Explore The World of Japanese Craft Beer with Tokyo-based Expert Yuya Hayashi

Words: Camille Miller / Photos: Rose Vittayaset

When Yuya Hayashi took his first sip of Punk IPA craft beer 10 years ago, he was amazed that someone could make something so fruity with just hops, barley and water.

“It all makes sense now, but at the time, I was trying beer from all over the world and the Punk IPA — how aromatic it was — struck me,” says Hayashi, now store manager of Watering Hole, a popular craft beer bar in Tokyo’s Shibuya Ward. “I came to understand how truly diverse craft beer could be.”

Growing up in the central Nagano Prefecture town of Matsumoto, Hayashi was exposed to the area’s famous agricultural produce and fruits like apples and grapes, and of course rice, which grows vibrant and rich due to the clean mountain water. He was surrounded by some of Japan’s top wineries and sake breweries, but Nagano has also become home to some of the country’s most innovative craft beer breweries.

Hayashi’s quest to find the best craft beer around Japan and the world means that one of the perks of visiting Watering Hole is asking Hayashi for a recommendation and knowing, without a doubt, that you will love whatever arrives — whether it be a golden pint or a Hazy IPA from Shizuoka Prefecture.

Having tried more than 13,000 types of beer at various bars and breweries, Hayashi knows more about what makes a quality pint than most suds lovers, and it was through his travels that his passion for Japanese craft beer grew to what it is today.

- One of the great things about craft beer is its sheer diversity across different styles and regions. In the US, for example, West Coast IPAs are known for their punchy hop aromas. What’s special about Japanese craft beer?

Japanese people are skilled at building on what they imitate. For example, historically adopting elements of Chinese culture, such as architecture, and making it their own. Or post-World War II, taking Western influences and creating hybrid cultures like “Taisho Roman.” In the case of beer, Japan initially brought over specialists from Germany, Britain and other places. After learning how to make it, we took it upon ourselves to develop our own flavors, creating something that resonated with our own regions and techniques, and eventually brought these flavors to the world. Hitachino Nest and other award-winning breweries like Ise Kadoya and Minoh Beer are examples of this.

- Where is the most exciting craft beer scene in Japan right now?

Aside from Tokyo, I think the most exciting craft beer scene is in Shizuoka. It started when Baird Brewing opened a brewery in Numazu about 20 years ago. Since then, they’ve built a big brewery in Shuzenji. They’ve always made American-style beer, which used to be hard to come by but has become a recent trend and staple of craft beer. The people who worked there have gone on to start their own businesses in the area, leading to more breweries and bars in Shizuoka. Thanks to them, the local market for craft beer has grown, and now, it’s become a thing for Tokyoites to go to Shizuoka to drink.

- As you mentioned, your home prefecture of Nagano is famous for its wineries. What’s the craft beer scene like out there?

In the case of craft beer, breweries there have really made a name for themselves by bringing their products into the Kanto region — the most famous example being Yona Yona Ale. Other examples of beer you can drink in Tokyo are Shiga Kogen Beer, Minami Shinshu Beer and, from my hometown, Matsumoto Brewery. So this culture of producing alcohol — as well as miso and soy sauce — is at the root of the region.

- What places in Japan do you recommend for international tourists to visit if they want to enjoy local craft beer? What attractions make these places attractive to tourists?

I would recommend Shizuoka City in Shizuoka Prefecture, home of West Coast Brewing. Compared to other cities, Shizuoka-shi has an abundance of craft beer establishments and shops managed directly by brewers. In particular, there’s a port town called Mochimune, where the former site of a tuna processing plant was renovated into Mochimune Minato Onsen, a day-trip hot spring resort, and West Coast Brewing, a craft beer brewery. There, you can enjoy craft beer and shirasu rice bowls, a local specialty, against scenes of Japanese fishing harbors and Mount Fuji, the heart of Japan.

Other than that, the city has several historical landmarks, like the Toro Ruins — a farming settlement from the Yayoi period — and Sumpu Castle. I personally enjoy saunas and hot springs, so I would definitely visit Sauna Shikiji, known as Japan’s best sauna, where you can bathe in Mount Fuji’s streams.

- What are some other memorable breweries you’ve visited throughout Japan?

I recently visited Ise City in Mie Prefecture. It’s a major tourist area and the site of Ise Jingu — the most revered shrine in Japan. There’s a brewery there called Ise Kadoya Brewery, which took off about two years ago. With Covid-19, the situation has changed, but they used to do brewery tours. It’s also housed in a renovated building, in what used to be a huge factory in a warehouse neighborhood, and it’s massive, like an American brewery. The brewing facility sits in a room that’s like 30, 40 meters high, and they’re continuing to build it out with new equipment. The best thing about Ise Kadoya is that no matter where you go in town, every gift shop carries its products, so wherever you go, you can buy and drink Ise Kadoya’s beer. The city itself is imbued in omotenashi culture, and the fact this brewery exists within that space makes it an amazing place to visit.

- What advice do you have for readers who are interested in craft beer and want to explore Japan’s breweries but don’t know where to start?

Start by figuring out what style of beer you like, whether it be IPAs, pale ales, wheat beers or whatever. Once you understand your preference, it’s easier to find the right brewery. For example, if you like pale ales, my go-to brewery in Japan would be Oni Densetsu in Noboribetsu, Hokkaido.

- Where do you like to visit in Japan on your own personal vacation, and what kinds of things do you like to do there?

I enjoy visiting Matsumoto City in Nagano Prefecture, which is a bit strange considering I was born and raised there. The area is surrounded by the Northern Alps, reaching heights of 3,000 meters, and centered around the 400-year-old Matsumoto Castle. Fresh spring water flows through the basin, which stretches out like a fan over the city and also serves as a gateway for mountaineers. From traditional Matsumoto furniture to the Seiji Ozawa Matsumoto Festival, the city is rich in culture, boasting a food culture that extends from fermented goods like miso and shoyu, all the way to sake, wine, beer and beyond.

My favorite thing to do there is drink beer while gazing at the Northern Alps from the terrace of a place called Matsumoto Brewery Taproom Honmachi on the third floor of Shinmai Media Garden building.