text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
The similarity between beer in Japan and “firewater” in America stops at the fact that both were introduced by Europeans in the 17th century; contrary to Native American tribes, the Japanese had already an alcoholic beverage culture of their own and they were very strict on how Western influences were spread in their land. Therefore, the Dutch beer hall at the artificial island/trading post Nejima in Nagasaki was for two centuries the only spot in Japan serving Europe’s popular drink; the torch would be later passed on to the commissioner of Dejima, Hendrik Doeff (1764-1837) who created the first brewery on Japanese soil in Nagasaki and after that to the Norwegian-American Johan Martinius Thoresen/William Copeland (1834-1902) who opened the “Spring Valley Brewery” in Yokohama in 1869. In 1888 “Spring Valley Brewery” transformed to “Kirin” and together with “Sapporo” from Hokkaido, “Yebisu” from Tokyo and “Asahi” from Osaka taught the 20th century Japanese that the only way to endure summer is looking it through a glass of cold beer.
The intolerable Japanese summer is probably the reason that another proposition by William Copeland, that of the outdoors beer garden managed to spread in Japan very quickly and become as popular as izakaya or yakitori-ya . Like all Western ideas they were also modified so as to bear only a slight resemblance to their Bavarian counterparts –they are usually on the rooftop of some major department store, the wooden benches and long tables have been replaced by regular plastic tables and chairs, the trees by potted plants and the sausages by Japanese “agemono” (揚げ物) i.e. deep-fried food- but beer, usually in the form of “nomihodai” (飲み放題that is “drink all you want for a fixed price”) remains the main (and quite often the only) option in the drink menu.
Even though I don’t drink beer, I have a particular fondness for the “beeah-gaaden” for the same reason I like izakaya: they provide one more opportunity to see the “ura” (裏) side of Japanese people, the one that is usually invisible to the visitors shortsightedly limiting their choices to American fast-food (if looking for something familiar) and kaiten-zushi (if looking for something “Japanese”). Exhausted by the alternation of the humid, sticky heat and the polar, chilling cold of the air-conditioners in the offices and the stores in the belly of the Leviathan, people climb on its back in the evenings to breath, joke, defuse the tensions that occurred during the day and relax under a sky that, true to the futuristic stereotype, is studded with red aircraft warning lights instead of stars; beer, despite its undeniable suitability as lubricant for this procedure is only an excuse.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes in the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.