but fell on some hardship due to a declining market, sameness among the styles and types of sake, the loss of their Toji (head brewer), and almost went out of business. However, they reinvented themselves in the early 2000’s by producing truly exceptional craft sake on a small scale. Finding an appreciative market, they have resisted the urge to scale the production up, and have stayed focused on their craft, limited their production, and stayed true to their Fushimi roots. They still produce all of their sake at the Fushimi brewery, and have opened a small sampling bar in the gorgeous brewery buildings.
The entrance is marked by a small sugidama and a water feature. There are also goldfish swimming along the street frontage in a long stone lined gutter. In a typically Japanese way, everything is beautifully done, but simple and understated. And yes, even the goldfish are understated – in that they are swimming in a gutter. There is no English signage, so you need to know what you looking for.
Bar en, as it is called, is super small. Seating for six at the traditional low bar looking through the interior window into the brewery. A further seating for four at a low table on the tatami. There is also a small room where all of the breweries products are available for sale. Tatami, floor cushions, rough hewn wood, and old brewery and serving gear create an authentic unmanufactured ambiance. There is certainly a timelessness to the place, and if you are not careful a place where you can lose a lot of time as you settle in with a tasting flight and then move on to explore the rest of the range. The knowledgeable waitress as your guide, you learn about all the different rice and production methods used.
Our favorites are always the nama (or fresh, unpasteurised) sake. Visiting a brewery presents a unique opportunity to try sake as it was meant to be drunk. Fresh from the tanks, undiluted, and full of lively character. This was once the way all sake was drunk. Local, fresh, and exhibiting the character of it’s location. This style is making a resurgence in Japan, and there is no better place than Fujioka Shuzo to experience it. We always take a few bottles home with us, trying to capture the experience for another time. Unfortunately Nama sake doesn’t travel well, and despite best efforts a little something is lost. Maybe it’s the koji and yeast working away, or maybe it’s the location and time, the heart and soul of Fushimi missing when you take it home. It is why a trip to Kyoto is not complete for us, without a trip to Fushimi and Fujioka Shuzo.
That first time, Nihonshu Girl and I came alone to Fujioka Shuzo, back in November 2018. It was a memorable night, and inspired this blog. A big hello to Adam and Stephanie whom we met that night and shared great conversation and many tasting flights.
This time around we visited with Mary and Ted, Nihonshu Girl’s mother and stepfather. Despite them not really being sake drinkers, it was an experience we just had to share with them. They really enjoyed the night, and I think were blown away by the how beautiful the brewery and bar were. I think we may have even created some sake converts.
We will be back again, for sure.