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Temples of Ji-Biru

Part Three: Around Mt. Fuji
Beer Travels September 6, 2007      
Written by MartinT

Montreal, CANADA -

Halfway up Mount Fuji, you’re already looking down on a cloudscape. When you are not enveloped in mist, sore and panting, this heavenly carpet stretching out to the horizon is your salvation.

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Just staring at it, looking in disbelief at your feet firmly planted on the ground, and pulling some cool air into your lungs is enough to convince you that you have the energy to reach the crater. Soon, with Marines gasping for air above and below us, this hike became somehow more and more rewarding. Then, a couple twice our age zipped on by, and our building pride was immediately gagged. Good for us.

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Once at the very top, we had just enough time to catch a glimpse of the crater before we were again engulfed in clouds. Would you have the guts to get any closer? We sure didn’t:

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We couldn’t see through the nimbus wall at all, but I felt that from this vantage point I could have seen quite a few breweries nestled at the foot of the behemoth. Here are these we were able to visit:

<U>Fujizakura Beer / Sylvans Restaurant</u>

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Located just outside Kawaguchiko, one of the Fuji Five Lakes, is this vast restaurant and brewery complex which focuses on elaborate pub fare and German-style brews. If you’ve been touring Japanese microbreweries a bit, the prospect of more German-style libations might not enchant you, but trust me: Fujizakura beers are truly worth the visit. Their Rauch is ripe with earthy, toasted malt flavors masterfully mixed into the levelled beechwood smokiness, a harmonious union which smoothly develops into a splendidly complex and seamless finish. With a side of rauchbier tart and whipped cream, you are bound to savor every drop. Oddly enough, this slice of homemade smoked beer pie was an even better match for the amazing Fujizakura Weizen. In this one, heavenly banana esters topped the angelfood cake doppelganger, as doughy yeast was succulently emboldened into vanilla ice cream, which itself surfed the soft bubbling to euphorically reach both drinkability and nourishment. Yes, I loved it. A week later, back at Popeye’s in Tokyo, we matched this Weizen to Hakusekikan’s and Hidatakayama’s, no slouches themselves, and the Fujizakura unanimously won our informal contest. A world-class example of the style anyway I look at it.

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So, two brushes with excellence later, a pint of the Fujizakura Pils alighted on our veranda table, while we were glaring at the sumptuous gardens next to us, enjoying our cheese risotto which had been freshly grated and scooped from a Parmesan wheel after having soaked up some of the saline milk divinity for a few minutes. We hadn’t planned on having dinner here, but the risotto demonstration at an adjoining table was just irresistible...and the Pils was a wonderful match. Captivating grassy hops branched out into a long, spicy, herbal finish, whilst honeyed cereals and hay sculpted an impressively healthy, well-rounded mouthfeel. A luxurious Pilsener for a top notch establishment; at this point, to be honest, I did not expect less.

If you can’t get to Kawaguchiko, do know that Popeye’s in Tokyo usually carries one or two of their beers on tap, including rarer seasonals, such as their Doppelbock. This brewery deserves more recognition for achieving such quality in styles which are too often mailed in. I hope you set them high on your priority list if you are ever in the vicinity of Mount Fuji.

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<U>An easy way to get there:</u>

From Kawaguchiko station, you can either take the bus bound for Mt.Fuji 5th station, or walk to the white building which faces the train station and board the turquoise bus with "Doggy Park" and "Sylvans" painted onto it, usually parked at the rear. The latter will get you to the brewery restaurant for free every hour, while the former will drop you off there for 310 yen. Sylvans is located out of town about halfway to the mountain, on your right. If you take the city bus, make sure you mention your destination to the driver or else you might be hiking Mt.Fuji sooner than you expected.

<U>Fujiyama Beer</u>

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Kawaguchiko feels like an extension of a larger town called Fujiyoshida, which also sits at the bottom of Mt.Fuji. It is here that, I had read, another brewery restaurant was offering German-style quaffers to thirsty and hungry travelers. The fact that even very few of the local ji-biru hunters had heard about the place should have been worrisome, but then again there are so many new craft breweries in Japan that I half-hoped this one had simply slipped under the radar.

As expected for a Japanese restaurant this expansive, they were largely overstaffed for the few afternoon patrons that day. The building was suffused with the German theme and the beer selection was evidently faithful, with a Weizen, a Helles, a Pils and a Dunkel. The Weizen’s tropical fruit esters yielded personality to the full body, whereas bready yeast and hay-like malts whipped up sustenance. A decent and quirky example of the style, this was. Here endeth enjoyment. The Helles was akin to a dirty blanket found in the attic. The Pils had muddled noble hops choking on some more vintage dust, and the Dunkel was plagued by baked beans and vile diacetyl. Dirty tap lines and incompetent brewing, or a simple lack of care from the ownership? Your guess is as good as mine. At least the squid pizza and the cold beef platter were tasty and the staff was very accommodating (this is Japan, after all). Fujiyama Brewery sells all of its beers in 1-liter aluminum cans and 1.8-liter party jugs, but I recommend you try the beer on tap first to see if the current batches are clean.

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<U>An easy way to get there:</u>

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There are many buses which can take you right by the brewery. The Gotemba-Kawaguchiko bus, for example, also stopping at Fujiyoshida station, will take you 200 meters from your target. Get off at the "Fujiyoshida Museum of Local History" bus stop. Look for the giant gorillas with golf clubs (don’t ask). Then, walk towards the Mt.Fuji Radar Dome Museum, a few meters away. You’ll see the brewery from there.

Upon leaving, if you’re still hungry, you can easily find a restaurant which lets you choose your meal from an aquarium:

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Just wait a few minutes for the chef to do his magic, and chow down!

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<U>Hakone Biru Gura</u>

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Hakone National Park is understandably Japan’s most popular tourist destination. Its proximity to Tokyo, its beautiful views onto Mount Fuji (on a clear day), its many luxurious hotels and onsens, and leisurely hikes in the mountains make it an ideal weekend getaway for exhausted salarymen and their families. That is, unless a monster typhoon is on its way. This typhoon was supposed to hit the region the day we were heading there, but hundreds of people were with us, ready at all costs to confront the wind and rain in the hopes of getting a few hours of relaxation and outdoorsy merriment. When we arrived, after a few stressful hours of train delays (which <U>never</u> happens in Japan), we had to take our sunglasses out of their cases...and we soon prayed for any breeze to cool us down. Lucky, you say?

With incomprehensible business sense, Hakone Biru Gura’s owner decided to close the brewery and restaurant for the day, even though the storm had changed its path, and hordes of thirsty visitors were ready to cross their threshold and sample their wares. Distraught, we too bounced back from hitting our noses on the door with frowns and questions. The small snack bar right in front of the brewery (in the parking lot, actually), which usually sells beer on tap or in bottles to hurried tourists was also closed. Frustration soon set in. A few fortuitous steps later, while perusing through a large indoor food market across the street from the brewery, I noticed a few bottles. Hurray! I start stocking up when my beloved notices something even better: a counter with 3 taps! A couple of minutes later, we sat down on a bench in the overcrowded market with 3 glasses full of Hakone beer and various Japanese delicacies unknown to us still to this day. Lucky, you say?

Hakone Pilsener’s welcoming balance of crisp pils malt cereal flavours and herbal hop support made for an effective quencher. Their Odawara Ale’s svelte toasted maltiness and accompanying peachy caramel benefited from a wooden, herbal hop finish to achieve balance and quaffability. Their Harumeki Pale Ale was a quiet English Pale Ale/Golden Ale with a pear-like fruitiness, lightly honeyed cereals, and a herbal, wooden hop finale all set at a whispering level. Three competent, effervescent pints which served their purposes equally well, and were especially pleasurable in the surrounding heat and humidity. I wouldn’t go through a typhoon to have these beers again, but they were undoubtedly efficient enough to keep us satisfied for a weekend in Hakone National Park.

<U>An easy way to get there:</U>

Get off at Kazamatsuri station (2 stations from Odawara, or 2 stations from Hakoneyumoto). You should see this building from the train:

<IMG border=0 SRC=/images/features/HakoneBiruGura.jpg>

<U>Baird Brewing</U>

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Our 5-day stint in the vicinity of Mount Fuji just happened to coincide with the 7th anniversary weekend party of one of Japan’s most acclaimed craft breweries: Baird Brewing. Lucky streak, you say? Don’t get vulgar now. The day we visited, the celebratory menu was filled with unique and endemic fruit beer experiments, on top of the brewery’s six staple ales. Excitement spilled onto the sidewalk, as the Fishmarket Taproom above the brewery was jam-packed even a few seconds after opening in anticipation of this long and plentiful tasting session. Pragmatic, Baird beers are geared for these specific occasions: friends and strangers conversing, laughing loudly in between large gulps of witty drinkability. You can just as easily enjoy your craft-beer-loving-self pondering over them in deep sensorial analysis, but somehow, just like in Czech or Franconian lager endeavours, drinking them heartily through satisfied, near-thoughtless smiles is even more gratifying.

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Their Temple Garden Yuzu Ale showcased a spicy citrus fruitiness (the yuzu) blossoming into an exquisite bouquet and flavor profile, fanning its lively, peppery idiosyncrasies into a fit mouthfeel. The most popular fruit concoction at our table, by far. Their Cool Breeze Pils proposed tall noble hop vines pursuing their growth through the crisp malts’ levelled cereal sweetness, satisfying from top to bottom in a balanced vessel. Their Teikoku IPA’s proficient caramel maltiness deployed its nourishing abilities onto blossoming citrusy hop resins. Their Taproom 7-Year Ale was a Belgian Strong Ale whose spicy hoppiness and fruity yeast swam within smooth honeyed cereals and delicate effervescence into a drying herbal hop finish. Their Yamanashi Apple Ale offered fresh apple tartness and lightly honeyed pale maltiness slowly merging into a very drinkable, fruity Golden Ale. Their Saison Sayuri’s juicy lime-like fruitiness was in the limelight, contributing citrusy delicacies and light tartness to a sweet pale maltiness. Their Strawberry Stout, Citrus Porter, Natsumikan Summer Ale, Biwa Ale, Kabocha Ale, Daidai Dark Wheat Ale, and Carpenter’s Mikan Ale also graced the board that day, and the palates of all those who judiciously chose them. That many quality beers accompanied by tasty home-cooked food will undeniably keep the party going for many years to come in Numazu. And I wish them so.

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<U>An easy way to get there:</u>

Get off at Numazu station, south exit. Walk down Sansan-dori for about 30 minutes towards the water, and turn right once you see the harbor. You can also take the Izuhakone bus from Terminal #1 and get off at Numazu-ko.

If you want a practical map or more area information, the brewery website is quite useful: <a hrefhttp://www.bairdbeer.com/html/our-location.html>http://www.bairdbeer.com/html/our-location.html

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So, in five full days in the area, we weren’t able to obtain that postcard shot of Mount Fuji. At least those overbearing clouds gave us a break when we reached the top of the mountain itself. Won’t you agree that heaven was to be expected upon reaching this torii gate right before the summit?

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PS. Join us again next week for thousands of toriis, cormorant fishing, geisha watching, and drinking with teddy bears...



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start quote heavenly banana esters topped the angelfood cake doppelganger, as doughy yeast was succulently emboldened into vanilla ice cream, which itself surfed the soft bubbling to euphorically reach both drinkability and nourishment. Yes, I loved it. end quote
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