Gekkeikan The Life of Tsunekichi Okura

Chapter One: The Establishment of “Kasagiya”

Ten generations as a local sake brewery

With over 380 years of history since its establishment, Gekkeikan continues to expand its market share across the country as one of the three largest sake manufacturers in Japan. Today, our company is managed by the 14th head and current president, Haruhiko Okura. As a manufacturer, we believe in putting quality first and foremost, and so actively incorporate cutting-edge brewing technologies to create a wide variety of quality sake products. Our advanced brewing technology has also been introduced to the United States where Gekkeikan Sake (USA), Inc produces sake locally for not only the United States sake market, but also for exports to Canada, South America, Europe, and Asia. Combined with exports from Japan, we strive to further broaden our global business operations.

Although Gekkeikan’s operational capacity has grown large enough to distribute sake across Japan and around the world, this expansion is a rather recent development. In fact, our company was just a local sake brewery in Fushimi for the first 250 years.

The establishment of Kasagiya on the Fushimi waterfront The establishment of Kasagiya	on the Fushimi waterfront

From the late 16th century to the early 17th century, Fushimi essentially functioned as the capital, where prominent rulers such as Toyotomi Hideyoshi and Tokugawa Ieyasu had set up their headquarters. After Fushimi Castle was abandoned, the former castle town took advantage of its strong infrastructure and began thriving as a post town and port town, bustling with crowds of travelers from the east and west.

Hoko Fushimijo no Zu
Hoko Fushimijo no Zu (Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum)

This period in Fushimi’s history was when Okura Jiemon, the founder of Gekkeikan, relocated from Kasagi town in southern Kyoto prefecture to Fushimi. Settling down on the waterfront in Minamihama, he opened a sake shop in 1637 and named it “Kasagiya” after his hometown, and brewed his own sake brand called “Tama no Izumi”.

Original template of the shirushikomo (cover design with brand logo to be decorated at the front of sake barrels) for “Tama no Izumi”
Original template of the shirushikomo (cover design with brand logo to be decorated at the front of sake barrels) for “Tama no Izumi” (Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum)

Hardships that plagued Fushimi’s sake brewers Hardships that plagued Fushimi’s sake brewers

During the Edo period, Kasagiya was a small sake shop that served sake to locals and travelers. Details of transactions were recorded in ledgers, which are now safely stored at Gekkeikan. The oldest remaining account book is from 1718, recording various types of sake such as shinshu (new sake), koshu (old sake), aishu (a combination of old and new sake), nikomishu (thoroughly pasteurized sake), and nanbanshu (liquors from foreign countries), suggesting how Kasagiya was keen on brewing as well as selling a variety of sake to increase its sales.

Ledger, Kyoho 3
Ledger, Kyoho 3
“Ledger, Kyoho 3 (1718)” (Gekkeikan Okura Sake Museum)

However, business conditions were not always favorable. A number of sake brewers were suffering from sake spoilages caused by lactic acid bacteria, since it was a time before scientific knowledge such as microbiology was applied. During times of famine, as a result of rice shortages due to abnormal climate or crop damage by pests, sake brewers were often restricted from obtaining rice. Accidental fires occurred constantly as a result of sake making processes that involved fire, such as rice steaming and pasteurization. Furthermore, the inflow of cheap sake made in neighboring sake-producing regions brought competitive pressure on Fushimi’s sake brewers, causing them to fall behind on sales.

These troubles came one after another, and the number of sake brewers dropped from 83 in 1657 to 28 in 1785.

Embroiled in battles inside town Embroiled in battles inside town

On top of all these crises, the Battle of Toba-Fushimi erupted in January 1868, right before the dawn of the Meiji period. The town of Fushimi was embroiled in this battle, and many houses and breweries on the north side of Minamihama street that runs in front of the Okura family’s main residence and Gekkeikan’s birthplace (Motozaimokucho, Fushimi-ku, Kyoto) were destroyed. Fortunately, the Okura family’s main residence was miraculously spared - which is why Gekkeikan remains standing today.

The Okura family’s main residence
The Okura family’s main residence, built in 1828. Currently located on the west side of the Gekkeikan Head Office even after almost two centuries.

Damage from this battle occurred simultaneously with soaring prices of rice due to the impact of drought and flood in 1866, putting a number of sake brewers through tough times. They barely managed to maintain their productivity by dividing up tasks among themselves to help war-afflicted breweries make sake. Fushimi’s sake community survived through the tumultuous Meiji Restoration because of these efforts and mutual aid.

The town of Fushimi went through drastic changes from having been a castle town and developing into a post town and port town. And despite the hardships that challenged the industry, Gekkeikan persevered through the first ten generations as a local sake brewer. But before anyone could take a moment to sit back, an even greater struggle - a fateful crisis - awaited the family.

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