Japan's Big Beer Gardens: Surround Yourself in Meat and Beer
It's no secret that Japan likes its beer, and anyone who has visited has surely spent some time with an Asahi Super Dry in an izakaya or a Sapporo Black Label from a 7/11. Drinking beer is something of a national pastime here, whether it's outdoors in the spring for cherry-blossom season, walking around at a festival, or at a 2-hour all-you-can-drink restaurant for end-of-the-year parties. For groups, especially big groups, looking to celebrate a bonenkai (literally “year-forgetting party”), or just gather together for some meat and drink, Japan's beer gardens are a great place to take part in this grand tradition.
All of Japan's “Big Three” beer companies (Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo) have large beer gardens scattered throughout the country, usually attached to their main breweries and distribution centers. These breweries offer guided tours by reservation for people who want to see what goes into a large-scale brewing operation. Even though it'll most likely be conducted in Japanese-only, they are often free, and visual and interesting enough to entertain any beer buffs traveling around looking for something fun to do. While most popular in Hokkaido, you can find these combination factory-restaurants in many major cities up and down Japan—not just the likes of Tokyo and Osaka, but also in lesser-known cities such as Nasu and Fukushima. Asahi operates the most, with eleven locations each, while Kirin and Sapporo both have six. Big or small, they all have two things in common: all-you-can-drink (called nomihoudai) and Genghis Khan-style yakiniku.
Usually between 3,500 – 4,000 yen, you can enjoy two hours of draft beers straight from the source, and most locations will have fresh-brewed offerings not available in your average street-corner conbini. If you have never participated in a Japanese nomihoudai, this is a great place to start. Aside from the beer they have on tap, these beer halls will often have a full selection of liquors, cocktails, and soft drinks, as well. After you get your first round of drinks to kampai with, it's time to turn your attention to the domed hotplate in the center of your table, and the raw meats ready and waiting nearby.
Once the plate has heated up, and you've got your first of hopefully many beers in hand, throw the meat onto the center of the plate. Then, pile on the plate of veggies on top of the meat as it cooks. Remember: good-quality meat should be cooked to medium-rare, so watch that you don't leave it on for too long! Dip your slightly pink meats in sauce, crunch on some veggies, and call over another drink. Repeat until full, warm, and happy.
This style of cooking in Japan referred to as “Genghis Khan” (or, in Japanese, jingisukan). Yes, that Genghis Khan. The name refers to Mongolian soldiers in prewar Japan who would cook meats on their domed helmets. Whereas most yakiniku restaurants in Japan will serve beef and pork, traditionally, the meats at these beer gardens will be cuts of lamb. There's actually a bit of interesting history to this.
While, there is some dispute as to where the Genghis Khan dish originated—with Tokyo, Zao Onsen in Yamagata, and Tono in Iwate all laying a claim—it became most popular in Hokkaido. You see, in 1918 the Japanese government sought to establish sheep as a source of meat and wool. This ultimately didn't pan out, and the sheep farms in Japan were closed—except for those in Hokkaido. Lamb became a staple meat for the people there, and the rest is history.
Decades before grilling lamb on domed hotplates became popular, the first combination brewery and beer hall was started by William Copeland, who founded the first Japan-based brewery in Yokohama in 1869, which he called The Spring Valley Brewing Company. Spring Valley would go on to become the Kirin Brewery Company. Before then, beer had been limited to expensive foreign imports found only on foreign settlements. In the following years, with Sapporo Brewery starting in 1876, and Asahi Breweries starting as the Osaka Brewing Company in 1889 (launching the Asahi brand 3 years later in 1892), it wasn't long before beer started to firmly take root in Japanese society.
(Interesting side note: Kirin announced their new craft beer label just this year, appropriately called “Spring Valley,” a name it hasn't had since 1885.)
When Asahi opened their first Japanese beer hall in 1897, they took a cue from the folks in Sapporo, and paired it with meat, bringing these two separate histories together. 118 years later, Japan's beer industry is booming, lamb is still being grilled, and all across the country, groups of friends and coworkers get together to eat, drink, and see how their favorite beers make it to the shelves. From the ivy-laced former government hall in Sapporo (now the Genghis Khan Hall), to the 100-year-old Asahi factory in Hakata, Japan's beer gardens can be enjoyed wherever you may travel.