FUSHIMI, KYOTO PREF. - Just before reaching Chushojima Station on the Keihan Line heading into Kyoto from Osaka, or just after crossing the Uji River on the almost parallel Kintetsu train that runs between Kyoto and Nara, two towers that look old and of European design flash briefly into view before disappearing among the modern houses and buildings.
The towers are part of a canal lock sitting at the entrance to the old port of Fushimi. Though a quiet park today, a century and a half ago, Fushimi was, for foreign nationals living in the concessions of Kobe and Osaka in the 1850s, the closest they were allowed to get to Kyoto for many years without special permission from the Tokugawa government.
Even after the Meiji Restoration in 1868, entering Kyoto was not easy. Traveling from Osaka to Fushimi Port was, literally, the end of the line, the closest to the home of the emperor that the government would allow non-Japanese to venture without rarely given special permission.
Today, the journey on the Keihan train line from Osaka’s Yodoyabashi Station to northern Kyoto takes about an hour, while the Kintetsu Nara Line to Kyoto Station is about 45 minutes. But in the 19th century, a trip by boat from Osaka to Fushimi was long, uncomfortable, perilous and could take 12 hours or longer.
When Japan opened to the West in 1854, Kyoto was considered a mysterious place few outsiders had ever seen, home to a reclusive emperor and an ancient aristocracy, gorgeous works of art and a building made of gold, Kinkakuji Temple.
A contemporary newspaper estimated not more than a dozen Westerners had ever passed through it.
After Emperor Meiji went to live in Tokyo (Kyoto people would say “visit”), curious Westerners in the Kobe and Osaka settlements clamored to be allowed to go to Kyoto. In 1872, the ancient capital was the site of a months-long world’s fair that drew hundreds of foreign visitors. All traveled the same way, up the Yodo River from Osaka to Fushimi and then by road with security all along the way to Kyoto.
Writing in the April 18, 1872, edition of the Kobe-based Hiogo News, an anonymous correspondent describes the journey.
“I arrived here (Fushimi) at 5 p.m. on Tuesday evening, having left Osaka at 7 a.m. The voyage to Fushimi I made in the steamer Asahi Maru in eight hours exactly, the distance being probably what the natives estimate at, namely ten ri, or twenty five miles. From Fushimi I came (to Kyoto) by jinrikisha, over bad roads made heavy by recent rains.”
About six months before the Hiogo News correspondent made the trip, a visiting Austrian nobleman named Baron de Hubner managed to get permission to enter Kyoto. In his book, “A Ramble Round the World,” published in 1874, he recounts his trip on Sept. 22, 1871, between Osaka and Fushimi.
“Besides the great rowing boats employed in the transport of travelers and merchandise, some small steamers leave Osaka every morning, and, according to the variable state of the Yodogawa current, arrive (or do not arrive!) towards evening, or in the night, at Fushimi. Luckily of late there have been no explosions.”
The baron describes the scenery after the ship departed from the docks near Yodoyabashi and his arrival at Fushimi nine hours later.
“We are steaming between tufts of bamboos and fine groups of maples, larch, and weeping willows. Market town, great and small villages, all looking populous and prosperous, succeed one another at short intervals.
“By special favor of the steam we arrive at 4 p.m. at Fushimi. A brilliant reception awaited us. The authorities in court dress received us at the landing place, and led us to a beautiful apartment, ornamented with flowers and carpets,” he writes.
De Hubner’s mention of ships not arriving proved prophetic. The Hiogo News correspondent ended his letter to the Kobe community with news of a tragedy.
“You will have heard of the blowing up of the Suiryu Maru steamship on her way from Osaka to Fushimi, which resulted in the death of four native passengers, the three foreigners on board luckily escaping. I am loath to write anything likely to deter anyone from coming here, but shall not trust myself to the tender mercies of a Japanese engineer again in a hurry.”
A 2002 essay published by the Yodogawa Museum in Hirakata, Osaka Prefecture, notes the history of the ships that made the Osaka to Fushimi run. It says that, in 1868, 50 ships a day of various types and sizes carrying about 1,500 people made the trip between Osaka, close to where Yodoyabashi Station is today, and the port of Fushimi.
The port would thrive as a “foreign port” until the late 1870s, when the first railroads were opened between Osaka and Kyoto. Today, a small information center with photos and models of how ships used the canal to enter Fushimi Port offer a brief history of the forgotten era.
This year, Kyoto is commemorating its role in the 150th anniversary of the Meiji Restoration with numerous public events and lectures around the city on all manner of subjects. But the history of Fushimi harbor is not getting much attention.
“There are reportedly plans under way by Fushimi Ward to do a lecture in November but the details are not set yet,” said Yuji Iwata, a city official.
For the moment, then, even though Kyoto’s other older historical places are overcrowded with tourists, Fushimi harbor is likely to remain an off-the-beaten-path reminder of the past.