In general, beer was easy to find, at any restaurant, streetside vending machines, and on long haul train and Shinkansen (bullet train) vendors. That is, if you like ultra light and dry lagers from megabreweries Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. Into a couple of days of nothing but light beer and sake, I desperately bought a beer with only one English word on the can: "black." Upon opening I discovered some sort of watered-down whiskey concoction. Finally, I was able to find a dark lager (kiru biru) at an Okonomiyaki restaurant that we ate at. This dish is basically a seafood and egg pancake, which is fried on the grill at your specially designed table (I had the squid). But as an English-only Gai-jin (foreigner), finding beer was tough. Luckily, I had a translator in the form of my brother, who lives in Tokyo, and Fred Eckhardt, who had sent me his extensive notes on breweries and pubs in Japan beforehand.
The first place I found was "Popeye's", a "western-style" Izakaya. Ignoring Fred's directions exiting Ryoogoku station, my traveling companions (my brother and his Japanese friend Ginnichi) and I wandered across what appeared to at least be a bar, if not a microbrewery. Unfortunately, they were not open until 5, so we continued. After wandering through a WWII memorial and the Kokugikan (National Sumo Stadium and Museum), we stopped back at the station for a breather. Here at least we found a restaurant with some ji-beers (country beer, or microbrew), I did not catch the brewery names. We had a very harsh "weizen" that was more like an oxidized pale ale, and a fairly decent dunkleweizen.
Refreshed, we searched some more. Unfortunately buildings are not numbered sequentially in Japan, and even with the location clearly marked on a map at the station, we could not find the elusive Popeye's or even a neighborhood storekeeper who could point us there. Finally we ran across the cross street, and a man working in a bakery sent us on down the street to the promised land.
Once inside, we found an extensive beer list, stylized with the trappings of a regular western pub. They had some English megabrews such as Bass, a selection of Rogue ales, and an empty bottle of Fred at the bar. A Mr. Aoki, who remembered Fred immediately, served us. He brought out a photo of Fred from his previous visit, exclaiming, "He's a god!" We started with Shinano Dragon. Finally, a decent beer! This was a smooth tasty amber ale, sweet, malty and cloudy. It was one of the better beers we had. Then I had Hakusekikan Pale Ale. A very English style pale ale, right down to the high levels of diacytel. Not to my tastes. Next we sampled the Hinotani brewery's wares. They brought out a "weizen" and a pale ale. The weizen just tasted like a smaller version of the pale, no ester or even wheat character there. The pale ale was very soft and well-balanced. What made the day was the Hinotani barleywine. This was fruity, hints of apple, and very malt balanced. Alcohol was very evident at 10%. Probably the best beer we had there, it was definitely on par with America's finest. I moved on to Tazawako's Koelsch, very dry but actually bordering on having some koelsch character; a very dusty hop nose, with some fruitiness. Mineral water hardness was also evident, and the beer was slightly oxidized.
A very pleasant part of the experience was the little appetizer brought out with each round. Pickled baby cucumbers and radishes, Chinese pork dumplings, and edamame. The last beer I had was Mimanishu Dunkleweizen. This beer had a very phenolic German weizen character, which really dominated, bordering on bubble gum. The roast malt was very subdued but appropriate.
Before leaving, I interrupted some salary men to take their picture. They were drinking out of a contraption that could only be described as a beer bong. A huge plastic tube, about three feet tall, five inches in diameter, filled with draft beer. It had a plastic ice pack encircling the bottom of the tube, just above the tap, which they poured themselves beers as they went along.
My brother had to work the next day, and he set me up with his friend Ginnichi as an interpreter for my excursion to the Echigo brewery in Makimachi. This involved 2 hours on the Shinkansen to Niigaata, then transferring to an ancient train to Maki. When we got there, it reminded me of Forest Grove. From the train station the police gave us directions and called a cab for the ride to the brewery. It was a beautiful facility with high ceilings, wood-paneled fermenters, very German looking dicor. Not just looks, I found the beers to be world-class. I started with the "Munich lager", a BJCP-spot-on version of a Helles, very crisp, clean, with a continental hop finish. I tasted Ginnichi's German Weizen, which was also very authentic, a nice balanced phenolic character; more accurate than any American interpretation I have tried. They also had an Amber Ale, which was very clean, medium-sweet, but otherwise non-descript. The pale ale would tread water anywhere in the US except the northwest, and had a very floral nose. The highlight was the imperial porter. It was dark and chocolaty, with a subtle roastiness that built up with each taste. I did not perceive the 9% alcohol advertised. I tried their other two nama (draft) beers, a pilsner that was not as nice as the Helles, and very light stout.
Despite dropping every name that Fred had given me, and waving my brew crew business card, I was unable to even get a tour or talk to any of the brewing staff. The specialties that Fred had mentioned were not available, a trippel and a ginjou beer (brewed with sake yeast). Looking sad and beer-geeky, I finally got our bartender to bring out something called "Ocean Ale," which was kept in a ceramic container with a swing top cap. I was able to draw out the story, apparently brewed by one of the (American?) Echigo brewers in Seattle, then carried in a sailboat to Hawaii en route to Japan. It was a light old ale, served in a stoneware glass. Sour at first, very light, delicious, and expensive.
The lunch accompaniment was Japanese version of micropub grub: little skinny sausages, bread and cheese (the only dairy products on the entire trip), pickled baby cucumbers, and a small pizza with a tortilla crust. We picked up some souvenirs and headed back to Tokyo, extremely satisfied, and happy to have taken the journey. Not wanting to be let down, I switched to sake for the rest of my trip.