Beer Hunting in Tohoku
IslandHaole Explores the Ji-Biru of northern Honshu
September 15, 2005
Written by IslandHaole
September 6th, shortly after 9:00 PM Tuesday night I pulled into my driveway exhausted after a 54 hour, 1,350 KM trip across northern Japan. I carried the numerous bags into the house and admired my finds, some 60 or so bottles of “Ji-Biru”, small regional Japanese microbreweries that dot the map like so many stars on a celestial chart. I had planned on visiting a few places but as I traveled, I kept thinking that the next one wasn’t too far and this overnight, 12 hour trip turned into a major excursion! Things started out with a bad omen as I pulled up to the Kitakami Wakka Beer brewery. Sadly, it had closed the month before and the Dunkel that I’d hoped to purchase several bottles of is no more.
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Kitakami Wakka Beer (Closed)
I headed south in Sunday late afternoon traffic and it was 7:00 PM when I made it to the Iwate Kura brewery. It too was closed, but I just missed it, it closed at 5:00 PM on Sunday. Well, 0 for 2 so far, not looking good. I headed further south still towards the scenic Matsushima Bay and found a small store that had a bottle of Bock and two cans each of the Dunkel, Weizen and Pilsner, I took them all. At least I had something to show for six hours of driving. It was getting late and I decided to spend the night camping along the coastline. As fate would have it, it began to rain hard that night so instead of trying to pitch my tent and set camp in a squall, I spent the night in my truck with the sound of raindrops pounding the roof as my lullabye. I woke early the next morning and went to the “Tori-No-Umi” Brewery in Watari-Cho, south of the city of Sendai. I had been here before last November but it was on a Tuesday, the day they’re closed, so I was looking forward to getting my hands on their brews this trip. In fact, this was one of the reasons I made the trip in the first place. I could see their beers in a cooler through the window, temptingly only a few feet away from me. It was 7:00 AM and the sign said they opened at 11:00. Hmmm, I had four hours to kill so I decided to pay a visit to the Sennan brewery in the nearby city of Kakuda, home of the Japanese space program. I made good time getting there and still had time to kill so I visited a place listed on my map as a “point of interest”, the Abukuma Rhein that turned out to be a tourist trap place along a wide stretch of river. I did get a few nice photos in the mountains near there so it wasn’t a total waste of a trip. I headed back to Sennan and had a delicious lunch there as well as samples of a few new beers I hadn’t had from there. A few unusual brews, one being made with black rice and the other tasting like a white wine as well as a delicious stout that might wind up to be the beer of the trip!
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Sennan Brewery Complex
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Pork Cutlet, Soup, Salad, Rice, $8.00
One of the staff there remembered me from my last visit in November. We chatted about the beer scene in Japan and he knew of the closing of Kitakami and also told me that even Ginga Kogen has scaled back operations. Not a good sign for “Ji-Biru” fans. On a good note, he did give me a great discount on the beers I tried, only 100 yen each! So the lunch and 3 beer samples came to just over $10 USD, a great deal by Japanese standards!
I mentioned visiting the Tori-No-Umi brewery and that it was closed on my last trip, he said that they were only opened on weekends. What was this, another trip just to have them closed? I grabbed a few more Sennan Brews (Pils & Weizen) then hurriedly drove back there and called the phone number on the sign, to no avail. It was 1:00 PM and their sign said open at 11:00 with only Tuesday listed as the closed day. Several choice words came to mind as I walked back to my car, foiled again by this little brewery.
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Tori No Umi Brewery , Watari-Cho, Miyagi Prefecture
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Tori-No-Umi Lager (calling my name, can’t you hear it?)
By the way, Tori No Umi means, Bird’s Sea in Japanese.
Another brewery I wanted to visit was the Gassan Brewery in Yamagata prefecture. I knew it was quite a haul so I snapped a few quick pictures of the temptress of Tori No Umi and made my way west into the mountains. In spite of the rain, it was a nice drive on uncrowded roads with a few odd looks from folks probably wondering why this gaijin was way out in the sticks. A few hours later I pulled into the Nishihara Michinoeki (reststop) on Highway 112, I found not only the Alt I had tried before but their Bock, Pilsner and Weizen all in stock! I grabbed a few of each and declined the offer to stay and look around. After all, there were new beers to be found yet!
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Gassan Brewpub, Nishikawa, Yamagata Pref.
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Shogi Mura Tendo Tower
I headed back east, retracing half of my drive back to the central part of the country to the main North/South route, Highway 13. The city of Tendo was right along the way so of course a visit was in order. I had picked up a sample of each of their offerings last year and knew to skip the Apple and Grape fruit beers, but I did pick up a pair of their Cherry and their Pilsner brews, both decent. Looking at my map, I noticed a mark I had put near a small town a few hours north of there that said simply “Beer” and had a small “X”. I recalled a conversation I had last year (with whom escapes me) about a brewery in this area but had no idea of its name or address. Always up for an adventure and having a rudimentary grasp of the language, northeast I pressed crossing from the major highway of 13 to a smaller mountain route 47. I drove through the town with no sign or even a hint of beer, nothing but onsen (hot springs) in this area as the sulphur smell was inescapable. I had passed into the next town and rather gave up on the idea of finding more beer and thought about just jumping on the expressway and heading home to a few cold brews and a hot bath. Just about that time, a sign came up showing another Michinoeki (translates to-Road station or “rest stop”) a few kilometers more down the road. Knowing these sometimes feature locally made products (beer included) I quickly perked up and stepped on the gas!
I looked around the store but only found a few macros in the small store, damn, foiled again….I headed back to my car but on the way out I saw a guy that worked there and asked about “ji-biru” being made in the area. He said that they had it inside the store, well hell, I just looked and didn’t see any, show me buddy! Sure enough, sitting sideways against a wall was a smaller cooler with local sake and beer! Not only did they have 4 brews from their town, but 3 additional ones from a brewery even I had never heard of! Wow, what a great find!
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Seven new brews! 3 from Yakurai Brewery and 4 from Noriko Onsen Brewery
As the day was getting late, I decided to spend another night on the road, this time at a small lake famous for bird watching (one of my other hobbies). Ironically, this is only about 90 minutes north of where my day began at Tori-No-Umi! One advantage of staying there was that Nagunuma Wing Garden was only 30 minutes away so a stop was in order as well as grabbing samples of each of their brews to round out the days hunting.
Another rainy night had me sleeping in my truck again and about 5:00 AM I wiped the cobwebs from my eyes and grabbed the scope for some birding. It was still too early in the season for the great flocks of waterfowl that congregate here but there were plenty of egrets and the largest flock of Japanese Night Herons I had ever seen, some 250 birds, all squawking and plucking crayfish and other assorted critters from the muddy shores of Izunuma. This and a quick breakfast kept me occupied for a few hours then I headed north again, back to the city of Ichinoseki and Iwate Kura Brewery.
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Flock of herons at Izunuma
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Iwate Kura brewery
I arrived at Iwate Kura about ten minutes before they opened. I had time to get a few pictures (and a few strange looks from the ground keepers) before the doors opened. I was greeted by a chorus of “Ohayo Gozaimas” from the staff and then one of them approached me and said, “You’re the guy from Aomori that loves ji-biru aren’t you”?
Oh yes, ah, Oboiteru desu “I remember you too” I answered. There were a few of them that helped me round up a few IPA’s last time I was there. They had none in the shop or their delicious Weizenbock either, yet three bottles of each appeared within a few minutes! I also picked up some of their Stout, Passion Ale and Pale Ale. I carried a box of goodies back to my car and then went back inside to sample some of their delicious sake. Nothing like a sake tasting at 9:30 in the morning to start your day off right! We chatted about sake and ji-biru for awhile and they too lamented at the closing of Kitakami Wakka Brewery. They asked if I had gone to the “ji-biru” festival, it was just a few weeks ago they said. Unfortunately, this was the first I heard of it! I handed them my business card and they promised to call if they heard of any event like that taking place again. They also told me of another brewery several hours away that I will visit on my next road trip. I said my goodbyes and drove north again to the city of Morioka. This is only about three hours from home and the thought of going straight there was sure tempting. There was however one more place I wanted to visit, Aqula Brewery in Akita City (Mistakenly named Akura on beerme.com). From Morioka I turned east on to Highway 46, a scenic road through the mountains and tunnels passing Lake Tazawa. Hey, there are two breweries near the lake, I can stop there along the way! Sure enough, both were open and better yet, I found a new brew at each place!
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Toast Brewery on the shores of Lake Tazawa
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I took a few moments to relax, have a bite to eat and enjoy the beautiful scenery of the area before heading to my last destination, Akita City. I made it to Akita about 3:00 PM. It’s a large city and it took me 30 minutes of frustrated driving in circles and then a phone call to locate this brewery. They were actually closed between lunch and dinner but I was able to purchase samples of their beers (5 new ones!) and get a few photos of the brewpub. After taking up 30 minutes of their time, I headed out of town for the long five hour trip from the West coast to the East, through windy mountain roads at night with both rain and fog to keep me on my toes. All told, even with the bad luck at the start, it was a very successful trip. I found about 60 different beers with 20 of them new ones for me. The rest are now in the fridge waiting to take a trip abroad.
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and then one of them approached me and said, “You’re the guy from Aomori that loves ji-biru aren’t you”?
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