Summer is well and truly upon us. For the next couple of months at least, we can look forward to scorching temperatures and searing humidity. Amidst the sweat, the almost constant heat and the seemingly endless buzzing of those early morning cicadas, one must do all they can to find some respite. This is where one of Japan’s greatest summer passtimes comes to the fore: The beer garden!
Anyone who has ever been to a pub in the UK during the summer time will have an idea of what a beer garden looks like. Long tables adorn the garden outside the pub, where one can kick back with family and friends, enjoying a cold beer as the hot sun beats down. In most cases, as technically the garden is outside the pub itself, children are also welcomed. Certainly, relaxing in the beer garden has long been a staple of the good, traditional British summertime.
However, not to be outdone, the Japanese have taken this concept to the next level. As only they know how, the Japanese have taken that quintessentially European idea of the summer beer garden and made it even better.
Whilst the ambiance of a British beer garden certainly holds a lot of appeal, it is certainly not cheap. Beers and other drinks are still charged at the same rate as if you were drinking in the pub itself. Indeed it is not unusual for some pubs to raise their prices during what is, after all, the peak season for their trade.
It certainly cannot be disputed that the Japanese beer garden offers better value for money in this regard. Rather than pay per drink, most beer gardens in Japan have a flat rate, usually in the range of 3 or 4000 yen that you will pay for unrestricted access to food and drink for the entirety of the evening.
And the food is certainly not just your typical pub fare. In Japan, the pork scratchings, peanuts and sandwiches we would associate with the typical English pub are traded in for sushi, fried rice, curry, grilled chicken, seafood and all manner of other delicious, high class foods. The words to remember are “tabehodai”, meaning all you can eat, and “nomihodai” meaning all you can drink. Find a beer garden that offers these two services, and you are good to go!
So with that in mind, where in the Kansai area can one go to enjoy a good summer beer garden?
As you know, Osakans certainly subscribe to the notion of “work hard, play hard” so there is no shortage of options for beer enthusiasts. However, we don’t have time to visit them all, so here today, I present my own personal top five for your consideration.
1) Takashimaya Department Store Rooftop, Namba, Osaka
Photo : Toshiyuki IMAI on FlickrNot the cheapest, nor in my opinion does it have the best food and drink selection, but Takashimaya nonetheless is a worthy entrant on this list. In spite of its city-centre location, this beer garden, with its wide open space and panoramic city scape views is the perfect place to unwind after a busy day at the office. The perfect port of call for both the world weary salarymen and office ladies alike.
2) Kirin Beer Garden, Osaka Station, Osaka
Photo : Chie Gondo on FlickrJust outside the main building of JR Osaka station, in the courtyard that separates the station from the recently completed “Osaka Grand Front” shopping complex, you will find this quaint little drinking hole. Not really a beer garden as such (there’s no tabehodai or nomihodai on offer here) but still it warrants a mention for the unique food and drink it provides. As any German will tell you, sausages and beer are always a good combination, so I was pleasantly surprised upon my first visit to this popular drinking spot to find a selection of the finest German sausage on sale alongside the usual black beers and lagers. What really caught my eye though wasn’t the food, but rather a new and unique type of beer that was on offer. It was here that I first became acquainted with the uniquely Japanese concept of the “frozen beer”.
If you’re old enough to remember drinking a “Slush Puppy” or “Slurpee” as it was known in the US, then you’ll already have a rough idea of the consistency of a frozen beer. It’s like a shaved ice drink, laced with beer and topped off with a creamy head of foam. Delicious, refreshing, but like oh so many foodstuffs in Japan, just a little bit weird. If you’re feeling even more adventurous, then you may want to try one of the flavoured frozen beers. I recommend tomato. Imagine if someone mixed a tomato juice with a strawberry dakiri and then poured beer over the top. That’s probably as accurate a description as I can give of the unique taste sensation that awaits you.
3) Kobe Seaside Beer Terrace, Kobe Oriental Hotel, Kobe
Photo : Hideyuki KAMON on FlickrIf you value ambiance and spectacular views and aren’t so fussed about drinking yourself into a coma, then perhaps you may want to consider a trip to Kobe. The Summer Seaside Beer Terrace is only available for 90 minute bookings, but believe me, when you see the amazing views overlooking the Kobe Harbourland area, out beyond Awaji Island and into the Pacific Ocean, it’s more than worth it. It’s definitely not the kind of place to go all out and smash through 8 or 9 beers in one sitting, but it will certainly give you plenty of enjoyment, and is the perfect place to relax and unwind after a busy day of sightseeing and shopping around Kobe. Also, as any man who has ever dated in Japan will tell you, the sweeping ocean views are always a winner with the ladies!
4) Kirin Kyoto Beer Garden, Kawaramachi, Kyoto
Photo : Jonathan Li on FlickrAs a focal point of cultural and historic beauty, in Japan Kyoto is unmatched. However, it is also fast developing a reputation for some great summer beer gardens too. The Kirin Kyoto Beer Garden offers a decent blend of reasonable prices, a pleasant setting and also some really good food. At 4,500 yen per person it is definitely at the more expensive end of the scale, but that includes as much as you like to eat and drink, so you can really go for it if you feel so inclined. In particular, I recommend getting into the flame grilled barbecue. Chicken, beef and other meats are not just tasty accompaniments to your drinks, they will also go some way to lessening the impact of the beer later on!
5) Osaka Castle Park, Osaka
Photo : Tomoharu Mogami on FlickrOk, I’m probably cheating with this last one. As anyone who has been to Osaka Castle Park will tell you, there is no beer garden in the vicinity. So, what my friends and I like to do, is create our own. Head to the local supermarket, stock up on drinks and snacks, and then scout out a nice spot under the castle. There is no better view than watching the sun set behind Osaka Castle as you enjoy a cold, cool beer with friends. Simple, cheap and very enjoyable, it’s the perfect and thrifty alternative to an actual beer garden.
Ok, all this talk of beer gardens is making me thirsty, I’m off for a pint. Kanpai!