Cool Phrase – 取れるところから取る

Belated notice, but I was in the Japan Times On Sunday this past week with an article about craft beer in Japan: “Beer Essentials: The craft beer boom in Japan shows no signs of running dry.”

This was a fun piece to research and write. I highly recommend checking out Jeffrey Alexander’s book “Brewed in Japan.” It’s an incredibly interesting read about the history of beer in Japan. I don’t recommend buying the Google Play version of the book, however. I was forced to read it in a very small font on my iPhone. I think I’ll probably get a physical copy of the book and give it another read at some point. There are so many interesting details, and I’d like to be able to enjoy it more leisurely without ruining my vision. Here’s a great passage from the book about Japan’s early encounters with American beer:

When the shogunate then agreed to sign the Convention of Kanagawa [in March 1854]…it held a celebratory reception to mark the occasion. At the event, the US delegation presented gifts to the Japanese officials of innovative American products, including a working telegraph, a one-quarter-scale steam locomotive, and three casks of beer. The beer was described by Japanese observers as being an earthen colour, with a large volume of bubbles on top, but review of its taste were mixed. Some called it “magic water,” while others labelled it “bitter horse-piss wine.”

Ha. Suffice it to say that they’ve warmed up to beer in the interval.

This was also a great excuse to catch up with a lot of old friends in Tokyo, which I was able to do thanks to the Japanese government. They flew me over to Japan the first week of March for a JET conference. I had a few days on the front half of my trip to myself, and I used it going around to bars I frequented when I lived in Tokyo. I got really lucky with the timing. The JT asked me to write the article just a couple weeks after I was invited to the conference. Special thanks to Aoki-san at Popeye in Ryogoku and Sato-san at Beer Brassiere Boulevard (formerly of Dry Dock).

One interesting phrase I heard from several sources in the beer industry was 取れるところから取る (“take [taxes] from where [taxes] can be taken”). A Google search shows that it gets used in reference to many different topics: 10,100 search results are pared down to 2,840 when the term ビール is added to the search. Still, that’s about 28%. A Japanese book I read titled ビールの教科書 suggests that it’s a combination of inertia and the fact that it’s a hard sell for the government to give money back to companies that make booze.

There’s been some small movement on an equalization (一本化) of the beer tax, which would set the tax for any type of alcoholic barley-based beverage at 55 yen/can, but it’s unlikely to happen any time soon, especially if the Japanese economy doesn’t pick up. It would be very interesting to see how that change would affect the beer market, since it would effectively eliminate any competitive advantage for happōshu. It would affect different companies in different ways since their portfolios are so varied. Asahi would likely benefit, since Super Dry is a true beer and already dominates the market. Suntory, on the other hand, sells a ton of Kinmugi, and it would be forced to raise prices.

Sadly the beer tax will likely be a semi-permanent impediment to the development of craft beer in Japan. As long as folks keep drinking, it will be an easy target for politicians.

Collabo-Ramen – ほん田

Brian and I thought we’d covered Tokyo Ramen Street last year when we finished Collabo-Ramen videos for the first four shops, but then they went and expanded this past April, adding four more shops which we felt the need to cover for completion’s sake.

We finally made it to the last shop this past Friday – Honda has slight variations on traditional bowls of shoyu and shio along with shoyu and miso tsukemen. Brian and I had the tsukemen. Afterward we went over to Kanda to have beers at Devil Craft, one of the newest bars on the Tokyo craft beer scene. The store is somewhat small but not uncomfortable – we made a reservation for five and were able to fit six at one of the tables upstairs. They also have a nice beer selection that isn’t monopolized by high ABV beers:

Collabo-Ramen – 本田 Honda from Daniel Morales on Vimeo.

I have to admit I was skeptical when Brian first suggested that we review the restaurants on Tokyo Ramen Street. I’d been reading his blog for a while and knew that he was the Ramen Adventurer: I wanted to trek out into shitamachi neighborhoods in search of Ganko-style secret ramen shops. But he had much more experience recommending ramen to readers of his blog, and he insisted that Tokyo Station is easily accessible for most tourists and that the stores on Tokyo Ramen Street have great bowls.

There’s definitely an extensive selection, and working with Brian has expanded my palette, which I think has enabled me to appreciate some of the bowls more. Definitely check out these stores if you have to be passing through Tokyo, especially Junk Garage, since that brings the Saitama-based mazemen into the heart of the city. Here are links to all the Tokyo Ramen Street Collabo-Ramen episodes:

The first four:

Rokurinsha
Hirugao
Mutsumiya
Keisuke Nidaime (lobster ramen, currently a crab ramen which Brian and I gave a pass)

And the new four:

Shichisai
Junk Garage
Ikaruga
Honda (you’re reading it)

Collabo-Ramen – Junk Garage

There’s never too much Junk in the trunk of a big fat bowl of mazemen. Brian and I checked out Junk Garage on Ramen Street:

Collabo-Ramen – Junk Garage from Daniel Morales on Vimeo.

Six down, two more to go. (Oh, and we also tried the crab ramen over at Keisuke – I’d recommend against it. It comes in a bowl shaped like Hokkaido, and there’s a layer of oil on top about a centimeter deep.)

Collabo-Ramen – 七彩

In April, Tokyo Ramen Street expanded to eight stores. The original four are still there (although Keisuke now serves a crab miso rather than the past lobster miso) along with four new spots. Brian and I checked out 七彩 (Shichisai), which serves a Kitakata style ramen – a light shoyu or shio soup with amazing chashu pork:

CollaboRamen – Shichisai from Daniel Morales on Vimeo.

For three years I lived in Fukushima Prefecture about thirty minutes away from Kitakata. I ate in famous Kitakata shops a number of times, but it never really made an impact on me until I tried Shichisai. Sure, I noticed the pork tasted great, but until Brian showed me what to look for in different bowls, I always erred on the side of miso and went for hearty, savory bowls of Hokkaido style ramen.

I was also intimidated by the huge amount of pork that some chashu-men bowls offer. Shichisai has the perfect amount of pork on its 喜多方肉そば – not too much, not too little – and the soup was light and delicious – I finished the whole bowl, which is a rarety for me.

One of the neat parts about this shop is that there are windows into the kitchen area, so you can watch them cook while you wait.

Brian ran into some guys from the Tōno, Iwate-based Zumona Brewery at the Daimaru department store giving out samples of their German-style beers. After the earthquake, a group of twenty-one Japanese craft breweries created their own relief effort under the title “Re-Fermenting Japan.” Illustrator, author, and overall Japan beer guru Hiroyuki Fujiwara created the slogan and the graphic that’s being used on posters and bottles.

Sasaki-san, the Zumona brewer, will be at Daimaru until Tuesday, June 28th, so be sure to drop by to try some out and pick up a few bottles. We covered the basement of Daimaru in a past Collabo-Ramen video – they’ve got a decent selection.

Collabo-Ramen – naginicai

I was in Japan last December for a whirlwind ten days of drinking, eating, and catching up with folks. I went out to ramen with Brian on my first full day in the country, but it’s taken me nearly six months to finally put together the video footage I took – I’m a lazy bastard (and was a little busy, as well). The worst thing is that in those five months, the shop has closed! Or so Brian told me.

Naginicai is one of the shops in the Nagi chain. It’s on the west side of Shinjuku Station and serves both lunch and dinner. You can check out what the dinner options were like on Brian’s or Keizo’s blog. I took video footage of the lunch, which only offers tsukemen:

Collabo-Ramen – naginicai from Daniel Morales on Vimeo.

I’ll have to double check with Brian to see whether they’ve actually closed or not. I know that he posted about a charity event that was held at naginicai in April, so maybe they are open for a limited number of events during the year.

For those unaware, the name although written in romaji actually means 二階 (にかい, second floor), which is a good name since it’s on the second floor. Within the restaurant, they also have a small loft seating area that you can rent out for nomikai.

号外 – Oyster Season Closing Poem

My love of oysters is well chronicled here at How to Japonese. Last year I got a group together near the end of April and we spent over $1000 on oysters! (゜д゜;) This year I won’t even approach that. The group is smaller and the oysters are much, much cheaper. If you’re in New Orleans today, please feel free to drop by Cooter Brown’s from 7pm onward.

To celebrate, I’ve written a poem about the end of oyster season. Enjoy:

‘Twas the first of September and all through the parish
Not a mollusk was stirring in stomachs a’famished.
But when the long hours of toil ended that day,
Eyes brightened, smiles formed, and the people became gay.

With a jump and a shout the crowds took to the bar
To eat them some oysters from near and afar.
“On the halfshell, on crackers, or charbroiled!” they exclaimed.
“In poboys, in gumbos, or Rockefeller!” they said, unashamed.

Through fall and winter and spring they did eat,
And as summer approached, they realized they were beat.
“My belly is full,” a wee lad cried, holding a shell.
“And I’ve been at this smoky bar for so long that I smell!”

“One last night!” someone screamed, “We haven’t drank all the beer.”
“And once April is over, we’ll have to wait till next year.”
“’Tis true!” another echoed, “This is the most important day thus far.”
“Because we can only eat oysters in months that have R.”

From amidst the hordes of oyster eaters there arose a great cheer,
And they all ordered more dozens and refilled their beer.
The hot summer months are no reason to get down.
Let’s celebrate! You’re invited! to end oyster season on April 29 at Cooter Browns!

Tokyo Station City North Court – 利久

During my trip to Japan over winter vacation, I was fortunate to experience the mid-December debut of North Court, the newest expansion of Tokyo Station City. I’ve written previously about GranSta (glowing reviews), which is in the basement just beyond the Yaesu Central Underground Entrance. North Court is similar in style and content but much smaller. It’s on the first floor close to the Yaesu Central Exit…right above GranSta, I believe.

One of the highlights is a Kinokuniya with a limited selection of quality beer and bento. For me, the best part was a branch of the famous Sendai-based restaurant Rikyu (利久), which is well known for it’s 牛タン – yup, beef tongue.

Japan introduced me to a wide variety of meats I’d never had the pleasure of enjoying before, and tongue was one of these. I first had thinly sliced cuts at yakiniku restaurants, but when I went to Sendai in 2005 to take the JLPT, a friend and I randomly bumped into a Sendai-based JET while shopping. We asked for a dinner recommendation, and he (she? I can’t remember) told us to go to Rikyu. We were not disappointed.

It became a ritual for me. I had it the night before I took JLPT 2 and the next year the night before I took JLPT 1. Passed both. I went for a job interview in Sendai a few years later, and sure enough I had it before the job interview. Which I subsequently passed.

I picked up a bento to enjoy on the train ride up to Fukushima – it was fantastic. Unlike yakiniku tongue cuts, Sendai tongue is thick and beefy with riveted cuts to help the meat cook. They have that al dente texture that Japanese love (and some foreigners hate…especially when it involves things like tendons and cartilage).

Highly recommended if you’re ever looking to pick up lunch for your shinkansen trip.

Kyoto Doughnut Plant

On my recent trip to Japan, I stopped by Kyoto and stayed with some friends I knew from Fukushima. Before I got on the train back to Tokyo, I picked up some doughnuts at the new Doughnut Plant in the Yodobashi Camera a few blocks from Kyoto Station.

As you may or may not know, I’m a big fan of Doughnut Plant in Japan. This time I managed to pick up the super rare 限定 Houji-cha doughnut that is only available in Kyoto.

Unfortunately it was very disappointing, especially after I had a fantastic Houji-cha latte at Starbucks (also only available in Kyoto). The doughnut had very little Houji-cha flavor. I really couldn’t taste the difference between it an a regular glazed doughnut. The carrot cake doughnut, however, was amazing.

Although this feels a little unfair, no? Is it legal to shape carrot cake into a doughnut and call it a doughnut? I guess so. Doughnut Plant shows off their expertise by threading cream cheese icing through the middle. Very nice touch.

And to top everything off, the weather was clear enough to see Mt. Fuji from the train.