Reading travel blogs and travel stories, I often wonder what happens to those unexpected experiences that are not so great, not so perfect and at times leave you broke. I understand that it’s not advisable to share horror travel stories and they might scare the readers off, but they’re still stories worth sharing. A few months ago I remember reading one such story on Shivya Nath’s blog about getting mugged by a cabbie in San Jose. She has written an entire post on the solo travel mishaps. While my story isn’t scary at all (also because Japan is one of the safest countries to travel to), it’s an experience that was definitely not welcomed by my co-traveller and me. However, now we laugh at that particular memory.
Last year I took a 10 day trip to Japan with a friend. We spent the last 4 days of the trip in Kyoto and apart from visiting shrines and temples, the Gekkeikan Okura Sake museum in the Fushimi Ward was on the top of my list along with the famous Fushimi Inari Taisha shrine.
Located in the south of Kyoto, Fushimi is a sleepy town known as the sake district of Kyoto. The spring water here is naturally sweet making it perfect for sake brewing. Earlier, the area was a transport and trade hub because of the confluence of Uji, Katsura and Kamo rivers.
Before heading to the museum for sake tasting, we paid the mandatory visit at the shrine dedicated to Inari – the god of rice. The shrine is famous for its long trail of vermilion torii gates which are donated by individuals or companies. Trek through these gates lead us to the mountain trail with beautiful view of the city. The shrine compound is dotted with statues of foxes which – it’s said – were Inari’s messengers.
The street leading to the shrine is lined with food stalls selling seaweed topped soba noodles, pork, lobster and other kinds of meat and seafood on sticks, barbequed eel etc.
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Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum
A short train ride brought us to the station close to the Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum. We crossed over a canal to get to the museum. There are regular cruises – Jikkokubune Canal Cruise – that take you through the trade route. Jikkokobune are flat bottomed boats that used to carry rice and sake. The cruise takes you through a route lined with willows and cherry trees.
Gekkeikan is one of the most famous and old breweries of Kyoto. The museum is housed inside an old sake warehouse built in 1909. The entry fee is 300 Yen which includes sake tastings and a small bottle of sake as a souvenir. The tour starts with the tasting of Fushimi’s water which is used for sake brewing. The entrance of the museum is made like a traditional sake store. The tour instructions are only in Japanese but all the information is written in English near the displays.
The museum presents the history of sake in Japan and a step by step procedure of sake production. There are about 400 production items on display along with period materials like vessel etc. On the walls you’ll see old print ads for Gekkeikan sake. Traditional chants of sake makers play in the background creating an old brewery like atmosphere. Once done with the store, we got to the tasting part and then proceeded towards the store to buy a few bottles to take back home.
There’s a tradition behind pouring sake which I learnt about at an Izakaya in Tokyo. The server at this particular bar brought the sake glass to my table, it was placed on a saucer. He poured the sake filling the glass to the brim and also let some of it spill out. I later Googled and found out that letting sake overflow while pouring was a mark of abundance. Also, you never pour sake for yourself.
By the time we got done with the museum and strolling around the pretty town, our parched throats and grumbling bellies were nudging us to find a place for some tipple and grub. In the pin drop silence of Fushimi we heard some music coming out of a bar on the ground level of a small building. A woman was cheerily asking us to come in. She spoke no English and we knew no Japanese and from gestures we understood that we’ll get beer and food. The place was a long narrow room with a bar counter stretched across the length of it. Our host, the only person manning the bar, was standing on the other side pouring drinks and serving food. Most of the bar stools were occupied by old Japanese men who were already Karaoke-ing away to glory. Space was made for us quickly as we entered and were soon pulled into broken conversations with the men.
There was no menu so assuming that a beer won’t cost us more than 500 Yen, we ordered a pint each and a few sausages, some pickles to go with it. With just 5000 Yen in our collective pockets we wanted to keep the bill to a minimum and so decided to stop at just one beer. In the meanwhile the bar owner kept asking us for more beer and food which we politely declined. The shocker came when we asked for the cheque and were asked to pay 5000 Yen. Yes! 5ooo Yen for two pints of beer and some food that didn’t even line our stomach properly. The only last paper money (rest were all coins) we had with us. A bit more broken conversation with the bar lady and we figured that it was an unlimited beer+food place with 2500 Yen per person. So technically we were entitled to more beer and food but by this time our appetite had gone kaput. That 5000 Yen bill was sitting heavy on our chests. Our budget had taken a huge blow. The plans of spending last night in Kyoto on the streets and blowing money on a cab ride (the bus service shuts early) were looking bleak. Thankfully we had our day bus pass to get us back to our Airbnb. We solemnly travelled back, walked to a 24×7 store and picked our 70 Yen dinner of hot dog on a stick. Drowned the sorrow of 5000 Yen in sake and slept off. Next day (which was also our last in Japan) was definitely going to be brighter and better.