Moving out of the greater Sapporo area, we now head towards the very center of Hokkaido, namely Asahikawa (reportedly the coldest city in the country) and Furano, a ski resort town surrounding a few scenic lavender fields. We know that our trip is coming to an end, but there are a few days of revelry and relaxation left. Train attendants are still ceremoniously bowing every time they enter or leave a wagon, and lullaby-like chimes grace nearly every bus, busy street corner or store, so we’re still entranced by the Japanese aura. Hopefully this series of articles will have given you the desire to visit Japan and taught you that you will not, as the passionate craft beer lover you are, have to resort to drinking Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo or Suntory beers wherever you are. With careful planning, you are bound to encounter a few of the 200 or so ji-biru breweries on your adventures.
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So take your shoes off, put your slippers on, but don’t forget to take them off again if you are reading in your favourite living area. When your accompanying brew incites you to visit the loo, put your slippers back on, but please take them off before you enter the bathroom and change them for the designated toilet slippers. Once done, take the bathroom slippers off, put your house slippers back on, walk back to your cosiest of chairs, but take the slippers off before you enter the room! You’re in Japan, for goodness’ sake.
This jazzy restaurant and microbrewery accommodates large groups on the first floor while its 2nd floor harbors a few grill tables, a popular dining option in the region. The food menu is teeming with local ingredients, so you can tell your significant other you are not only coming to Taisetsu for the ji-biru! The marinated Ohkotsk scallops are a great way to begin a meal here as you sample through the brewery’s liquid wares; they had 5 when we visited, which all seem to be year-round productions.
Bihaku was a well-structured Weizen bound to satisfy the thirsty, fruit-loving beer drinker, but which might bore the connoisseurs after a few gulps. Its doughy yeast and welcoming banana esters were still clearly defined and a fine accompaniment to most of the meals we tried here.
Keller Piruka was an ordinary Amber Ale which again catered to the masses with its frail caramel maltiness, subtly doughy yeast, and shadowy wooden hop ending. Nothing wrong here, but nothing exciting either for those looking for a memorable pint.
Kurodake, named after a nearby mountain, is perhaps Taisetsu’s crowning achievement. Plentiful blackberries burst within the creamy roastiness of a Stout, creating a united flavor profile which leads to coffee bean and leafy hop bitterness. A deceptively smooth hybrid of a strong ale which boasted more complexity than any other beer there that day.
In their house Pilsener, thin milky grain led to a dry, crisp finish where mild wooden hops failed to seduce. This was a clean but inherently boring Pilsener for the masses. Finally, Yusuzumi was a watery lager which did possess a few pale fruit notes for the flavor seeker, but there were barely any cereals to be found, and of course hops were absent. This beer-flavored water cannot be the brewer’s favourite creation. If time in Asahikawa is an issue for you, you might be better off visiting the city’s masterful sake breweries, such as Otokoyama or Takasago.
<U>An easy way to get there:</U>
Take a right once out of Asahikawa station and follow this street until you see this partially-hidden building:
Furano, called Hokkaido’s navel town, is surrounded by vast fields and distant mountains. Colorful schemes abound during summertime, and everyone wants to see the blooming lavender fields. Tomita Farm is the best place for that and is just outside the town of Furano itself. You may even see it from the train coming into town from Asahikawa. There you can get lavender to your heart’s and eyes’ content. Surrounded by lavender fields, you can indeed indulge in soft-serve lavender ice cream, lavender soda, lavender cream puffs, and many other sweet treats you’d never think of having all in the same afternoon.
Yama no Dokuson is a restaurant situated in the Kitanomine ski area not too far away where most Furano hotels and restaurants are located. This 3-storey chalet-type building houses a charming restaurant on the third floor and a tiny microbrewery, operating out of the first floor and basement. They brew two beers here, a Pilsener and a Dunkel; both are 450 yen a glass, but you can also leave with bottles. You will see them in the gift shop as you come in, before you head up to your table. Do not miss the delectable homemade miso bacon strips. The thought of them still has me salivating...
Their Ki Pilsener was an easily-downed example which served its main purpose efficiently, but its polite herbal, spicy hops and watery passages didn’t do much more than quench. A crisper maltiness would’ve taken it much further, but this remained a decent pint. Their Yami Dark was a sustaining and drinkable Dunkel in which raisiny fruitiness sweetened the roasted malts only to see themselves balanced out by careful herbal hops. This is undoubtedly a nice introductory beer for those with dark beer phobia.
<U>An easy way to get there:</U>
If you are not much of a walker, there are many buses going through town which will take you from Furano station to the Kitanomine ski area. Otherwise it’s a 30-minute walk from the station with a slight uphill climb for the last 7-8 minutes. Once in the Kitanomine area, locate the huge Bell Hills hotel, which should be on your right coming from the bridge. Turn right on the street before the hotel, and at the end of this street, on your left, will be this chalet-type structure with the Yama no Dokuson sign (in Japanese only). A beer fridge in the first floor’s right window should be easy to spot. Camera troubles prevent me from giving you a visual of this ji-biru lair, so here are more Tomita Farm flowers. I know my wife never got tired of them:
This place epitomizes the phrase “taking one for the team”. Yes, the breathtaking terrace view overlooking the mountainous peaks of Daisetsuzan and flower fields was quite soothing. The homemade gelato was very good, though I wouldn’t call it authentic. No asparagus or corn flavors either, so that was a relief. But those foam-topped beers in their brochure were surely fake. They must have been...
Once you reach Kamifurano Beer, and figure out that the kitsch painted façade is actually there to draw people in (a mesmerizing thought), you walk out back and find this oddest of brewpubs. You have to place an order for your beer through a self-serve machine (just like you do in many cafeteria-style restaurants throughout the country) and head for the counter with your ticket. If you only want bottles, they are available at the gift shop in 330ml and 500ml sizes. But brewery-fresh tap beer is usually more rewarding, right? Well, this restaurant/brewpub cafeteria closes at 5pm or 6pm during summer, so getting there early is important. You should find a selection of 4 of their offerings: Dark, Blond, Light and, you guessed it, Hungarian Extra Light.
This Hungarian Extra Light was their easiest full glass to down. We had walked in the blistering sun for a while though, so that may have helped. Bare cereal sweetness and citrusy wheat character were about all that were produced for the taster in this one. The
Light was an unequivocally boring, yet clean, watery Weizen in which feeble citrus fruitiness and meshed-in cereals attempted to quench. The Blond was less engaging. A direct caramel hit wandered into wet French toast territory, as distraught herbal hops retired to a faraway asylum. This was way too sweet for quenching purposes, and dreadfully linear for tasting ventures. The Dark was another mess. Still honey puddles and earth-covered yesterday’s roast scented this lazy, muddled concoction. Forgotten vinous tartness tiptoed on by, lost and confused. Oh well, at least there was the view:
This place is not only disappointing; it’s off the beaten path too. The easiest way to get there would be to take a cab from your hotel or call one from Bibaushi station (not Kamifurano station, oddly enough). Otherwise, this is a 30-minute walk from Bibaushi Station along a busy country road with no real sidewalk. I wouldn’t recommend it, so I won’t go into details on how to get there by foot. I felt like we were going to cause an accident every 30 seconds or so...Eventually, you will reach this architectural wonder. Yes, this is all painted; there are no real windows, doors, frames, etc.:
Fresh from this ummmm...invigorating experience, we now head for the southern tip of Hokkaido to the Hakodate area where 2 other microbreweries await us. We didn’t need a reason to visit another onsen (those natural spas), so off we went to bathe with another bunch of naked Japanese elders. Lullabies tinkled everywhere of course, in and out of the bath area. Brain numbing guaranteed. This time, cooling down on a bench just outside the onsen walls, idly listening to a chiming bell version of Pachelbel’s Canons in the warm breeze, I watched as an agonizing scarab got put to death by a few army ants. Delightfully evil.
When atop Mt.Hakodate at night, with the city lights scintillating like a massive hourglass filled with fireflies (Tsugaru Strait and Hakodate Bay creating this unusual curvy effect on both sides of the city), one can see Hakodate Beer near the train station. It’s that subtle of a building. This brewery is situated in a giant 2-floor brick complex near the city’s many seafood markets. With shows in the evening, microphone-wearing waitresses and fresh seafood aplenty, it is geared towards families and partygoers alike. Quite commercial, they have their name and logo on practically everything in the building and the evening lighting is definitely reminiscent of a casino’s. Enough to worry the discerning craft beer taster.
Their beers were all well crafted though and solid accompaniments for the meals we had. The language habits of their volubile and non-denominational malty “Ale” proposed a pleasant interplay of toasted earth and fruity caramel. Their serviceable Altbier provided polite peachy caramel to play with a few wooden hops, in a clean and drinkable example. Their Kölsch had herbal hops to pleasure you from nose to aftertaste, and crisp hay added a little crunch to this otherwise slender quaffer. This was yet another unfiltered Japanese Kölsch that worked quite well.
One which was only available in the bottle was their “Shacho No Yoku Nomu Biiru”. If you prefer, “The Beer the President Often Drinks”. How’s that for trying to sound important? French toast whiffs and diluted caramel whipped up a portly body where alcohol generously flowed. This Barley Wine with Malt Liquor leanings remained classy enough to warrant serious sipping, but its lack of depth and worrisome future were soon revealed. This could not be an allegory for any presidency, right?
Finally, their Weizen was a jazzy, citrusy, spicy Weizen within which grassy blades saluted fresh banana esters in a relentless cereal wind. A fine pint to study or savor, no doubt. All in all, we learned to not trust the brightly-lit exterior at Hakodate Beer. There was quite pleasant beer within this loudest of architectural settings.
<U>An easy way to get there:</U>
Just out of Hakodate station (don’t cross the parking lot), locate the street on your right towards the morning market. Walking along this street, you should pass by numerous gigantic crabs and countless squids, dried, raw, swimming, pleading. Grab a 50$ musk melon too if you feel crazy. 500 meters from the morning market, along the same street, you will encounter this building:
Onuma Koen is a quasi-national park (yes, that’s the official terminology) just north of Hakodate. There, you can boat through hundreds of small islands, hike up Mt. Komagatake, and meander through and around lily-filled ponds. Amazingly enough, this park is right next to a microbrewery. Or is it the other way around?
Brauhaus Onuma has a large tasting room which allows you to watch tanks and fermenters bubbling away behind a long, wooden bar. The only food available the day we visited was some soft bready dumplings filled with cheese. This place is rather different from the typical ji-biru brewery restaurant in that people don’t come here for a meal or to spend the evening. This is a tasting room and nothing more. The main draw for us was that they had their 3 beers on tap here; otherwise, you’d have to buy bottles or cans in Hakodate or in shops around Onuma park. All 3 beers were 525 yen a glass, even the 8% abv IPA. Yes, there is an 8% IPA brewed on Hokkaido.
Their sessionables are the usual combo of Kölsch and Alt. Their unfiltered Kölsch’s fresh cereals and citrusy fruitiness amicably employed spicy, grassy hops to diversify their tastebud titillation. All remained delicate and quenching in this impressive summer quaffer. Their balanced Altbier allied its wooden hops to its maple syrup maltiness but the latter was diminished by an incoherent peachy fruitiness. It was a reserved and drinkable pint which served its purpose without triggering our long-term memory.
Then came the 8% abv English IPA; served in a chalice, mind you. Doughy pale malts and luscious caramel malts combined with expressive wooden, leafy hops to construct this cushiony atmosphere where yeasty fruitiness scented the air and tea-like bitterness held a firm grip on the tongue. An English IPA at Double IPA levels that works? Why not! This one was worth the trip from Hakodate alone, as it is not distributed on tap much outside of the tasting room.
<U>An easy way to get there:</u>
Most trains heading north from Hakodate will stop at Onuma Koen station. Once out of this small station, walk straight on the street in front of you until you see the blue road sign which says “Park Plaza”. Turn left at the sign and you will see the brewery tasting room on your left.