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It's been a while since we brought you the last Craft Beer Japan report, during which I spent the day in a state of beery bliss sipping my way around the country at the Keyaki Beer Festival at Saitama Super Arena. A tremendously exciting event and a hard act to follow, I was forced to spend a while ruminating on the destination of my next report; intent, as always, on making it somewhere special.
Enter Shibuya, a district of Tokyo that stands as a real jewel in the crown of the capital. This special ward, that along with 22 others makes up Japan's largest metropolis, is a world unto itself; recognizable as a dizzying morass of streets lined with shops and eateries the sheer volume of which rivals anywhere in the country. Not limited to the area surrounding Shibuya Station, the district also contains Harajuku and the enclave of streets snaking off from Omotesando Boulevard, making it a must for any visitors to Tokyo.
It is here then I embarked on my latest beer adventure, eager as ever to explore the nooks and crannies and report on some of this area's craft beer hot spots, of which, may I add, there are enough to keep one bevvied for a lifetime.
I arrived at Shibuya Station late on a Sunday morning in mid-January and made the short walk to Far Yeast Beer And Bao on the east side of the neighborhood. A relatively new addition to the cafe-lined avenues of this more tranquil section of Shibuya, the bar came recommended from close friends as well as Moe Murata-san of Far Yeast, who, for those that remember, informed me of it upon our memorable meeting at the Keiyaki Festival last year.
I ducked inside out of the chill of the morning and perched at one of the tables. As usual I wanted to start off light so, after perfunctorily scanning the menu for a few minutes until the clock struck twelve and I could avoid the label of morning boozer, I ordered a glass of their Tokyo White Ale which went down a treat. A late-morning snack was also in order to line my stomach for what lay ahead, so I ordered their Sawarakatsu Avocado Taru Taru; a deep fried fish in batter lovingly adorned with salad and avocado and all wrapped in a soft Chinese bun. Delicious and excellent value at 750 yen, I left feeling confident I'd started the day right.
With a full stomach and a spring in my step, I made my way from the still streets of eastern Shibuya towards the west side, where I was expectantly engulfed in the crowds around the station. Taking in some of the area's iconic sights along the way I eventually slipped down a mellow backstreet and arrived at my next intended target of exploration, OL by Oslo Brewing. The brewery itself was established in Oslo in 2015 with the Shibuya bar opening not long after to deliver delicious Norwegian beer to the thirsty Japanese capital.
The inside of the bar is predominantly of light wood, lending to a minimalist motif that is intended to resemble an Norwegian living room. Interestingly however, the ceiling is traditional Japanese-style to create a beautiful contrast that bridges the gap between the two beer-loving nations. As for the selection, the taps pour five Norwegian house brews with an additional dozen-or-so taps dedicated to guest beers also from Norway as well as Japan and elsewhere.
Being a Japanese beer devotee and having sampled more than my fare share of Norwegian beer here on previous visits, I opted for Neko Nihiki IPA, a collaboration brew in part by Ise Kadoya Brewery from Mie Prefecture. I'm delighted to report that the cloudy brew was soft yet satisfyingly flavorsome.
Before leaving, there was a short lull in activity during which I got a chance to chat with Momoyo-san, the staff member in charge of the pumps for the afternoon. She kindly imparted on me the ethos of the bar and Oslow brewing:
"Our aim is to make this place relaxing and with Norwegian flavor; just like the beer. We believe that people don't just want a bar, they want a space to have experiences, and that's what we provide here at OL."
And her words certainly ring true, as the bar frequently hosts live music including performances by Norwegian musicians, and a rotating exhibition of art on the walls for good measure.
From OL, I made my way north to Harajuku and to PDX, another taproom with an international twist. This bar specializes in beer from Portland in the US, a city revered as among the world's premier craft beer locations due to its large number of bars and breweries relative to the population. True to the form of the Pacific North West, PDX adopts a laid-back atmosphere perfect for sinking a mid-afternoon beer. I chose to nurse the Baerlic Cavalier, a cream ale which interestingly had the refined tanginess of many a British beer and took me back to bygone supping sessions in my old local.
I exited PDX Taproom to be met by the final rays of the feeble January sun, which was hanging low in the sky and casting long shadows over Harajuku's astir alleys. Three beers in, I thought it wise to eat before continuing the day's quest, and I'd heard of a place located just a couple of twists and turns away that reportedly served excellent craft beer and food.
Smokehouse is situated on Harajuku's bustling Cat Street and offers smoky barbecue cuisine to be washed down with a solid lineup of house brews. I ordered (and then devoured) a delectably decadent cheeseburger and washed it down with the brewery's Strawberry Ale which turned out to be just lovely with a pronounced sweetness in the aftertaste. Following the beer I got chatting to the manager, Riku Sakurai-san, who told me more about the restaurant and the beer behind it:
"Our mission is to provide excellent craft beer and excellent food to go along with it. Everything here is hand crafted, from the beer, to the food, even the tables; and we want to create an atmospheric experience for everyone that comes through the door." An experience it certainly was, and with a stomach full of succulent meat and delectable beer I made my way further into Harajuku towards the next stop on the day's Tokyo beer tour.
The meandering backstreets of Ura Harajuku (Back Harajuku) led me to Design Festa Gallery, a quirky complex that provides budding artists the chance to showcase their art without having to pay commission fees. What's more, the place also boasts a bar-cafe with quality craft beer. After making my way through the labyrinth of galleries and perusing the art with my not-so-discerning eye, I came to rest at the bar where I chose a bottle of Ishikawa Brewery's Tokyo Blues Golden Ale from their selection.
It was time to head on to Baird Beer Taproom, which can be reached from Design Festa in a short walk via Harajuku's Takeshita Street. Baird Beer, which is headquartered in Shizuoka Prefecture, was established in the early 2000s and since then has grown to be one of the most recognized names in Japanese craft beer. The company runs multiple taprooms throughout Tokyo and beyond, each with its own theme.
The Harajuku branch is styled like a Japanese izakaya, and accordingly serves an array of Japanese of traditional foods including gyoza and yakitori alongside a lineup of signature brews. I sampled their Shimaguni Stout and found it to be robust and filling, and just what the doctor ordered on this chilly winters evening.
The night was now drawing to a close but there was still time for one last stop on the day's tipple tour. From Baird Beer Bar, I strolled south to Omotesando and then east to Commune 246. This bohemian bazaar hosts an array of small bars and eateries that visitors can purchase from and then sit in the communal area while indulging, hence the name. Admittedly, I took liberties in including this hipster paradise as it lies in Aoyama, technically in Minato-ku, but only around 200 meters from the Shibuya-ku border and a worthy inclusion nonetheless.
My main reason for visiting Commune 246 on this occasion was to investigate Beer Brain, a featured bar put together by a group of beer-loving Tokyoites. The building that houses the bar resembles a shed, with enough room for about ten patrons. I chose from their selection of signature brews and relaxed in the inner area of commune, which come winter is covered and heated to a snug temperature.
Following this last beer it was time to call it a night, so I reluctantly made my way back to the electric streets of Shibuya via the Ginza Line.
The Craft Beer Japan series by japan-guide.com aims to uncover Japan's diverse craft beer scene, from the bustling metropolises to the quaint countryside. We invite you to follow along as we explore this wonderful country one beer at a time.
By Sam Evans, japan-guide.com