Getting to Hokkaido is something most continental Japanese people don’t even consider doing. “Oh, maybe one day”, they say. Its freezing winter temperatures, vast wilderness areas and many lacklustre outpost towns are indeed not the blast to your senses and cultural displacement the rest of mainland Japan offers to foreigners. For a Canadian, the large agricultural areas, snow-capped heights, and many fishing villages will surely not disconnect you from your reality either. But there are vistas and delicacies here which you won’t find anywhere on Honshu, so the trip is definitely worth it, if not just to get away from the endless urban sprawl which seems to permeate the country’s main island. Aaaaah, the fresh air of Hokkaido. Its twitching seafood markets. Its cool mountainous peaks. Its many ji-biru breweries. It’s asparagus ice cream...
If you think Hokkaido is too far out, or too expensive a detour, fear not. When taking advantage of the Japan Rail Pass to tour the country (which I highly recommend), you can actually get there for free, and save the cost of a night at the hotel on top of it! Just make sure you can hop on to the following rail sequence: A shinkansen (bullet train) leaves Tokyo for Hachinohe around 6pm, arriving in Hachinohe at 9pm. Then, 20 minutes later, a train leaves for Aomori, arriving at around 10:20pm. Finally, take the 10:45pm train bound for Sapporo. You will have to sleep in your seats on the train, but you will reach Sapporo the next morning around 6am without having had to pay over 200$-300$ per person for the trip north. For specific schedules, please go to <a hrefhttp://www.hyperdia.com/cgi-english/hyperWeb.cgi>http://www.hyperdia.com/cgi-english/hyperWeb.cgi.
Even if Hokkaido is seen as a remote area by most Japanese people, it still holds a few million citizens of its own, and moreover, quite a few ji-biru breweries as well. So most of your destinations on the island should encounter a few fine pints, or at the very least, a new brewery visit. Let’s start out in Sapporo:
Sapporo is actually laid out in a grid pattern, so no need to look for landmarks or ask for help when going to a specific address. The joy! This brewpub though, Susukino Ji-Beer, could go unnoticed even if you were standing right in front of it. Once you are at South 6 West 4, look for the dark hangar-like building with no windows and a single wooden door. Even if you read Japanese, there is no way for you to tell that there is a brewery hiding in this building, but trust me; there is one:
This place is mostly a restaurant, and only advertises itself as so. The usual meal here consists of Hokkaido specialty meats, seafood, fish and vegetables which you cook on your table’s grill, intimately separated from other booths by dark wooden walls. Susukino Ji-Beer serve two of their own beers here, a Pilsener, which they also can, and a Märzen. Both are 470 yen for a mug of 400 millilitres. The Pilsener is a straightforward and chewy quencher which superbly demonstrates the relaxing power of bready pils malt. Honey drips onto the hay and cereals and supporting wooden, grassy hops provide just enough spice for you to crave more. It is not nearly as good from the can, but on tap at the restaurant, it is nothing short of massively satisfying. The Märzen also showcases this brewer’s proclivity for well-extracted maltiness, as nutritious toasted bread is laced by caramel. Hops don’t do more than balance out the malts here, and I personally did not mind at all. This Märzen’s a year-round serving at Susukino’s, and entirely deserves so.
The food and beer at Susukino Ji-Beer are both highly recommendable and make this restaurant a must visit for any craft beer lover in Sapporo. Yes, there is more than the ubiquitous macrobrewery in this bustling city.
Okay, so this place isn’t really a ji-biru brewery. It isn’t a ji-biru bar either. Yet, Phred Kaufman is a legend in ji-biru circles so I had to include his beer bar, one of the first of its kind in the entire country. They do have some exclusive beers brewed for them by Rogue, but most of them are relabels. The one I had which wasn’t a relabel was the Chitose Hascup Ale. This Golden Ale’s overt, tart fruitiness spanned from pickled plums to wild blueberries as its cereal sweetness formed a firm base near caramel levels. This was far from Rogue’s finest, but it remained an enjoyable, eccentric Fruit Beer.
If, for some reason, you are tired of ji-biru, you will be happy to see that the fridges at Mugishutei are filled with American microbrewed treats. Indeed, products from Alesmith, Hair of the Dog, Stone, Avery, Bear Republic, Sierra Nevada, and Moylan’s are available, alongside Samichlaus vintages 1992 and 1995, Chouffe beers, obscure Belgians such as Swaf, Autruche, and a 2003 Prize Old Ale relabelled for Japan. More than enough for your hop cravings, I must say. The only shadow in this cluttered basement dwelling is the steep “charm charge”, or entry fee, of 900 yen per person which gets tagged on to your bill. Thankfully, this tax can be easily waived if you simply mention that you’ve seen their website.
<U>An easy way to get there</u>: This is still Sapporo, remember? Just get to S9 W5, and walk around the block. You’ll eventually see this:
A few kilometres away from Sapporo, easily accessible by train and small enough to cover by foot, is the town of Otaru.
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It is renowned for its charming century-old brick warehouses reflecting in the still canal, its numerous glass factories and stores reflecting their glamorous colours into the eyes of strolling consumers and its...eclectic ice cream varieties. Yeah, eclectic. Summer in Japan can be excruciatingly hot and humid, even on Hokkaido, so we indulged in these funky flavors whenever we had the chance on the island. But we unexpectedly found our frozen jackpot in Otaru. Here alone, we had cones filled with ice cream flavors such as squid ink, sea urchin, pumpkin, cheese, green tea, black beans, strong milk, yubari melon, asparagus, corn, and rose. Most were surprisingly palatable and some were even very pleasurable. I admit though that the asparagus variety walked the fine line between “refreshing” and "what the hell is that in my mouth". Mmmm, frozen asparagus chunks. Not that the corn-flavored ice cream was any better...
Otaru happens to have 2 microbreweries as well (to wash down all that ice cream, of course), and both of them have their own restaurants in town which serve their beers on tap.
Otaru Beer at Soko No.1
Otaru Beer is an excellent German-style brewery which puts out a classic style lineup: pils, dunkel, and weiss. At Soko No.1, the brewery restaurant, you should have the chance to get a fourth beer, a seasonal which isn’t bottled. Here, the elegant-if-not-a-little-tacky enchanted forest setting soothes patrons with flute music, intricate lighting fixtures, and elaborate fare such as seafood-topped fried noodles, and mother-and-daughter raw fish combos (salmon and salmon roe) on rice. Rather large tasting sets of their tap beer are available, and looked like they contained about 200ml of each beer. If you want to indulge in these high-quality creations, and you should, 300ml glasses are 609 yen, and pints are 819 yen.
Their Pilsener boasts a refreshing hop fan which displays spicy, citrusy herbs to freshen the hefty, crunchy straw. A gorgeous body with slender curves and an intriguing perfume...pleasure-filled nights ahead. The summer seasonal this year was a Rauchbier, called Firecorn. This wealthy, soothing quencher granted chewy toastiness and some banana sweetness to deepen its dry, wooden, smoked maltiness. Another fine example of this brewer’s talent. The Dunkel had a cracking roastiness which developed within the cherry-like fruitiness of an otherwise, dry and toasty pint. The Weiss on the other hand was ripe with fruity esters, proffering plump bananas onto comforting wheaty cereals. All four were flawless within their own styles and could not be objectively criticized. This kind of quality is as satisfying as it is reassuring.
<U>An easy way to get there</U>: From the train station, walk straight down on the main street in front of you towards the Otaru Canal. Once at the canal, cross the little bridge and turn right onto the first street. You should see the restaurant’s façade not too far away:
This Italian-style restaurant is located in an old bank building not too far from the canal, and thus a very easy stroll from Soko No.1. Here you can get beer from the Otaru Winery, on tap and in bottles. These beers are available bottled in many stores across town, but of course we had to try them on tap first. 5 kinds are bottled: Helles, Märzen, Weiss, white grape and black grape (they are a winery, after all). They also bottle 2 Tenshi no Shizuku, mixes of wine and beer, called Niagara White and Zweigeitrebe Roze. We skipped a meal here because we weren’t in Japan to have anything other than Japanese fare, so we went straight for the brews. The Helles had whispering toasted cereals and spritzy carbonation which were spiced with just enough citrusy, grassy hops to balance everything out. Nothing wrong with this one save for the fact that its flavor profile was desperately polite, even for the style. So we then went for the Pilsener, hoping for a little more bite. This cleanly-brewed example provided crisp hay and subtle grassy, citrusy hoppiness to ultimately appease a growing thirst, but did not have the zip and nourishment offered by the other brewery a few blocks from here. Oh well. More room for sea urchin ice cream!
<U>An easy way to get there</u>:
From Otaru station, do not go straight down the street in front of you, but rather turn right upon exiting and turn left onto the next perpendicular street. Walk down a couple of blocks and you will see this building: