Japan: known for its bustling cities, stunning scenery, excellent food, efficient trains and wonderful culture but is it a place for good beer?
It’s been somewhere I’d wanted to visit for a long time and after plenty of saving up we were finally able to afford to do so in October 2018. It exceeded all of my expectations and it truly felt like the trip of a lifetime. Sampling beer and experiencing the bar scene were on my list of things to do, but, unlike other places I’ve travelled to, not the main driver for the visit. However, while researching for our trip we did come across a variety of bars we were keen to check out.
This is the first in a series of blog posts about some of the places we visited in Japan – this one focused on the capital, Tokyo. With only limited time in the city, this is nowhere near a comprehensive guide, but we did manage to visit a fair few interesting places and here’s a run down of them.
Yona Yona Beer Works
We landed at Narita Airport at about 08:30 on Monday morning – after leaving our home in Manchester at about 07:00 the previous day (UK time) and doing a three-hour stop-over in Copenhagen (aka Mikkeller Copenhagen Airport). By the time we’d made it into the centre of Tokyo it was lunchtime and as it was too early to check in, we went to the nearest beer venue on our list, Yona Yona Beer Works in Shinjuku.
Owned by Yo-Ho Brewing, despite being a basement bar it feels bright and spacious. Like many other bars in Tokyo, it opened for lunch time, then closed during the afternoon and reopened again in the evening. Alongside keg beer, there were also cask options.
At this point, I was pretty much just wanting to sleep so I don’t remember too much about the beer or the venue, so I haven’t really got any thoughtful insights but I do recall one quirk was that the waiting staff would put black cloths on top of any bags customers had with them when they were placed either on the floor or a seat – whether it was a rucksack or shopping bags. Still not sure why this was!
3 Chome-28-10 Shinjuku – yonayonabeerworks.com/shinjuku/
As a bit of a Mikkeller fangirl, visiting Mikkeller Tokyo was high on my list so after checking in, a rest and some food, we made our way over to it. It’s in a location that felt very much like it could only be in Tokyo – across from a shrine and what appeared to be a love hotel. I adored the building’s look from the outside – the lemon yellow colour and curved frontage is very distinctive even in a city full of memorable buildings.
Inside, they’ve gone for the unfinished look – plain walls and concrete floors. It’s set over two floors with the ground floor mainly for standing and upstairs with a mix of smaller and larger tables. A large window opens up fully providing plenty of air and some additional places to perch.
The bar had 20 beers on draught, mostly from US breweries including the likes of Cycle, Jester King and Arizona Wilderness alongside a couple from Mikkeller. Unlike their bars in Europe, they didn’t have the standard Wit/Brown/IPA selection although they did feature a fairly wide range of styles.
It’s a cool spot and even on a Monday evening, it was very busy. Interesting to note that the majority of the clientele were not Japanese, they were Americans.
2-19-11 Dogenzaka, Shibuya – mikkeller.dk/location/mikkeller-tokyo/
Haburashi – Beer And Potato
One of the things we were told about visiting Tokyo was to keep an eye out for places located above ground level. Once we arrived and saw the number of multi-storey buildings this made perfect sense – and Haburashi is one such of these places. Entering the building feels like you’re intruding into someone’s office block or flats, until you reach the venue’s door and find one a joyously welcoming place that makes you feel at home from the moment you enter.
A compact and cosy spot, Haburashi describes itself as a Nordic-themed bar and also specialises in serving potatoes in various ways. Four draught beers are offered, each of which comes from Scandinavia. A couple of tables are available – including one decorated with some beautiful tiles and with a very comfy sofa where we found ourselves – as well as bar seating.
It’s the little extras about this place that really make it. I saw Omnipollo’s Noa, one of my favourite beers of all time, in the fridge and decided to go for a bottle of it. The lovely lady brought us a ramekin of banana chips to have with it – a truly fantastic combination and a lovely gesture.
As you’d expect from a bar that imports all of its beer, it’s not the cheapest of places but the atmosphere is so wonderfully relaxed that it’s worth it.
Dogenzaka 2-9-4, Dogenzaka Lee-One 3F, Shibuya – facebook.com/haburashi5454/
Our final port of call for day one was Goodbeer Faucets. A first floor venue with large glass windows, the bar has 40 beers on draught, the majority of which come from Japan or the US. The main bar area is fairly large with counters wrapped round an island with the taps.
The menu groups beers by style and lists their country of origin, colour and a guide to the bitterness, and there were also bottles available alongside the draught options.
It was quite late when we visited and fairly quiet – it was also a Monday – so there wasn’t too much of an atmosphere and we did only stay for one. It didn’t really stick out for me in terms of bars; the most memorable thing about it was the chap who tumbled right off his bar stool and clattered to the floor (don’t worry, he was fine).
Crossroads 2F, 1-29-1 Shoto, Shibuya – goodbeerfaucets.jp/
The evening of our second night was mainly spent watching New Japan Pro Wrestling at Korakuen Hall near Tokyo Dome. I’m not into it, this was all Ross’ doing and I was just along for the ride (if you too like craft beer and Japanese wrestling, Ross and Rob of Hopzine have recently started doing a new series named Brew Japan). Beer-wise, there was only one option available: a lager. I believe it was by Kirin; it was fine and it lasted me most of the evening. One day maybe sport venues will serve good beer…
After a few hours of wrestling, it was time for some decent beer so we wandered over to Karakuri. Abasement bar near Kanda, it was a comfortable and relaxed spot, which served up some great food alongside its seven guest beers. It’s not a huge place; there’s just a couple of tables and a few more seats at the bar.
Like other basement bars we visited, it didn’t feel dark and dingy thanks to decent lighting and the wooden furniture throughout.
The menu was made up of small plates – one highlight was deep fried Camembert in miso. The beer on offer was mainly Japanese and featured some of breweries that we’d see time and time again in Japan including Be Easy and AJB.
We particularly enjoyed the music in this place as the playlist included a Limp Bizkit song.
B1F, 3 Chome-3-7 Kanda Kajichō, Chiyoda-ku – karakuri-kanda.owst.jp/en/
The last venue for the day was the nearby TapxTap. A ground floor bar with some large windows, its main clientele seemed to be those out for a few drinks after work as most people in their were still wearing their office attire. It was mostly smaller Japanese breweries on offer, but the range of styles felt slightly limited. My first selection had just run out so I got given a third for free along with my second choice.
It wasn’t as comfortable as some of the other bars (but we did end up seated at the back near the toilets as it was pretty full still) and it felt more like a place for people to go after work for a few to wind down with, rather than a place to experience the best beer.
2-9-18 Kajicho, Chiyoda-ku – facebook.com/taptapkanda/
After a day of touristing (including a visit to the amazing Digital Art Museum) and a sake tasting, I was ready for some top notch beer and luckily Craftheads provided it!
Another basement bar, this time in the Shibuyu area, Craftheads focuses on Japanese and American craft beer and also had a decent-looking food menu.
Vibrant yet chilled and with a great range of beers, it was a fantastic little bar. I’m not going to go into too much detail as the bar itself will be shortly moving to a new location – it looks like it’ll close its current site on 30 November – so hopefully its new site will be just as good.
1 Chome-13-10B1F Jinnan, Shibuyu – craftheads.jp
We next decided to check out the Golden Gai; the famously touristy street of tiny bars which was fairly close to our hotel. It lives up to its reputation – the bars are mostly full of foreigners and most of them will have a cover charge.
We visited a punk bar named Hair of the Dogs which had about eight seats and another named Not Suspicious which was a recommendation where you can basically stick post-its to the wall with your own messages.
Neither had particularly exciting beer options (and in fact, in Hair of the Dogs I had a White Russian) but they were odd little places to visit and no matter how touristy it is, you have to go and at least have a wander down the street.
Hitachino Brewing Lab
Exploring Akihabara (aka Electric Town) including Mario Kart, capsule machines and kooky photobooths was our morning’s activity on day four and we decided to nip into Hitachino Brewing Lab for one before hunting for some lunch. Hitachino Nest Beer is one of the few Japanese brands regularly found in the UK (aka the one with the cute little owl) but not one I’ve really ever focused too much on.
The bar was located within a railway arch but it was a world away from the railway arch breweries found in the UK. The space had obviously had a lot of money and care spent on it to really make it more of a feature, rather than just to be used as a functional space. The arches featured a number of businesses, the majority sharing one large section that had been subdivided. Most of them were upmarket clothing or homeware retailers ,or artisan manufacturers – I had to walk through a couple of them to reach the complex’s shared toilets. It’s also next to a river, so you can sit out the front of the bar and look out over the water.
Beer-wise, nine taps were on offer including two described as limited beers, and there were also some bottles available. Plenty of merch was for sale and there was a shop located next door within the main complex selling more clothing and bottles. A late 90s easy pop radio station was playing and every other person in there at that time (it was about noon) was eating rather than drinking, so it didn’t feel like the liveliest place but it was a decent stop off after visiting Akihabara.
N1 1-25-4, Kandasudacho, Chiyoda-ku – hitachino.cc/brewing-lab/en/
Far Yeast Craft Beer & Bao
Far Yeast’s Tokyo bar was one of my highlights of the trip, as it’s one of those places that has the holy trinity of good beer, good food and a good atmosphere. Set on a crossroads of two small streets away from a main road, it was a bright venue thanks to its multiple windows.
A couple of seats are available at the bar, which is where we were seated, as well as a few tables to accommodate slightly larger groups. In total, 12 draught beers were available – eight of those from Far Yeast and the remaining four were guest options.
It’s a great little spot. We visited during lunch (and ordered way too much food) and it had a vibrant atmosphere – it felt bustling yet relaxed. The food was brilliant and it felt very comfortable. It closed during the afternoon between lunch and dinner services, but I think if it hadn’t we would’ve stayed for a few more.
2-6-8 Shibuya, Shibuya-ku – faryeast.com/en/bar/
After a visit to Tokyo Tower we headed to a place that had come highly recommended, Ant’n Bee. It’s a basement bar in the Roppongi area of Tokyo; a place well-known for its nightlife. Made up of an L-shaped bar with a couple of other tables just to the left of the main entrance, Ant’n Bee is a cosy little place with 20 craft beers on draught – all of which are made in Japan.
The decor is quite simplistic with a fairly plain design but the venue decorated with beer mats, pump clips and even some international currency signed by previous punters.
Like other venues, despite its tiny size it also had a food menu which was fairly extensive. We snacked on some garlic bread and other bits and bobs while we drank.
It opens at 5pm and we visited about an hour after doors opened when it was still fairly quiet, but it looked like it would get busier later on as many of the seats and tables were reserved for a few hours later. It was a pleasant place with a diverse beer menu.
It felt like it would get livelier later on and if you want to stay out late, Ant’n Bee is open til 6am!
B1F, 5-1-5 Roppongi – facebook.com/antnbee/
Another highlight of our time in Tokyo was Watering Hole, a great spot with about 20 beers on draught (I think!).
It was fairly busy when we arrived, so we were directed a spot where we could stand around a makeshift table in a side room while waiting for a somewhere to sit. There’s about 10 seats at the bar and maybe another 15 or so at tables so it’s not a huge venue but by the time we’d finished our first half we were able to get seated.
The beer selection was mainly Japanese although there were a couple of options from the US too and it also served two cask options alongside keg.
One thing that made this place so memorable was the wonderful staff. Good service is pretty much standard across Japan (no surly bartenders to be found) but in Watering Hole we found that everyone there was particularly welcoming and very much into their beer so it was great to chat with them.
5-26-5 Sendagaya, Shibuya – facebook.com/wateringholeshinjuku/
After this, we took a few days exploring some other areas of Japan (future blog posts) before heading back to Tokyo for our final weekend.
On our return to Tokyo we first paid a second visit to Mikkeller Toyko then headed to Pigalle, which is quite possibly the friendliest bar I have ever visited.
A bar that mostly focuses on European beer, Pigalle has six draught beers and a draught cider, and there’s also a well-stocked fridge
But it’s mostly the atmosphere that made it such a special place. It’s very cosy and compact with just a few seats and tables placed quite close to one another and this feels like it encourages punters to chat with each other. We found ourselves chatting with the owners, locals and other visitors from overseas.
During our visit we noticed an interesting poster on the wall for Manchester’s very own Marble Brewery. They were hosting a meet the brewer event just a few weeks after we were there. It transpired that the lovely owners had previously been to Manchester and visited the Marble Arch!
We also made some lovely new friends (who we’ve kept in touch with thanks to the wonders of social media) who took us onto our next venue….
2-15-8 Taishido, Setagaya – pigalle.tokyo
A short taxi journey later and we were at Ol Tokyo, another Tokyo bar with Scandinavian links. This one is owned by Oslo Brewing Co and is located a short distance away from Mikkeller Tokyo and Shibuyu station.
Set on one floor, this venue is larger than it first appears as it does go quite far back and it also has some outdoor space, so there’s plenty of room. On a Friday night it was fairly busy and there was also a DJ but the music wasn’t too loud that we couldn’t talk to each other.
It’s got a clean, Scandi style design with plenty of wood and felt relaxed and intimate thanks to the low lighting (I’d be intrigued to visit during the day).
Beer wise, there were 20 beers on draught, about half of which came from Scandinavia – and half of these were from Oslo Brewing. There were also some Japanese and US beers on, including some seasonal options such as pumpkin and blood orange beers for Halloween.
We managed to find ourselves a table at the back and found it a very comfortable place to stay for a few drinks and a natter.
37-10 Udagawa-cho, Shibuya – oltokyo.jp/
Baird Taproom Harajuku
On our last full day, Ross had gone to get a tattoo so I took a solo stroll around Harajuku and during my wanderings came across Baird Taproom. After we met up again we headed over for a drink and some grub.
It’s a first floor venue with an external curved staircase to lead the way. Inside, it’s a similar set up to many other Tokyo bars with some seating at the bar itself and a few tables also provided.
During our visit on a Saturday lunchtime there was a mixed client base including young couples, older groups of friends and families dining with their kids.
There were about 16 keg beers and two cask options and as I recall everything on offer was from Baird with no guest options. The food menu was mainly smaller plates and included a couple of veggie options so that kept us happy.
It was an alright spot although the beer didn’t blow me away it’s fine to call into if you want a beer close to Harajuku’s Takeshita Street.
1 Chome-20-13 Jingumae, Harajuku – bairdbeer.com/taprooms/harajuku/
A short walk away from busier streets of Harajuku is Big Love, a record shop with a small bar inside. I’ve got to admit that record shops aren’t usually my thing as the music I listen to is far too uncool to feature in most of them (although I did pop into Tokyo’s massive Tower Records and got myself some Japanese version of most of Good Charlotte‘s albums 👍👍👍) but a bar within one definitely appealed to me.
The bar area makes up only a small portion of the site but there’s a couple of counter seats and a few tables made up of mismatched furniture. A TV in the corner above the bar showed music videos with the volume at a level so that you could hear it but still have a conversation. It felt relaxed and I was very content to sit and drink while Ross had a root through the many records.
In terms of beer, there were two or three options from microbrewery Tamamura Honten alongside a couple of cocktails and some soft drinks. Maybe not the most exciting beer range in the city but worth a visit nevertheless.
Houei Building 3F-A, 2-31-3 Jingumae, Harajuku – bigloverecords.jp/
Beer Club Popeye
Billed as one of Tokyo’s first craft beer bars – and with an obscenely large menu – Popeye’s was one place we knew we had to visit. We arrived on a Saturday evening and it was super busy, with all tables full and the waiting staff rushing around. As it was all full at that time, we were given a place to perch near the bar to wait for a table to free up. Luckily this didn’t take too long and we soon found ourselves seated and perusing the frankly overwhelming beer selection.
The bar has a whopping 70 beers on draught across every style. Predominately Japanese but a few US, European and UK options appear as well.
A generous happy hour takes place – generous both in terms of the length of time it lasts and what’s on offer. Even running on a Saturday night, they do a deal where you get free food with each happy hour beer. The options include half a Margherita pizza, fried potatoes, chicken, sausage platters and salads, and there’s no limit on the number you can order.
But because of the happy hour, I think I probably limited myself in terms of beer and did just stick to those on the offer instead of fully exploring the menu. A lesson learned if I find myself making a return visit!
If you’re looking for somewhere for a quiet drink, Popeye’s probably isn’t for you, especially on a Saturday night. But if you fancy somewhere that’s lively, bustling and slightly chaotic with plenty of beer then give it a go.
2 Chome-18-7 Ryōgoku, Sumida – 70beersontap.com
We then hopped over to Beer-Ma which is a both a craft beer bar and a bottle shop set over a couple of floors. The ground floor bar area has a few seats around the bar and a couple more around some tables and counters.
Eight draught beers are available and during our visit, the menu was dominated by IPAs and New England IPAs. It was also mostly US beers with some Japanese options, alongside one one from Swiss brewery BFM.
We’d nipped into the upstairs a few days before to have a look (the bar area was closed as it was fairly late) and I remember mostly UK and European beers on offer.
It was super quiet downstairs with it mostly just us and another drinker (who was desperately trying to sober up before meeting someone, it transpired) so there wasn’t much of an atmosphere. To be honest, it wasn’t a place that really stood out for me especially as design-wise it was fairly nondescript (light wood in a Scandi style but with none of those extra hygge features). It felt more like a place to get beers to takeaway rather than to drink in.
1 Chome-6-4 Kajicho, Chiyoda – facebook.com/kanda.WBM/
Our final port of call in Tokyo was Devil Craft in Kanda, a bar specialising in American style deep pan pizzas and craft beer. From the outside it looked very small and very busy (there were also people standing outside) but it was set over a three floors so we did manage to fit in.
We ended up sat tucked in around a corner which was good if you wanted some space but not so good if you wanted to get the attention of the staff.
The majority of the 14 draught beers were from their own Devil Craft brewery with the rest of the menu seeming to all be from the US. It seemed to be the sort of venue that attracts groups more than couples like us and as a result it was quite loud, although I do remember the music being pretty decent.
It wasn’t my favourite place as it probably would’ve been better for us to visit when we were eating or fancying something a bit livelier as at this point, after two weeks of travelling, exploring and drinking, we were ready for a quiet drink!
Ishikawa Building 4-2-3 Nihonbashi-muromachi, Chuo – devilcraft.jp/about/kanda/
Tokyo has such a wide selection of places to visit for beer and based on the sheer size it’d take years to visit everywhere. But one thing in common was that everywhere, right up from the tiniest basement bar, serves fantastic food and we found it also fairly easy to get veggie options too. Drinking in Tokyo also made me appreciate Manchester’s size a bit more – it’s well-known that Tokyo is a large city but until you get there it’s so hard to picture it. Travelling between bars and areas of the city does take time, even via the excellent public transport system, which means a pub crawl may not be as easy as you think!