A Haven for Craft Beer in the Japanese Alps

April 7th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Information, Shopping

Specialty beer spotted during last year’s Onbashira Festival. (Reijin Brewery)

While beer is a relatively new beverage in Japan, it wasn’t long before locals embraced it and created the crisp, refreshing lagers that its major breweries are known for today. The Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi, and Suntory brands can be found in grocery and convenience stores around the world, and one by one, new breweries are making their international debuts.

And recently, Japan’s own craft beer scene has been booming. As of 2015, there were over 200 craft breweries operating across the country and new craft beer festivals popping up in cities, towns, and even mountain resorts! To meet customers’ ever-evolving tastes, Japan’s major breweries have begun producing seasonal ales and experimental brews as well.

A glass of Shigakogen Beer’s imperial stout.

Luckily for beer lovers in Nagano, the Snow Monkey Beer Live festival is held annually in the Shigakogen ski resort area. This year, Japanese lagers took a backseat to fruity ales, creamy stouts, and hoppy IPAs. Breweries showcased their creativity with experimental styles such as the Earl Grey beer by Johana Beer (Toyama), a Scottish ale infused with coriander by Hair of The Dog (North America), and the Apple Hop malt by Minami Shinshu Beer (Nagano). The host brewery, Shigakogen Beer (Nagano), kept upping the ante with stronger drafts, from the 10% Takashi Imperial Stout to their 13% the Far East. Many people came from faraway prefectures, Japanese and foreigners alike, to enjoy the show and try the wide variety of beers available.

And while only a few of Nagano’s breweries joined the event this year, there are over six breweries in the region, many of which have been active since the beginning of the craft beer boom.

One of Japan’s main hop-producing regions, Nagano saw its first small-scale breweries in 1996, two years after tight restrictions on beer production were relaxed. Minami Shinshu Beer (Komagane), Oh! La! Ho! Beer (Tomi City), and Yo-Ho Brewing (Karuizawa) all began operating at that time. Three years later in 1999, the sake brewery Reijin (Suwa City) began producing a line of beer called “Shinshu Roman,” and in 2004 Tamamura Honten (Yamanouchi) created “Shigakogen Beer.” Hotel Kisoji in the Kiso Valley also began brewing Kisoji beer on its premises.

A staff member at Yo-Ho Brewing carefully inspecting fresh cans.
Used with permission from Yo-Ho Brewing.

And recently, more craft breweries have been opening up around Nagano prefecture. You may not be able to find their brews in stores, but you can visit their pubs/taprooms and try delicious, locally-made beers. There’s LIBUSHI in the heart of Nozawa Onsen Village, the Hakuba Brew Pub in—you guessed it—Hakuba, and the Matsumoto Brewery on Matsumoto’s picturesque Nakamachi-dori street.

Throughout Japan, new craft breweries are opening one after another and ushering in a new era of beer culture in the country. Japanese artisans are known for their passion for their craft and a deep respect for their environment and ingredients. Here in Nagano where mineral-rich springs, pure mountain water, and zesty hops are available in abundance, it’s no wonder that so many locals have challenged themselves to make delicious beer. If you have a chance, grab one and enjoy the taste of Shinshu!

More about Nagano’s Breweries

Learn more about Nagano’s breweries and where you can taste them for yourself!


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1. Tamamura Honten Shigakogen Beer (Yamanouchi Town)

The exterior of Tamamura Honten. Museum and tasting areas are inside.

Tamamura Honten is a sake brewery at the base of Shigakogen and has been in operation since 1805. In 2004, they began brewing beer as Shigakogen Beer and are the hosts of Snow Monkey Beer Live. You can find their beers in convenience stores in Northern Nagano and most liquor stores, or can try some on tap at their brewery in Yamanouchi or at Teppa Room, their tap room in Shigakogen during winter.

A line-up of Tamamura Honten’s sake for tasting. Beer can be purchased here as well.

Tamamura Honten Shop

Address: 1163 Hirao, Yamanouchi Town, Shimotakaigun, Nagano Pref. 381-0401
Hours: 9:00 to 18:00
Holidays: New Year’s Day
Access: Take the Okushigakogen or Yokoteyama line bus from Yudanaka Station and get off at the Shibu Onsen stop (between Yudanaka and Snow Monkey Park). A five minute walk from there.

Teppa Room (Winter Location)

Address: Hotel Chalet Shiga 1F, Ichinose, Shigakogen
Hours: Mon. to Fri./ 15:00 to 23:00, Weekend/ 12:00 to 23:00
Holidays: None during winter
Access: Located on the first floor of Hotel Chalet Shiga in Shigakogen’s Ichinose area.


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2. Oh! La! Ho! (Tomi City)

OH!LA!HO Beer
Used with permission from OH!LA!HO Beer.


OH!LA!HO Brewery opened in 1996 in Tomi City. They produce a variety of pale and medium-bodied ales which have won numerous gold and silver awards in international competitions. You’ll often find their “Captain Crow” extra pale ale in stores around Nagano. You can also enjoy OH!LA!HO Beer at their pub restaurant in Tomi, conveniently located next to a hot spring spa.

Brewery Restaurant Oh! La! Ho!

Address: 3875 Kano, Tomi City, Nagano Pref. 389-0505
Hours*: Weekdays/ Lunch 11:30-14:30, Dinner: 17:30-21:00,
Weekend/ Lunch 11:30-15:30, Dinner: 17:30-21:00
(Last call is 30 minutes before closing)
Holidays: Wednesdays, December 31st and January 1st
Access: Take a taxi from Oya or Tanaka Station (10 to 13 minutes).
*Hours are subject to change during winter, please contact the restaurant in advance.


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3. Yo-Ho Brewing (Karuizawa Town)

Yo-Ho Brewing’s main four beers.
Used with permission from Yo-Ho Brewing.


Yo-Ho Brewing opened in 1996 in Karuizawa. Their motto is, “Flavor in beer, Happiness in people,” and are well known for their Yona Yona ale, which can be found widely throughout the Japan and has won many international competitions. Others include Suiyobi-no-Neko (Wednesday’s Cat), Tokyo Black, and Indo-no-Aooni (Indian Blue Demon).

They have opened several restaurants in Tokyo where you can try these beers and more, so you have no excuse not to visit on a trip to Japan! They now have five locations in the greater Tokyo area. See their website for details.


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4. Kisoji Beer (Nagiso Town)

Kisoji Beer
Used with permission from the Kisoji Hotel.

In the heart of the Kiso Valley, Hotel Kisoji offers pleasant accommodations, cuisine, hot springs and freshly-brewed beer. With Kiso’s renowned spring water and 100% wheat malt, hotel staff brew a range of craft beers that can be enjoyed on-site (as a hotel guest) or bought online.

Hotel Kisoji

Address: 2278 Azuma, Nagiso Town, Kisogun, Nagano Pref. 399-5302
Access: Free shuttle bus from Nagiso Station.


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5. Reijin (Suwa City)

Exterior of the Reijin Brewery in Kami Suwa.

Reijin first opened in 1789 and is one of Suwa’s five major sake breweries. Recently, these masters of Japan’s traditional sake-making craft have turned their skills to beer brewing as well. The pure well water they use to make sake is blended with mineral-rich onsen water of Suwa to bring out the best flavor in their beers.

Reijin’s Rindo beer, brewed in the old-fashioned style common in Dusseldorf.

Suwa’s five sake breweries line the road beside Kamisuwa Station (more information here) and make for a perfect pub crawl. Each one offers a unique flavor of sake, and at Reijin you can try their beer own tap as well.

Reijin Brewery

Address: 2-9-21 Suwa, Suwa City, Nagano Pref.
Hours: Weekdays/ 8:30-18:00, Saturdays/ 9:00-18:00, Other/ 9:00-16:00
Holidays: January 1st
Access: 11 minute walk from Kami Suwa Station.


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6. Minami Shinshu Beer (Komagane City)

Minami Shinshu Beer’s Christmas Ale.

Minami Shinshu beer opened in 1996 and is considered Nagano’s first craft brewery. With pure mountain water, wheat and hops, they brew four regular beers and a variety of seasonal ones. Their Apple Hop malt features Nagano-grown apples and is quite popular.

If you’re visiting Senjojiki Cirque, stop by the Minami Shinshu Beer Ajiwai Kobo[6]. Enjoy lunch or dinner with Minami Shinshu Beer direct from their brewery!
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Minami Shinshu Beer Ajiwai Kobo Restaurant

Address: 759-447 Akaho, Komagane City, Nagano Pref. 399-4117
Hours: Lunch/ 11:30 to 15:30, Dinner/ 17:00 to 21:00
Holidays: Closed for dinner on Mondays
Access: From Komagane Station, take the Komagatake Ropeway bus to the Suganodai bus center. The restaurant is across the street.


Thanks for reading! Cheers!

Soba-Making Lessons in Nagano

March 10th, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information

Make your own delicious soba in Nagano!

Soba noodles can be eaten throughout Japan but they are especially famous in Nagano. With abundant buckwheat and fresh water from the mountains, Nagano’s artisans make simple yet incredibly aromatic soba. After a plate or two or three, you find yourself hooked on this deceptively delicious dish.

And while it’s not necessarily true that the soba you make yourself is more delicious—let’s be honest, our crudely cut soba noodles pale in comparison to a soba master’s—the experience is a whole lot of fun and makes for a great memory. There are a number of places throughout the prefecture where you can try making soba for yourself and learn to appreciate soba made by the professionals.
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A Nagano Winter Pastime: Greenhouse Strawberry Picking

February 2nd, 2017 by
Category: Cuisine, Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

One scrumptious way to beat the winter cold in Nagano is to go strawberry picking.  You can pick all-you-can-eat strawberries inside a toasty-warm greenhouse.  One such location is Agri-Park in Chikuma City.  I went there recently with some bloggers from Taiwan.  They really enjoyed picking the berries, dipping them in some condensed milk, and popping them into their mouths.  Deliciously sweet berries and a warm escape from the cold — a perfect winter day in Nagano.

One of Agri-Park’s greenhouses with the Northern Alps in the background.

Agri-Park is located in the vicinity of the Mori Shogunzuka ancient burial mound, so you can indulge in prehistoric history after you’ve had your fill of yummy strawberries.  For further historical intrigue, the Nagano Prefecture Historical Museum is adjacent to the burial mound’s visitors center.

Nagano Prefectural History Museum’s prehistoric village in the springtime with peach blossoms.

Access via public transportation is from Yashiro Station on the Shinano Railway.  Bus service from the station is infrequent so either taxi (approx. 7 min., 800 yen) or on foot (2km, 25 min.).  By car, Koshoku IC on the Nagano Expressway is approx. 6 min. 3km.

 

A Trip through Time: Tanaka Family Museum

December 27th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Experience, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

 Preserving a Family Legacy

Entrance to the Tanaka Family Compound

The Tanaka Family Compound, located in Suzaka City, is run by the 12th head of the Tanaka Family which was a family of merchants in Edo-period Japan. Here you will find their family heirlooms on display. The galleries are constantly updated as items are brought out of storage and rotated through. Items include traditional Japanese dolls, clothing, paintings, both Japanese and European style ceramics, and toys imported from overseas. The compound consists of a museum, café, shop, and gardens.
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Experience Apple Picking and Farmer House Life with Pick-Up Service Starts in Matsumoto

October 30th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience


Autumn is the season for beautiful colored foliage, mushrooms in the forests in Nagano Prefecture, and, of course, you can’t forget the harvesting of yummy FRUITS! This is one of Nagano’s specialty!

This year, a young farming couple (with a baby) who moved from Tokyo to Matsumoto started an apple picking experience on Oct 11. If you make a reservation the same morning, they can even arrange to a pick-up just west of Matsumoto Castle.

Mr. Kawabe was a computer engineer working for an electric maker in Tokyo. He heard his wife’s grandpa is farming an apple orchard in Nagano, but thinking retirement and felling apple trees gradually. He felt pity and when the young couple have their baby, they had a fear of Tokyo life after the 3.11 earthquake. After dithering, the husband decided to throw away his career and restart as a farmer from the beginning.

They live in a traditional farm house near Alps Park, so the experience is not only of picking fresh apples in their orchard, but also sitting in their tatami room, having Japanese tea and various autumn food, and touring around their Japanese-style house if you want.

The fee of ¥3000 includes all-you-can-eat picked apples and carry-out of two.

You can book the service from the reservation form on their English website. Tour times are two hours in length, from 13:30 to 15:30 daily. They are closed on Sundays. Reservations are required by noon of the day (preferably by the previous day). The season continues until November 21 (was 30, but apples will be finished earlier than expected).
See the following flyer for the details.

For information about other orchards (without pick-up service) and more info about fruits including grapes, see my previous article.

Little Secrets of Kiso Fukushima

February 12th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing
Latticed wood buildings form a long alleyway to the gate of a buddhist temple.

A picturesque alleyway that leads to Daitsu-ji in Kiso Fukushima.

The Kiso Valley is a very popular destination in Nagano prefecture, especially for backpackers and history buffs who enjoy its beautiful forests and undisturbed post towns. Most visitors head straight for Narai, Tsumago or Magome-juku, but there are eight other historical towns in this forest valley with their own secrets waiting to be uncovered by adventurous travelers.

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How to Make your Own Oyaki

February 4th, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Experience, Information

An oyaki bun cooks on a large pan over an open fire.

Oyaki are traditionally cooked over an Irori hearth.

Oyaki are one of Nagano’s traditional foods and most delicious snacks. Like Soba, they have been an important part of local cuisine for thousands of years. In rice-scarce Nagano, these flour buns filled with pickles and veggies were an important source of carbs and protein. Now, they’re healthy and delicious snacks that can be found in specialty shops and food stalls throughout Nagano prefecture.

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The Sake Breweries of the Higashi Nakasendo

January 22nd, 2016 by
Category: Cuisine, Culture Art, Sightseeing
A white farmhouse stands alone in the midground surrounded by yellowed farmlands. Low-lying clouds crown Mt. Asama and the sky above is blue.

Blue skies and Mt. Asama are constant companions on the Higashi Nakasendo.

After cutting through the forest valley of Kiso, circling lake Suwa and passing through the towns of Nagawa and Wada, the Nakasendo continues into Eastern Nagano. The land here is open and the skies are always clear. In the distance beyond miles of farmland and rice paddies, travelers can look upon snow-capped Mt. Asama, one of Nagano’s two active volcanoes.

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