While the land of the Rising Sun may not be high on the list of Beer Cultures, they certainly have made they’re mark. Between beer vending machines and the birth of rice lagers, Japan certainly has some unique contributions to the world of beer. While I was there I sampled a variety of brews, everything from regional specialialities to global megabrands, and can now give you the 411.
Big 4 – Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi, Suntory
These four brands command an overwhelming majority of the beer market in Japan, as well as the entire bottled beverage market. Imagine that Coors and Pepsi joined forces and then Bud and Coke did the same…twice over! As a result these brands are found everywhere; in major supermarkets, liqour stores, corner grocers, vending machines, and everywhere in between. For the most part they all have very similar tastes, springing from the fact that all four are “Rice Lagers”. Asahi is known as the “driest” alluding to its crisp taste and the quick departure of its sharp aftertaste. Suntory is the least well known in the beer market, but well makes up for it by offering some of the best “chu-hais” or carbonated mixed drinks, typically sold by street vendors or in cans at any local market. Sapporo and Kirin are easily the two biggest players, and to an extent divide the country geographically. Sapporo, based out of the city of Sapporo on the northern island of Hokkaido is considered the “King of Beers” in the north. Conversely, Kirin is well regarded in and around Tokyo with their headquarters and main brewery in Yokohama. Personally, I prefered Sapporo over Kirin as it has a more robust flavor and is closer to an American Lager style than any of the others. That being said, Kirin was widely available in the Kanagawa presinct and was easily the “go-to” beverage in the region.
Shiga-Kogen Brand Beer
Hailing from the snowy town of Yudanaka in the Nagano prefecture, Tamamura Honten Brewing has been established in the region for more than eight generations. The brewery is also well known for making their “Snow Monkey” saki, named after the world famous Snow Monkey Park just up the road. Named “Japan’s Best Brewery 2010”, this meca of craft beer was one of my favorite stops on the trip. I was lucky enough to walk away with four of their tasty brews before heading back into Yokosuka; a blonde, pale ale, siason, and what I think is an IPA, were all in the mix. By far the best was the Indian Summer Saison, with a great balance of fall flavors and a nice, smooth finish. Up next was the Miyama Blonde, which was good but a little hoppy that brings with it a slight bitter aftertaste that tends to linger. Moving down the scale is the Shiga-Kogen Pale Ale that is also hoppy, but well balanced and a lighter hue than the Not So Mild Ale. Unfortunately, I’m saving the worst for last as that Not So Mild Ale certainly wasn’t mild at all with an awkward mix of flavors that left much to be desired.
After spending some time traveling, it was good to settle back into the rythmn of things outside Yokuska, and certainly finding some brews a little closer to home. Well I was in luck as almost every town in the Kanagawa region produces their own unique brews. While there were many to choose from, I ended up sticking with beers from the Kumazawa Brewing Company for most of the stay, including a lager, porter, and light ale. Like the main Japanese breweries, it is also a rice lager, bu has a more robust flavor and deeper amber, more typical of an American or European lager. Still, it did lack some staying power and could use a dash more of that hops zing. Moving along I got to try to extremes, both in color/content and in seasonality. The first is the Merry Xmas Ale, a delicious dark beer without the heavy weight that most porters and stouts have. It was real easy to drink, and still had a malty flavor unique to dark brews, certainly one of my favorites this trip. Finally, the last brew on my list is the Enoshima Summer Beer. The beer is named after the quintessential summer hangout in the Kanagawa Prefecture: Enoshima Island. This brew is light and summery, similar to the composition of most American wheat beers. It goes down easy and is perfect for a summer BBQ or to pair with a delicious fried rice dish.
So there you have it, a first hand account of some beer you may come across if you find yourself across the Pacific. Granted there are a few that didn’t make this list, but that is for another day. For now go out and taste for yourself, while some of the more regional beers may be harder to find in the states, any of the Big 4 should be available globally. Cheers!
Arriving from Kyoto, Beth and I make it into Nagano after dark with about 30 minutes to go before we connected with our rural “Snow Monkey” train to Yudanaka and our hotel. Compared to our warm and sunny trip to Hiroshima only a day before, Nagano is tucked away into the mountains and everyone is bundled up in coats and jackets to get away from the brisk night air. Starved, we familiarized ourselves with the station looking for a nice place to eat and take advantage of Japan’s love for beef bowl fast food and get two rice, beef, and onion bowls to go. Eating on the train we rambled along the tracks for what seemed like forever, but I suppose that’s what long days of travel and trains feels like at night. Finally, we reached the train’s final stop in the sleepy mountain town of Yudanaka.
We step off the train and are one of a handful of people milling around the station this late. Just as Beth and I begin to feel a bit stranded in the middle of nowhere, little Mrs. Yumoto, one of our innkeepers for the night, introduces herself as we load up her van and take a quick trip to the hotel. Despite our late check in, the Yumotos were the perfect hosts and Beth and I were privileged to end our trip with one of the nicest rooms we stayed in yet. Much like our room in Hakone, the room consisted of a entryway, tatami room with futons, a western sitting room, and a separate bathroom and shower. Since the hotel is in the heart of Japan’s best skiing, the room is perfectly designed for a ski getaway with roomy shelves in the large entryway and pegs for jackets in the large tatami room. Beth and I settled in with a quick cup of tea and quickly fell asleep excited for our tour of Yudanaka in the morning.
After a delicious, homemade Western breakfast we hopped in the van for a whirlwind tour of Yudanaka and Shibu, a pair of ski towns right at the base of Shiga-Koen. Joined by the only other patrons of the hotel, we fly by homes and businesses on our way to the Jigokudani Monkey Park. As we speed up the hill I barely catch our innkeeper/tour guide Mr. Yumoto say to check out the local beer and sake brewery (amongst all the other things to see in his small mountain town). Just as I got used to the stop and go nature of our mountain town tour, Ichiro (Mr. Yumoto) reached the trailhead for the park and dropped us of. With no more than a sign for the park pointing us in the right direction, we walk through a frosted and eerily calm forest as the sun rises above us.
Eventually we come upon the monkey park, or what we think is the monkey park anyway. The simple and soft spoken operation, we weren’t sure what to expect. Anxious, we pay our entrance and proceed in, only to spot a few monkeys near the pathway. Amazed by the casual nature and close proximity of these guys, imagine our faces when we ventured further to the monkey’s onsen. Dozens of them casually soaking, grooming, and lounging around the hot springs. Unlike a conventional zoo, this is a wildlife park, and there is no separation between the people and the monkeys. As a result the monkeys have adapted to not care about the human presence, completely ambivalent. We stare in amazement and awe over these little guys, just milling about.
Beyond the wonder of the setting, flecks of ingenuity and humanity appear in glimpses of these snow monkeys. The look on the faces of three soaking look just like that of three relaxed businessmen in a sauna. The way they walk around, groom, and interacte with each other has brief flashes of humanity. After taking dozens of photos in the morning cold, Beth and I head out. Despite the desire to stay and watch these little snow monkeys all day, we’ve got places to see and do before the day is done. By now the sun is up and the chilly morning is changing over to a crisp autumn day in the Japanese high county.
We meander back to the road and down into town, passing elaborate vacation homes and ski getaways. After getting momentarily lost find the Tamamura Honten Brewery and sake museum. It’s an odd situation as the shop seems entirely open, but after entering we find no one around to inquire to sample sake or their local brew. After milling about for 10 minutes or so, someone eventually joins us, and unfortunately they are not doing their sake sample tasting today. No matter, we buy a few locally made “Snow Monkey” sakes and a sampler 4-pack of the Tamamura Honten beer and head into town for lunch.
Making it down the hill we are surprised to find everything seems shuttered up for the day, ridiculous considering it’s only 1pm. Most shops are darkened without people, with only a handful of souvenier and grocery shops open throughout all the town. So without finding some place for lunch, we continue our walk, poking our head into some of the famous Shibu Onsens. Nine in all, each is said to impart a certain benefit, such as good luck or health, to those who bathe in them. So without lunch, but after seeing 7 out of 9 special onsens, we make it back to the hotel to check out and grab a train back to Nagano, and then to Tokyo, finally making it back home to Higashi-Zushi. With warm regards and thanks for our stay, we grabbed a quick photo with our wonderful innkeeper Ichiro and headed, bags and all, to the train.
A lazy Tuesday afternoon, we were only two of four people for our train at the Yudanaka Station and snagged the front seats of our train with a ritred couple from New Zealand. Settling our stomachs with some mini mart food we got to experience a rural train ride through Japan’s fertile mountain valleys like never before. Apple orchards, agricultural fields, and rolling mountains spread out in front of us as we made our way back to Nagano. Once we arrived we had a short layover before catching our last bullet train of the trip. Settling in for the ride home Beth and I napped, snacked, and read our way back home.
All in all it has been an amazing trip, one I couldn’t think be possible to do in 9 days. We saw everything from gorgeous temples in Kyoto to the bustling nightlife in Rippongi. We marveled over Snow Monkeys outside Nagano and were moved by the International Peace Memorial and Museum in Hiroshima. We relaxed and took in the beauty of Hakone as well as the hustle and bustle of Tsukiji Fish Market in Tokyo. I’ve learned to appreciate the modern, the natural, the elaborate, and the simple in Japan. I’ve learned that you shouldn’t rely on plans, but should always set out with a purpose. But most importantly, I know that I won’t find a better travel buddy and friend than Beth, and without her this trip wouldn’t have been possible. Thank you all for following along and I hope you enjoyed this trip as much as I did, but certainly stay tuned as I’m sure this won’t be the last time I travel to the Land of the Rising Sun…