EP50 Worlds Oldest Companies


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Show Notes for episode 50 of our Podcast – Worlds Oldest Companies.  

Story Notes

Worlds Oldest Companies
EP50 World’s Oldest Companies

In the world there exists 67 companies which have existed since before 1300AD, and out of those 67. 34% of them are located in Japan. So today let’s dive into some of them shall we? 

Kongo Gumi

We start off with the oldest company. This one not just the oldest in Japan, but the oldest in the world. A company that has been around since 578AD. 

Now this company, headquartered in Osaka and founded by Shigemitsu Kongō traces its origins not to the Japanese, but to Korean immigrants to came to Japan at the behest of Prince Shotoku to help in the construction of the temple of Shitenno-ji. And we know of every one of those who were a descendant of this family due to a 3 meter long scroll from the 17th century, tracing back the lineage of the family heads of this family and company. 

Now they specialised in the building of Buddhist temples, but by 2006 they were falling on hard times and went into liquidation, being bought by Takamatsu Construction Group. In essence, they still exist to this day, however, whether people believe they should still hold the title of worlds oldest company after liquidating is something you will need to decide for yourself.    

Worlds Oldest Companies
Kongo Gumi

Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan

Our second company today is the world’s oldest hotel. You can find it located in Hayakawa, Yamanashi Prefecture and dates all the way back to 705AD for its founding by a Fujiwara no Mahito according to their website. The onsen took the name of Keiun as it was founded in the Keiun Era and gathers its water from the nearby Hakuho Springs. Its is still run by the same family, and its now on its 52nd generational descendant from Fujiwara Mahito.  

Such was its fame that even Tokugawa Ieyasu is said to have stayed here during his life.  

The hotel has tried to remain traditional during its existence, and even after a major renovation in 1997 it maintained its traditional architecture. And in 2005, they added hot spring baths into every room in the hotel.  

Now I tried to figure out who this Mahito was, some references said that he was the son of an aide with the surname Fujiwara to Emperor Tenji. However, I am not entirely sure about this. So if anyone can help me please do. 

The aide to Emperor Tenji was Fujiwara no Kamatari. He had sons, but no Mahito, though he did have a son called Fuhito. One syllable difference. Fuhito did live during the correct time so could have founded this hotel, however right now I can’t be sure.  

Of Mahito I can find no record, only this Fuhito, so is there an error somewhere in the histories? Maybe we’ll never know, or maybe I am over thinking this. I leave it to you to decide.  

Worlds Oldest Companies
Nishiyama Onsen Keiunkan

Gendai Shigyo

This company was founded all the way back in 771 and is the oldest ceremonial paper goods store in Japan. From what I could gather from the Japanese it seems that this company created Mizuhiki (explain what this is, add a pic in show notes) which up until the Meiji Era was not popular with the general public and was more for the imperial family and nobles. But now that also make other ceremonial paper goods including those for festivals.  

Tanaka-Iga

Sadly not much to say for this one. Based in Kyoto, this company was founded in 885 and is the oldest company to Buddhist religious items.  

Ichimonjiya Wasuke (Ichiwa)

Looking now at confectionary, we find ourselves in Kyoto, at the Ichiwa store. If you are wanting an idea of whereabouts it is, it’s about a 20 minute walk from Kinkakuji.    

Founded around 1000 years ago the store is known for selling Wagashi, a kind of plant based confection made of mochi, anko or fruits; often served with tea. The store is rather small, currently run by the 24th descendant of its founder. And in addition to a small number of benches and stool to enjoy your confectionary at, you can look down over a garden at the back of the store designed in around the 17th century by a Kobori Enshu. 

The primary specialty of this place is aburi-mochi. This is mochi grilled over charcoal, doused in a sweet miso sauce.  

Ichimonjiya Wasuke
Ichimonjiya Wasuke

Sudo Honke

Now if you’re in Japan, one of the famous drinks is the sake. And if you are wanting to find the oldest company who makes it, turn your attention to Sudo Honke. A company which has been around since at least 1141. The exact origins are lost to us, but we have this date from a talisman the family still had showing they were making sake during 1141. You can find them located in Ibaraki Prefecture and their website states that they originally started out as a Samurai family who chose a mission to revitalize the economy of the area and so they began to brew sake.  

They make around 180 kilolitres of sake annually, using the best rice and only the water pumped from a local well. 

They have never had to use any other water aside from this source.  

This did come into jeopardy after the 2011 earthquake however, no damage was done to the buildings, however they soon had to test the well for radiation contamination due to the Fukushima Nuclear Power Plant disaster. Luckily the tests came back negative and the company is now doing what it can to get their sales back on track after a big drop in sales following the earthquake. 

That’s all I can really say for now, as the current head of the company has said they have various memos, receipts and paperwork stored dating back to the Edo Period for their brewery. However, none of it has been sorted through yet, and so if there is more history to tell for this company. We don’t know it yet.  

Tsuen Tea

Now we turn our attention to Japan’s oldest Tea Shop and a lot of their history can be garnered from the plaques they have on display around their store. It has been around since about 1160 founded by a man known as Furukawa Unai who during his lifetime served as a vassal to Minamoto no Yorimasa. And in addition to enjoying tea, Furukawa was also said to have been a rather excellent martial artist. After he was allowed to retire, he changed his name to being Taikei-an Tsuen Masahisa, which is where the name of the store came from. And he sets up his store on the East side of the Uji Bridge. He did return to service in 1180 to fight alongside Yorimasa in the battle of Uji, where he sadly died and there was even a play made about him telling the story of his life.  

The location of the tea shop was a prime location for all people to travel through, and it is even now that prominent people such as Tokogawa Ieyasu and Toyotomi Hideyoshi even had tea served to them here. 

His descendant carried on serving tea here to various travellers and changed their family name to being merely Tsuen. Now jumping to the seventh generational descendant we find that this man had strong connections to a Zen monk known as Ikkyu, and they are said to have been inseparable. When this 7th Generation Tsuen died, Ikkyu apparently came straight to the tea shop where he presented them with a piece of calligraphy which went as follows, “one cup of tea, one coin, one’s time is a bubble.” 

 The 8th Generation Tsuen served as Chief tea master to the Shogun Ashikaga Yoshimasa, which goes to show I suppose the fame and prestige their Tea Shop had gathered over the years. 

The 10th and 11th Generation Tsûen’s served as masters of the crossing at Uji Bridge. They earned the trust of Toyotomi Hideyoshi during his lifetime, and were even permitted to provide the lord with tea, using water from the Uji River. It is said the buckets they used to gather the water still survive to this day. 

Outside of the store are many tea jars spanning back hundreds of years in age. And additionally there is a statue of the first Tsuen, which was gifted to the store by the priest Ikkyu. 

And to finish everything off, how about I tell you the kinds of tea you can get there?  

  • matcha – ground green tea 
  • gyokuro – shaded green tea 
  • sencha – whole tea leaves infused in hot water 
  • karigane – contains also twigs of the tea tree 
  • hōjicha – roasted green tea 
  • genmaicha – mixed low – level green tea and roasted brown rice. 
Tsuen Tea
Tsuen Tea

Kikuoka

The company of Kikuoka can be found in the city of Nara, close to the old capital of Kyoto. The current instalment of this shop deals in traditional Japanese/Chinese medicine and has been around since 1184. Currently it is run by the 24th generation of the same family. It appears the Kikuoka family was originally from Fujiwara, and that their family had a long desire to care for the sick people of Japan. 

They have made various attempts at catering for English speaker should you wish to go and procure some medicine by providing in house a giant glossary in both Japanese and English should you require it, but they do also recommend booking before hands if you need a consultation as the wait may be long if you don’t do so. Or if you don’t need any medicine and just wish to see the ancient store, you can go and have a free cup of herbal tea.  

Kikuoka
Kikuoka

Ito Tekko

Founded in 1189, Ito Tekko has claim to being the oldest metalworking company in the Japan, located in the city of Tsuruoka, Yamagata Prefecture. According to their website, they were founded by a man known as Ito Sukeemon who served Minamoto no Yoritomo. Minamoto no Yoritomo was the man who established the bakufu system, or as we know of it abroad the system of Shoguns who held power over the country more so than the Emperor.  

The company remained very much the same until the Meiji Era where as times were changing and Japan was modernising they changed the products they made to also include weaving machines and brewing machines, and similarly on the 800th year since their founding, so the first year in the era of Heisei they again change, making the difficult decision to modernise again and move into making electromagnetic flow meters to measure the water flows of water and sewage systems. 

Kotabe Foundry

Founded back between 1190 and 1199 this currently is being run by Shouemon Kotabe, a 37th generation descendant from the founder of the company. You can find them in Ibaraki Prefecture on the foothills of the Tsubaku Mountain. As a foundry company they are well versed in the making of fire bells, rainwater bowls, as well as the bells for the temples of Japan. The location allows them access to sand and clay used in the making of the moulds needed. 

And from what little information I could find out about Kotabe, it appears that they are the only company in Japan permitted to place the emblem of the chrysanthemum on their product, this being the symbol of the Japanese Royal Family.  

Proverb Notes

Today we bring to you another Japanese Kotozawa

鳴く蝉よりも鳴かぬ蛍が身をこがす  

なくせみよりもなかぬほたるがみをこがす 

The silent firefly burns with more passion than the crying cicada 

References

You can listen to the full episode over on Anchor here: Japan Archives, or wherever you listen to Podcasts.

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Be sure to check out Heather’s blog on lifes little adventures here: HeatherOverYonder.

Heavenly Spear