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 Early 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!

Hakuba Happo One Ski Resort and the 2017 IVSI Congress

March 29th, 2017 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report

Ski instructors from around the world train together during IVSI.

While the slopes are relatively quiet during late March, the Hakuba area welcomed delegations of ski instructors from around the world during the 2017 IVSI Congress (International Federation of Snowsport Instructors) for a week of skiing workshops, demonstrations, and lectures. Held every four years, this was the 13th congress and the second one to be held in Japan (Shigakogen in 1989).

My coworker and I visited Hakuba Happo One on the last day of the congress. The weather was perfect as instructors competed in slalom and showed their respective countries’ ski demonstrations. Some highlights included Hakuba’s mascot, Victoire Cheval Blanc Murao III, racing on skis; several Austrian team members donning ski equipment from the early 1900s; and skiers flying through the air on parachutes. Everyone cheered exuberantly for the demonstrators as they made their way down the course.

The same equipment was used when skiing was first introduced to Japan around 1912!

One of many great demonstrations during the farewell ceremony.

After the closing ceremony finished, some headed straight to nearby lodges to begin their après-ski evenings while others hurried back up the hill for a few more runs. I headed to the top of the mountain to enjoy the scenery of the Hakuba Sanzan: Mt. Shirouma, Mt. Shakushi, and Mt. Yari. From the top of the ski resort, the snow-capped mountains felt incredibly close.

View from the top of Hakuba Happo One.

As I skied down the mountain, the Hakuba valley opened up before me. On skier’s right were Hakuba Goryu and Hakuba 47, cutting swaths through the woods at the base of Mt. Goryu. On the left were the Hakuba Sanzan Mountains and Iwatake Ski Resort. There was another great spot for photos and relaxing: Usagidaira terrace, equipped with comfortable sofas, a fire pit, and plenty of beer. The cafeteria next door had great views as well.

The Corona Bar in the Usagidaira terrace.

Sanzokuyaki fried chicken at the Usagidaira Terrace restaurant.

Overall, I was impressed by the speed of the lifts and how easy it was to reach the top of the mountain no matter where I happened to be. I managed to do several top-to-bottom runs in no time at all! I mainly followed the Reisen slalom course and some of the forest trails that branched from it, but there were also numerous mogul courses, steep advanced courses and some tree runs as well. Another course that I didn’t get to try was Happo Banks, a playground of smooth banked edges for freestyle skiers and snowboarders to enjoy.

Wide open runs near the top of Hakuba Happo One.

Even so, the clear weather and beautiful views were satisfying enough, and I could easily see why the IVSI chose Hakuba, and Hakuba Happo One, as their destination for the 2017 IVSI Congress. I hope they enjoyed their last day on the slopes as much as I enjoyed mine!

Summer Mountain Biking in Nagano

August 19th, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Seasonal Topics

Suzushii naaa!

When I tell people that I live in Nagano, they always respond with an envious, “Suzushii naaaaa (How Refreshing)!” But while they’re imagining all of the grassy highland fields gently undulating in the cool breeze, I’m sitting in my apartment in Nagano city sweating profusely on my couch. I’ve been doing my best recently to get out of the city and into the cooler parts of Nagano, and this weekend I visited Hakuba for some outdoor adventures.
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The State of Nagano Skiing this December

December 18th, 2015 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities, Report, Seasonal Topics
The beautiful northern alps are covered in snow, but green still shows in the valley.

Hakuba's mountains are beautifully covered in white.

Areas around the globe have been experiencing some crazy weather over the past month due to the dreaded El Niño effect. Wintery parts of the world have been unusually warm and green, and some areas of Japan have been reaching highs of 25℃ or more. It has also meant a late winter for Nagano prefecture, but don’t fear, folks: winter is here. The mountains are capped in white and ski resorts are open for business. Soon enough, your breath will be visible in your apartment and your shampoo will be freezing overnight.

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Golden Week — Nagano Style

May 3rd, 2015 by
Category: Cuisine, Events, Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Happy Golden Week, everyone.

Or is it?  With practically everyone and her brother having the week off, it seems wherever you go there will be crowds, crowds, and still more crowds.

Here in Nagano, the major attractions such as Matsumoto Castle, the Utsukushigahara ridge drive, the resort town of Karuizawa etc. also tend to be jam-packed during peak holidays.  And the many major events taking place in Nagano during Golden Week, such as the hot air balloon festival in Saku, the rape blossom festival in Iiyama and, especially, the once-every-seven-years Gokaicho at Zenkoji Temple in Nagano City, will likely draw hordes of visitors.

Don’t despair — the prefecture has plenty of off-the-beaten-path places and simple, local events to enjoy in a quiet, Nagano-like fashion.
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Hiking in Japan

October 21st, 2014 by
Category: Information, Outdoor Activities
Hakuba
Spectacular views at Happo Ike

Hakuba’s main attraction during the warmer months is the hiking and the most popular day hike would be Happo Ike ( Happo Pond). Each day hundreds of people of all ages ascend up into the mountains to this spectacular viewing platform. I would rate it on a world scale at “as good as it gets”.  The journey starts with a Gondola ride and then 2 chairlifts that are lowered after the winter which brings you closer to the natural foliage. The top of the resort by itself has some amazing views for those not up to the hiking and is certainly worth the trip. For the more adventurous the 45 minute hike along some rocky pathways and boardwalk steps will offer up some breathtaking vistas along the way. The route follows the ridgeline so there are many vantage spots for photos and even the most novice of photographers will be taking professional shots here. The rocky step sections along the way can be a little difficult to manoeuvre so take your time on the hike and absorb the environment. Once you reach the pond the views will amaze you with the stunning back drop of 3000 meter peaks. This is truly a special place.

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Heavenly Trekking and Wildflowers in Hakuba

July 4th, 2012 by
Category: Experience, Outdoor Activities, Sightseeing

I was recently treated to a trekking tour of Hakuba Village’s Mt. Happoone.  First I stopped at one of the Happoone Onsen bathhouses in Hakuba Village’s Happoone district. One gondola and two ski lift rides later, I was at 1830-meter Happo-Ike Sanso (Happo Pond Mountain Hut).

Trekking to the peaks on Happoone Ridge


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Digital Brochures of Matsumoto and Hakuba

September 26th, 2010 by
Category: Information

Matsumoto Tourism and Convention Association added an “e-Brochure” to the left side of Matsumoto Official Tourism Website “Matsumoto Welcomes You!“. You can see a digital brochure of the English Matsumoto Walking Guidebook which they newly issued this March. The way to read the brochure is very easy and interesting like digital books such as Apple’s iPad and Amazon’s Kindle.
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