Trains will take you anywhere in the greater Tokyo area, so don’t get worried if you don’t see Shimokitazawa station immediately upon looking at your station map. It’s really not far from the city center. Moreover, there are 2 major ji-biru reasons to visit this quirky neighborhood: Kura Kura Ji-Beer House is one of them. It is a wonderful mélange of class, unpretentious merriment and idiosyncratic décor. Yes, prices are a bit steeper for ji-biru in this neighborhood, but you’ve come all the way to Japan for it, so don’t skip it for pecuniary reasons. The tap selection here is enough to keep you interested for the evening, with some delicious offerings from Hidatakayama and Sankt Gallen, amongst others. Plenty of bottles are also available for your ji-biru exploration, including the little- known Hideji lineup (smoked pale ale, anyone?), and all Baird regulars. The matron here is what you might expect from a Japanese shopkeep: she is very pleasant, prompt and ready to talk about her wares. Ask her if she has some bottles which are not on the menu; she might very well come back with a few exciting choices.
<U>An easy way to get there, courtesy of Tim Eustace:</u>
Get off at Shimokitazawa Station, and follow the south exit. Once outside, go straight until your first right, and then follow the road to the left (a super market will be on your right hand side). Go straight and you will see Kura Kura off to your right past the supermarket:
A few streets from Kura Kura is another upscale ji-biru establishment: Ushitora. Beer prices go hand in hand with the formally-dressed waiters, but the tacky 80’s pop music in the background less so…But you’re in the land of contrasts, so you should expect this eccentricity by now, right? In any case, the beer selection here will surely take your attention away from Bryan Adams’ earlier “hits”. 3 cask beers are served, and close to 20 others are available on tap. The Yo-Ho Tokyo Black Porter was particularly dashing on cask with its alluring alliance of molasses, dark chocolate and roastiness. From the tap selection, you might see more obscure selections you haven’t even seen at the city’s other ji-biru bars, such as beers from Becken and Minoh. Baird Brewing brews a beer especially for Ushitora, called First Impact. I’m not sure why this pint is so expensive, much more so than any other beer served here actually, but I can guarantee it is worth the splurge. This bountiful India Dark Ale offers a scintillating kaleidoscope of hop resins, blackberry fruitiness and roasted maltiness that dazzles the tastebuds throughout the glass. Perhaps they know it’s that good and visitors will want to try it anyway. The appetizers you can get here are excellent too, so you shouldn’t be afraid to spill a few more yen for the smoked pickled vegetables, the miso pizza, and the daikon salad with sesame dressing (for example). The total package at Ushitora is nearly as impressive as Popeye’s, making it a must stop for any Tokyo ji-biru hunter.
<U>An easy way to get there, courtesy of Tim Eustace:</U>
Get off at Shimokitazawa Station. Take the South Exit and immediately turn sharply to the left. Follow the road along the railway tracks until you get to the railway crossing, then hang a right. A supermarket will be on your left hand side. At the end of the supermarket, take a left and Ushitora is on the second level of the building 20 meters in front of you (directly behind the supermarket). It should look like this from your vantage point:
This is reportedly the best store in Tokyo for beer. While you will find different ji-biru selections at other stores (Sugaya in Kawasaki, or the liquor section at Tokyu Food Show, for example), Tanakaya will always carry a mouthwatering selection of seasonal and regular ji-biru choices from reputable breweries such as Baird’s, Hakusekikan, Shiga Kogen, Isekadoya, Daisen G, Aqula, and a few other breweries which you may not have heard of. The import selection is even more impressive, so if there is still room in your suitcase, you might find a few surprises. (Alesmith in Japan?!?)
<U>An easy way to get there: </u>
Get off at Mejiro Station. Once outside (there’s only one exit), turn left and walk towards McDonald’s. Tanakaya is right next to it:
This restaurant is the Tokyo headquarters of Swan Lake Beer, a brewery a few hours away in Niigata prefecture. This stylish basement restaurant offers a wide range of delicacies endemic to Niigata, and presents them in the most appealing way. Most Swan Lake beers are offered on tap, one is on cask, and a few are in bottles. The Lake Bottom Barley Wine is absurdly expensive in its crockware bottle, at around 25$US for 500ml. You should probably check if Popeye’s has it on tap before splurging for it here. Thankfully, other beers are more reasonably priced, and are available in 180ml, 350ml, and 500ml sizes, perfect for your sessioning or tasting desires. I recommend you try out their Amber Ale, a creation which supercedes all expectations you may have for the style. If more amber ales were like Swan Lake’s, the style would enjoy a much better reputation, methinks. The main reason people come to Kura-Rin Ginza Lounge though is the cuisine. Indeed, the katsuo we had was the most delicious piece of sashimi we had had in weeks (and we’d had some scrumptious bowls, don’t worry), and the tempura and salted seasonal vegetables were simply delectable. A full dinner meal will set you back 50$US per person on average (beer included), but everything is deliciously fresh and the recipes are meticulous and inventive. The staff and menu are Japanese only, so come with a smile and an open mind.
Get off at Higashi-Ginza Station. Locate the Kabuki-za theater and walk to the front of it. From the middle of the theater façade, turn and look across the street in front of the theater. You will see a street (Kobikicho-dori). Get to it. Walk three blocks south on Kobikicho and you should see this on your left, across the street from a post office:
Of course, there are more ji-biru places to check out in Tokyo, such as Bar-Bar, T.Y.Harbor and Bulldog, but you get the gist. Apart from the fascinating cultural experience and the unavoidable visual overload, Tokyo definitely is the seat of many a ji-biru temple, and should be considered highly as a world-class craft beer city solely on this basis. But for us, it is time to move along: our next ji-biru section will be located around the huge feet of Fuji-san…
-Oh, and just in case you need proof that Elvis really is dead:
PS. This leg of the trip would not have been as easy and enjoyable without the help and company of Tim Eustace, to whom my beloved and I send endless thanks. If you ever wander through Tokyo looking for a great beer, he is the first person you should contact. He hosts monthly ji-biru tastings with his B.E.E.R.S club, and is looking to organize a Ratebeer Japan Gathering sometime in 2008. I assure you, he is NOT the guy on the right in the picture above.