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!

Impressions of the Onbashira Festival

July 13th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Report

Locals watch as the first pillar is lifted into place at the Harumiya shrine.

The Onbashira festival is finally at an end. After months of preparation and twelve long days of labor, the sixteen onbashira pillars have reached their resting places at the corners of the four shrines of Suwa Taisha.

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Highland Trekking in Kirigamine Kogen

July 6th, 2016 by
Category: Outdoor Activities, Report, Sightseeing

Our guide Uchino-san points out distant blue mountains.

On Saturday we set out for a tour of Kirigamine Kogen, one of Nagano’s central highland areas connected by the Venus Line[1]. The name Kirigamine means “the misty peak,” because the warm airs of Suwa regularly rise up here and condense into fog. On clear days, however, you can enjoy an amazing view from the top of Kurumayama, the tallest point of the Kirigamine area.

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Summer Fun Around Lake Suwa

May 27th, 2016 by
Category: Experience, Information, Onsens (Hot Springs), Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

A view of the lake from the rooftop of the Clasuwa restaurant.

In a land-locked prefecture, the Suwa area is surprisingly blessed with water. The surface of lake Suwa offers beautiful, reflective views of the surrounding mountains and sky. Hot springs bubble up from the grounds of Kami and Shimosuwa and feed over 150 public bathing facilities in the area. And, fresh water from the highlands helps brew Suwa’s many award-winning rice wines.

Visitors to the area have been increasing in advent of the 2016 Onbashira festival, so I thought I’d take a closer look at Suwa’s activities and sights.

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Winter 2016 Illuminations and Festivals

January 29th, 2016 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Seasonal Topics, Sightseeing

Areas of Nagano prefecture are getting ready for a series of festivals in February, and in that spirit I thought I would put together a list of current and upcoming events for the Winter season. Tear yourself away from the ski resorts for a night and visit some of Nagano’s other scenic spots!

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The Onbashira Festival 2016

December 4th, 2015 by
Category: Culture Art, Events, Information
the Onbashira festival

One of Japan's most unique and exciting festivals

Once every seven years, the Suwa area (in central Nagano) holds the Onbashira festival. In this festival, thousands of locals participate in moving 16 massive fir tree trunks from the surrounding mountains to the shrines of Suwa. These fir trees are usually 17 to 19 meters long, 1 meter wide and weigh around 7.5 tons each. These trees become the new great pillars, or Onbashira, in the corners of each Suwa shrine.
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Spring Nomiaruki Drink & Walk Festival, Sat. March 17

March 11th, 2012 by
Category: Cuisine, Events, Information

Kami Suwa’s five sake makers organize the Spring 2012 version of the bi-annual  Nomiaruki Drink & Walk festival.

Date & time: Saturday, March 17,
 15:00 – 19:00

Tickets & commemorative sake cup: 2,000 yen
(available at JR Kami Suwa Station and at each Sakagura). A portion of the ticket sales will be donated to a relief fund for Sakae Mura, heavily damaged in the last March earthquake.

This event, held every fall and spring, is a chance to taste the sakes of Suwa’s five brewers: Maehime, Reijin, Honkin, Yokobue, and Masumi. These makers are clustered in Suwa’s Shimizu-machi, an easy 10-15 minute walk from the JR Kami Suwa Station.

In addition to great regional sake, there will be outdoor food stands offering local delicacies.

 

Terunobu Fujimori’s Funny Dangerous Architectures

September 12th, 2011 by
Category: Culture Art, Sightseeing

Takasugi-an

I went to see Terunobu Fujimori’s three buildings near Lake Suwa.

One is Takasugi-an (which means “too high room”). This is a tea-ceremony room and it was selected as one of the top 10 most dangerous architectures in the world by Time Magazine (top 1 is the Leaning Tower of Pisa). The room is built on two 6-meter high chestnut trees.
I wanted to go inside but didn’t know how people can go in.
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Suwa’s Onbashira Festival is almost here

March 16th, 2010 by
Category: Events

My wife bought me this cool tenugui (a kind of Japanese bandana) for my tenugui collection. You’re probably saying, “Hey, that’s a book, not a bandana.” It actually starts out as a book, about Suwa’s upcoming once-every-seven years Onbashira festival. But then it opens up into a tenugui. Pretty cool! But enough about my tenugui fetish. I wanted to pass on some info about Onbashira, one of Nagano’s grandest festivals.  The signature event is the sliding of massive logs down huge slopes, with the Matsuri men hanging on for dear life.

Is it a book?  Or a bandana?  The Onbashira tenugui!

Is it a book? Or a bandana? The Onbashira tenugui!

One of my Nagano Inbound Summit cohorts, Itoh-san from B&B Megu House Zuku in Suwa, sent some important information about the upcoming festival, so I’ll turn over the keyboard to her:

Suwa Grand Shrine’s festival is commonly called “Onbashira Festival”. Detailed information is available at the official website,
http://onbashira.jp/

The dates of the festival are April 2, 3, 4, 9, 10 and 11, as well as May 2, 3, 4, 8, 9 and 10th.

There are volunteer guides for the festival, including native speakers of Chinese, Korean, French, Portuguese and Spanish. These guides also volunteer for tours of the Suwa area. Advanced reservations are required, through the Info Center at the above website or through Megu House Zuku.

Everyone from the elderly down to the children from all 6 towns and cities that make up the Suwa area participate in Onbashira in one way or another. That means event days will be very congested. There will be traffic restrictions in place, so you may end up walking quite a distance to festival sites. Several of the “pension” lodging in Hara Village offer festival and lodging packages.

Access by train is via JR Chuo Line, with Chino, Kami Suwa and Shimo Suwa being the main stations (approx 2 hours from Shinjuku). You can also take a highway bus on the Chuo Expressway from Tokyo. Keio Bus offers access in approx. 3 hours on their Suwa / Okaya line,
http://www2.keio-bus.com/index.html

Pillars like these are used in the Onbashira Festival

Pillars like these are used in the Onbashira Festival

Suwa Grand Shrine’s biggest event is the spring Onbashira Festival, but all of the Suwa shrines in the area will also hold “komiyasai”, smaller festivals in the fall.  If you want to experience Onbashira up-close and personal, then these local fall festivals may be best.  The major Onbashira events in spring can be very crowded, while the “komiya” festivals often offer chances for the public to participate, too.

Finally, on April 29th, Suwa Lake will officially “open”. Numerous events will take place, including peddle boat races and a silk fair.

The foot bath along the shores of Suwa Lake

The foot bath along the shores of Suwa Lake

Lake Suwa Marathon and Walk

October 8th, 2009 by
Category: Events, Outdoor Activities

Start of the Lake Suwa Walk

Start of the Lake Suwa Walk

Lake Suwa, in the central Nagano Prefecture, can be seen from the train and highway on route from Tokyo to Matsumoto.
It’s quite interesting that such a big lake exists like a navel surrounded by mountains.
Around that navel of a lake is a good walking and marathon course. The 16K course is flat and the surface of the course is soft rubber that’s gentle on our feet and perfect for walking and running.
I attended a walking event around Lake Suwa on September 28th. More than 2,000 people enjoyed walking around the lake chatting, listening to their iPod or Walkman, and along the way, some stopped to enjoy lunch or just to lounge around in the grass. Read the rest of this entry »