By now it’s no secret that Tokyo has a gobsmacking amount of good things to eat and drink. You might’ve heard that it has more Michelin stars than anywhere else, that it has French pastries to rival Paris and pizza to shame Naples. Maybe you’ve heard about the shocking price that certain foods command here—the $400 melons from Hokkaido or the tuna auctioned off for a cool $3.1 million at Toyosu Market—but that the cheap eats are every bit as good. Skip the fancy tasting menus for booze-friendly karaage (fried chicken), yakitori, and robatayaki at local izakayas and you’ll dine like royalty. Or go for ramen—you could eat at a different shop every day for 57 years without slurping your way through the whole city.
Yet for all the staggering diversity of culinary options, for decades the Japanese beer scene was surprisingly monotonous. Beer may be ramen’s soulmate beverage, but the choices listed in most noodle shops’ vending machines are, with rare exceptions, lagers like Sapporo, Ebisu, Kirin, and Asahi. The near-universal dominance of low-ABV, easy-drinking numbers has its roots in the origins of the Japanese brewing industry.
“When the craft beer industry started out in 1994, the majority of the beer styles were based on traditional German recipes, with the occasional British beer,” explains Rob Bright, co-founder of the Tokyo craft beer blog BeerTengoku. “These styles were the most popular as the breweries at that time had either German head brewers, or the breweries used German brewers to train Japanese brewers.”
As a result, these pioneering breweries helped develop a national taste for kölsch, weizens, pilsners, and alts. Many of the breweries under German management adhered to the Reinheitsgebot, or German Purity Law, specifying that beer can only contain barley, hops, and water. Innovation within the Japanese brewing industry was further stymied by draconian homebrewing laws largely banning batches over 1% ABV.
“On the whole, the lack of homebrewing has held back Japanese brewing mainly because there is very little opportunity for people to practice and refine their beers,” Bright says. “When people apply for a brewing license in Japan, they have to write down their experience, but homebrewing is not considered to be valid, so people must rely on work experience at breweries in Japan or overseas.”
Luckily for those of us who crave a little more diversity, things have been looking up for the craft industry. A new law in 2018 relaxed some of the commercial brewing regulations for the first time in 110 years. That means that Japanese brewers have a whole bunch of new potential ingredients in their arsenal, from fruits and spices to oysters, bonito flakes, and seaweed.
For the past decade, importers including Nagano Trading, AQ Bevolution, and Beer Cats have been shuttling hazy IPAs, American pale ales, and more niche styles like kettle sours across the Pacific. All this has helped inspire local breweries like TDM 1874 Brewery in Yokohama, where head brewer George Juniper turns out everything from English IPAs to imperial stouts, and Uchu Brewing in Yamanashi, which debuted in 2018 with offerings like sour IPAs and milkshake IPAs, sometimes brewed with its own homegrown hops.
“The breweries that opened up around this time were quick to jump on these styles and also used imported American hops to help push through this change,” Bright says. “Some styles don’t make it over, while others, such as milkshake IPAs, hazy IPAs, [and] New England IPAs do. These styles are becoming more popular in Japanese craft beer circles; however, the main focus is still on American IPAs from the West Coast, as well as lighter American IPAs that are dry and focus on hops.”
All this is to say you can now have your Tokyo craft beer and your ramen too, albeit not always at the same spot. On a recent visit to the Japanese capital, I decided to see how much of each I could cram into one delirious, jetlagged, stomach-stretching whirlwind of a trip. Is it advisable to consume this much booze and pork fat in a weekend? Probably not. But that wasn’t going to stop me from trying.
Chef Yamaguchi elevates the humble chicken noodle soup to an art form with his signature torisoba. There are no tricks here, just painstakingly executed techniques and more TLC than you thought possible to cram into a single bowl. Slicked with golden fat from the flavorful, free-range birds from the chef’s home prefecture, the collagen-rich broth at this much-lauded ramen spot is a revelation. Chefs dole out a scant portion of this golden elixir in each bowl, then top it with impossibly moist sous-vide chicken char siu and wontons made whisper-thin dough cradling delicately seasoned thigh meat. Crack open the egg with your spoon to reveal a jammy, neon orange yolk.
This chilled out trio of brewpubs has its roots in 2008, when three American homebrewers—John Chambers, Jason Koehler, and Mike Grant—decided to go professional. Their first outpost in Hamamatsucho featured 21 taps, plus Chicago-style deep-dish. “Devilcraft has been making some great beers since opening. They have a focus on American styles and make some styles that aren’t made by other breweries in Japan,” Bright says. Even though the operation has spread, the taprooms still have a cozy, neighborhood vibe. There’s always something new on draft and the menus are never the same. “You can pick up some very tasty pizza and wash it down with a well-curated beer list that is split between domestic and imports.”
Step into this Shibuya izakaya and you might wonder if you’ve got the wrong address. Skulls and phallic symbols decorate the custom-crafted plates (ask nicely and the staff will sell them to you for about $150 a piece) and the soundtrack ranges from bagpipes to punk rock to samba tunes toward the tail end of the night. There’s no menu, but not to worry—you’re in excellent hands. Chef Narukiyo doesn’t speak English, but he has a knack for reading customers that transcends language barriers. He tends to whistle while he works—literally—and will feed you plates of meaty tuna cheek katsu that’s a shocking shade of violet and seabass torched so that the scales blister and crisp up like dozens of briny potato chips. The attention to detail in seemingly simple dishes is stupefying, from the flawless, fat spears of grilled asparagus smudged with barley miso to an uni-heavy sashimi platter with freshly grated wasabi. A satisfyingly oily braise of potatoes and tender beef topped with chile paste is the highest form of comfort food and the one item you can almost always count on finding. Whatever price the staff scribble on a piece of paper at the end won’t be cheap, but it will be more than generous for what you’re getting.
Ichiri Fujiura is a certified legend in Tokyo’s craft brewing circles. Way back in 1998, he brewed a toasted coconut porter that made him the first non-American to win Homebrewer of the Year from the American Homebrewers Association. Unfortunately, the Japanese police were less than amused by his illicit hobby. Today, Watering Hole is both fully legal and one of Shibuya’s must-visit nanobreweries and taprooms. “The tap list is varied enough that the beer flights have a plethora of combinations and are often the best choice,” Bright says. What really sells the place, according to Bright and other fans, is the enthusiastic staff. “Tsutui-san and Kazu are both incredibly knowledgeable about beers and will help anyone in choosing a beer with impartiality. Never had a bad beer at Watering Hole!”
Battle back your hangover as the Japanese do: head to your nearest vending machine and down a can of Nagatanien, or miso clam soup. Or if you, like me, you can’t handle that many bivalves before noon, bring yourself to life with a visit to this cult favorite noodle-slinger. To locate Kikanbo, simply hop off the subway in Kando and follow the line of local food bloggers snaking down the block. Word got out fast when Masakazu Miura opened this shop in 2009. Surely, some of the hubbub had to do with the gleefully kitschy interior. Grinning oni masks and kikanbo, or the spiked clubs typically wielded by the demons, line the walls. The hellish decor is no accident—the ferociously spicy tokusei karashibi miso employs both chilies and tongue-tingling Sichuan peppercorns for a ma la twist. All this would place Kikanbo precariously close to gimmicky territory if it weren’t so damn delicious. Order your bowl at the vending machine outside with the desired level of spice—“moderate” chilies and peppercorns is a pleasant buzz of endorphins, while “oni” level has been known to reduce amateurs to a sweating, crying hot mess. Consider yourself warned and do not attempt without a cold one at your side.
Blink and you’ll miss the barely-there sign for this subterranean izakaya in Shinjuku. Walk down the darkened staircase, slide open the door, and brace for an enthusiastic “Irasshaimase!” as you kick off your shoes. The women-run crew in the open kitchen here operates at a speed and energy level usually only achievable with six-plus espresso shots. Without breaking a sweat, they slice through sashimi with artful precision while overseeing the roaring inferno of the robata grill. Though the ventilation system struggles mightily, things do get a bit smoky in here—not that you’re likely to mind when the kitchen keeps feeding you blood-rare Wagyu with a side of coarse salt for dipping. Most of the dishes here come with instructions—e.g. clasp the stem of a giant shiitake and hold it like an upside-down umbrella while you sip the mushroom-y juices—so grab a seat around the action and do what these very wise chefs tell you.
Whatever beer you’re seeking to round out your last night on the town, chances are high that you’ll find it flowing from one of the 70 gleaming taps at this iconic Ryogoku pub. The selection changes regularly and tends to focus on Japanese breweries, including lesser-known upstarts. Although the daily happy hour lands you a free plate of food for every drink you order, you’re better off saving valuable stomach space for one of the sampler sets. Order a flight of 10 different beers to share for ¥2,980 ($27) to try as many pale ales, stouts, IPAs, and pilsners as possible. For the best time, grab a seat at the bar, where the expert staff will nudge you to discover something new.
What, you’ve had enough ramen already? Don’t be ridiculous. Because this Shibuya spot isn’t just any old noodle joint—it’s one that ladles up killer bowls made with an ultra-rich chicken stock until 6 a.m. Even in a city that runs until the wee hours, this shop is one of the last places where you can fortify yourself before catching a morning train home. It’s technically a chain, but like the Afuri outlets found around town, it still produces superior stuff. The cooks simmer the signature ramen’s chicken shio base so long the broth turns milky-white. For something a little different, order the tobikkiri asari-ramen, which comes with a lush broth bobbing with monster-sized Manila clams and enriched with a glob of butter for good measure. It’s the best preventative hangover medicine around, not to mention a fittingly indulgent finish to your trip.