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It's once again time for an installment of Craft Beer Japan, the series in which we journey to different parts of Japan to discover the delights on offer for craft beer lovers. Since the mid-1990s when the relaxation of brewing laws allowed for the emergence of regional microbreweries, craft beer has seen a surge in popularity and continues to find new fans at every tap.
For this installment, I was going to take a trip to uncover the emergent craft beer scene in the Tokyo suburb of Shimokitazawa. This effervescent neighborhood is known as one of the hippest places in the capital, celebrated as a bohemian oasis where shops run by artists and artisans are holding their own in their perennial struggle against bigger chain stores that stand ubiquitously in many other districts.
Shimokitazawa lies just west of Shibuya, and despite being reachable from here and Shinjuku in less than ten minutes by train, the area boasts more of a decidedly chilled out personality than its big (gargantuan) sisters, and has gained clout for its alternative selection of great craft beer bars that lie in close proximity to one another.
I began my day at Shimokitazawa Station and from here made the short walk through tranquil late-morning streets to the first stop on today's hit list, Ushitora. This company has two branches in the Shimokitazawa area but brews its beer well away from the Tokyo metropolis in the town of Shimotsuke, Tochigi Prefecture.
Aside from its beer, the brand is noteworthy for its business approach, for which it opened bars and created a dedicated customer base before venturing into brewing its own beer, thus turning the traditional craft beer enterprise model on its head. Today the brewery's beer is making waves in Japan's crafty scene, and this made me eager to visit Ushitora's main branch to enjoy my first taste of their offerings.
I ducked inside and soaked up the casual atmosphere of this pleasant drinking hole before ordering a pint of Ushitora's Hatopoppo Ale. I noted this pale ale to be fruity with a subtle tropical lilt in the first taste that gradually evolved into a more mature, slightly bitter flavor as it soaked through the taste buds. I'd recommend it as an introduction to Ushitora, and it certainly made for a worthy first tipple of the day.
Aside from their Hatopoppo, the bar boasted another six of their home brews on tap as well as a selection of various others. Feeling spurred on to fight the crisp wintry chill outside, I left Ushitora and made my way to the next spot of exploration.
Following a short stroll through Shimokitazawa's narrow backstreets, I arrived at Vabene. This a-la-mode Italian restaurant offers a range of carefully cooked dishes, and also maintains an exciting selection of craft beer on tap from different corners of Japan. For my well-needed lunch I ordered a set with lasagne preceded by fresh salad, both of which turned out to be seriously good.
I accompanied my mid-day eats with the restaurant's number one recommendation as a pairing with their food, Tazawako Beer's ALT. Coming all the way from Akita Prefecture, this burgundy brew was full bodied and bitter with a distinct tang. A perfect lunch stop, I recommend Vabene for those finding themselves in Shimokitazawa with an empty stomach.
Next up was something of a novelty for me, and I'd hazard a guess, for many craft beer drinkers. B&B, or Book and Beer, is an establishment tucked down in a building basement that specializes, as the name suggests, in purveying literature alongside brews. Specifically, this book shop gives patrons the option to read the books on the shelves in comfortable, beatnik surroundings, accompanied by a delicious craft beer.
The vast majority of the books are in Japanese, but for me, here was more about enjoying the peaceful atmosphere as I sipped away among the sounds of pages being rapidly leafed through and the sights of bookworms scanning the busy shelves. It is worth noting that B&B also serves a range of soft drinks, including coffee and juices.
Following my tranquil hiatus from ground level, it was time to make yet another short walk over to the place I'd been most excited to check out on this Shimokitazawa beer tour, Tap and Growler. On the way however, I stumbled upon a crowd gathered around some rather interesting-looking mikoshi (festival floats) in celebration of Setsubun.
This annual festival has a centuries-old tradition centered around chasing away evil spirits and bad luck. Today, the generally lighthearted rituals surrounding Setsubun include the throwing of roasted beans to drive demons away, whilst shouting "Oni wa sato! Fuku wa uchi!" ("Devils out Happiness in!"). It was fun to observe the festivities here, and as a small Setsubun parade began, I even managed to catch myself one of the packets of beans being strewn out by those parading. Roasted to a crunch and probably perfect to accompany beer, the tough question, naturally, was weather to throw them or devour them.
I arrived at Tap and Growler and perched on one of the dozen-or-so stools that fit snuggly into this cozy bar. Tap and Growler is among the most popular establishments that comprise the Shimokitazawa craft beer scene, and it attracts many a craft beer lover through its option to buy a growler, a large glass container which can be filled up by any of the bar's taps and mechanically sealed over and over again, to allow for some serious home supping.
In order to make an informed decision on which beer to fill my freshly purchased 64oz growler with (32oz growlers are also available), I thought it necessary to do some research and try one of the tasting sets, for which I picked three from the 18 appealing Japanese craft beers offered on tap. After some careful consideration scanning the board, I opted to sample the Fukushima Weizen, the Iwate Kura Beer Oyster Stout and Tap and Growler's own Original Beer Dry Muscat.
The three were all delicious with distinct characteristics, but ever the weizen lover, I couldn't resist the chance to have my growler filled with the brew from Fukushima. Its impressive selection of taps aside, the bar also boasts a wide selection of cans and bottles in the fridge, from Japan and also with some exciting imports too.
Darkness had now fallen over Shimokitazawa, and that could only mean one thing: it was time for more food. For dinner, I'd heard of a place that purportedly boasted a wide selection of quality craft beers in addition to delicious and excitingly uncommon dishes.
The place's name is Karinomeri, and upon sitting down and perusing the menu I decided to order a Zakkoku-kobo Weizen from Saitama Prefecture to pair with the mutton, ground beef and vegetable tortilla pizza (no, I've never eaten anything with that exact description before), and side of chicken strips. The meal was delectable and full of bold flavors, both in the food and the beer, that left me feeling satiated and raring to get onto what would be my final stop on today's adventure.
With the evening drawing on, I made my way to Kitazawa Konishi, a renowned bottle shop in these parts that boasts an impressive selection of 160 types of craft beers and cider, mostly from Japan and the United States. To compliment the beer, the place is awash with Star Wars memorabilia with a couple of retro games consoles strewn around to give the shop the feel of a 1980s arcade.
With a long, multigenerational history dealing in alcohol that goes back to the Edo Period the shop insists it is not a bar, and only allows customers to drink inside for a maximum of 30 minutes and in groups of no more than two. I walked around, scanning the fridges like a kid in a candy shop, and eventually picked out a brew by Fujizakura Heights from Yamanashi Prefecture. After enjoying 25-or so minutes of beer bliss, I exited Kitazawa Konishi and made the short walk back to the station to end a thoroughly enjoyable exploration of this most crafty of neighborhoods.
By Sam Evans, japan-guide.com