Perhaps this post should be titled “Beery Thoughts ABOUT Japan”, as I'm home now and think I’ve just about recovered from my lengthy journey back from the Far East, to comment on my recent trip. I will begin by saying that it was a fantastic experience and almost like something out of another world. Familiar in parts, yet almost totally alien in others, my visit to Japan must surely rank amongst the best experiences of my life.
The first thing which struck my colleague and I as we journeyed by train from Kansai Airport, through the vast urban sprawl that makes up Osaka, towards our final destination, Kyoto, was how clean everything was. We saw no buildings disfigured by the ugly scrawls of graffiti that despoil so many European and North American cities; neither did we see, once having alighted from the train, any litter. Everything was clean, tidy and well ordered. The people were calm and polite, with none of the pushing and shoving one witnesses in towns and cities in the UK. The trains, of course, were spotlessly clean and ran exactly to time, and our centrally located hotel was the height of sophistication.
For most of our time in Kyoto, we were looked after by people from our parent company When I say “looked after” we were very well looked after, as the Japanese are fantastic hosts, who are proud to show their country off to foreign visitors, and with good reason as they have much to be proud of. We spent three very full days engaged in meetings, fact-finding tours and various other discussions at head office, and in the evenings our hosts took us out to dinner. We visited a variety of different restaurants, ranging from modern Japan meets South East Asia fusion type places, to a traditional Japanese establishment, where we had to leave our shoes downstairs and sit on cushions on the floor at a long, low table facing our hosts. I won’t pretend the cuisine was my favourite, but I tried virtually everything that was placed in front of me, although I did baulk at the raw octopus!
Whilst there might be considerable differences between the palates and preferences of Japanese and Europeans, one thing we do have in common is an appreciation of good beer. Everywhere we went, beer seems to be the preferred drink, and is enjoyed by men and women alike. I don’t know much about the history, or indeed tradition of brewing in Japan (although I expect Tim Webb and Stephen Beaumont's World Atlas of Beer will have something to say on the matter, once I get round to looking it up), but there appears to be a strong German influence on the type and styles of beer drunk there. This was manifested in an establishment we visited on our last two evenings in Japan; Kyoto’s Beer Restaurant.
Unashamedly styled on a Bavarian Beer Hall, the Beer Restaurant is sited in the basement of a tower block, just outside Kyoto’s sprawling central; station. As well as serving locally brewed Asahi, one of Japan’s best known brands, the Beer Restaurant also offered draught Löwenbräu, bottled Export Bass plus a couple of bottled Belgian beers whose names escape me. I opted for the Asahi Kuronama, described as Japan’s favourite dark beer. Brewed from three types of roasted malt:-Dark, Crystal and Munich malt, the blend of these three types of malt maximises the goodness of each and creates the distinct richness and smoothness of the beer. I have to say it really was very good, and served in three sizes – small, medium and large I ended up over-indulging on our first visit there, consuming three "medium" sized mugs of this excellent beer. Fortunately the following day was our final one in the country, and was reserved for sight-seeing rather than business.
This particular visit was our first evening without our Japanese hosts, which was the prime reason for our choosing a European style restaurant, rather than a more locally themed one; and the following evening we returned there again, having been joined by a more senior colleague who had just flown in from England. This latter individual is a seasoned visitor to Japan and after a meal in the Beer Restaurant he suggested we move on to a bar housed in the maze of shops and commercial outlets below Kyoto station. The Man in the Moon Pub is themed as an Irish bar, and whilst it does serve Guinness, it also has a number of more locally brewed beers. The first of these beers, Yona Yona Ale was presented in a can, and is one of a range of beers brewed by Yoho Brewing based in the small town of Karuizawa, near Nagano. The company promotes itself as producing Japan's best selling craft beers, and their portfolio includes an IPA, a Black Porter and an Organic Ale.
The Yona Yona was very good and I was all set to order another, when my colleague spotted a row of interesting looking bottles arranged on a shelf above the bar. They had English labels, and included an IPA, a Pale Ale, a Pilsner and an Imperial Stout. Enquiries revealed they were from Minoh Brewery, based in nearby Osaka, but unfortunately the bar only had the Pale Ale left. Two of us gave the beer a try. It was bottle-conditioned, but the bar staff were not aware of this, so we ended up with a cloudy glass of beer. Despite this, it was rather good with a strong citrus flavour from the Cascade hops used to brew it. I wisely made that my last drink though, as we had an early departure the following morning. Nevertheless, after a week on the “regular stuff” it was good to sample some Japanese Craft Beer.
So what of the “regular stuff”? Well, again I have to report that this too was pretty good, and with 30 degrees of heat to contend with outside, provided some welcome and cooling liquid refreshment. Of the big Japanese brands we sampled Asahi’s best known brand – Extra Dry, sold in large (600ml?) bottles and tasting considerably better than the UK version, which is brewed under licence by Shepherd Neame. We also sampled beers from Kirin, Suntory and Yebisu. All are pilsner style beers, and served in substantial tapered glass mugs. From memory, the Suntory and Yebisu beers stood out above the Kirin, although I later found out that Yebisu beers are produced by Japanese brewing giant Sapporo, and are positioned as the the company's "Premium Brand".
Finally, a word or two about takeaway beer. In Japan it seems the can is very much king, with precious little beer sold in bottles. Living on a crowded island, the Japanese are very keen on environmental issues and claim that because cans are lighter and easier to transport, and also easier to collect and recycle, beer packaged in this fashion is the way to go. I brought a few cans back with me to try, and also to see how they would survive the long flight home, (ok as it happens). There’s nothing that exciting amongst them, but they are something to wet my whistle at the weekend, and also something to remind me of a fantastic trip to the Land of the Rising Sun.