By Marc Milsten and Brandon Shaw
Summer is finally here, and in Japan that means unbearable humidity, fantastic festivals, beautiful yukatas, and relaxing trips to the local beach. But wait! There’s more! Often understated but never overlooked is another wonderful and popular tradition which makes its appearance between Golden Week and September… the Japanese beer garden. Slightly different from beer gardens found in most other parts of the world, the Japanese version operates as follows: a small fee (approximately 3000 yen for men and a little less for the ladies) gets you a ticket into a big, communal party that is both a tabehodai and nomihodai. Located on the roof terrace of a department store or hotel near you, the beer garden party is an open air, 3-4 hour Japanese-style alcohol buffet.
Prior to writing this article, Marc and Brandon set off to do some important “research” at one of the local beer gardens in Kure. Atop Sogo Department Store, the Sogo Beer Garden shares the top floor with a small, somewhat dilapidated children’s amusement park. Since it was still relatively early in the beer garden season – perhaps a little too early for a complete evaluation – the seats were slow to fill at first but as the sun set, the Sogo Beer Garden began to draw a lot of families along with the typical Friday evening salary-man crowd. Bizarrely, the beer garden was decked out like a Halloween-themed restaurant, replete with monsters and other such ghouls to ward off any trouble that might occur. Perhaps the management are low on funding for security staff this year.
The food menu consisted of typical Japanese style home-cooking — gyouza, ramen, yakitori, weird Japanese salads, fried noodles, edamame and more. Some beer gardens also offer yakiniku options at an increased price. Despite the wide range of food on offer, the quality was predictably average – sometimes good, but often a little cold. This beer garden’s main draw was the staggering 4 types of beer on tap: Asahi Super Dry, Asahi Black, Kirin, and Suntory Malts. (Most beer gardens don’t offer quite such a selection.) Also available were two types of wine (flavored “red” and “white”), self-pour taps of popular flavored shochus to make various chu-hi mixed drinks, and non-alcoholic slushie machines. In case you are wondering, the initial results of shochu-slushies proved to be better on paper than in practice, but we highly encourage — and my well take partake in — further research.
As the alcohol began to settle into the crowd, the atmosphere grew a bit more rowdy. By the last hour the whole restaurant lost any semblance of its earlier rigid formality and had reduced into one huge communal, drunken party. Temporarily free of their sober inhibitions, people started talking with new friends at other tables and sharing the garden’s Halloween masks. There are even rumors of Brandon having crashed a formal speech on stage, taking the opportunity to bellow “I love Japan!” to the bewildered but delighted audience while giving free hugs to everyone.
All things considered, Kure’s Sogo Beer Garden proved to be a great beginning to an epic night on the town. If you are looking for a place to start your own epic we recommend the following places to maximize your summer fun:
Lotz Beer Garden in Fukuyama – great food in addition to the beer
Crail Brewery/Beer Garden in Kure – perhaps the best beer in Hiroshima-ken, brewed on-site
Hotel Granvia Beer Garden in Hiroshima next to Hiroshima Station – great views and an upscale atmosphere
DeoDeo Beer Garden in Hiroshima – perfect for the “typical” beer garden experience
Mitsukoshi Beer Garden in Hiroshima – boasts an unusually large food selection.
All are great opportunities to meet new friends and enjoy the wonderful Japanese summer.
Go ahead… we bet you can’t visit just one.