A golden time to dine outdoors

Japan Times food writers dish out tips on al fresco spots nationwide ahead of Golden Week

by Angela Erika Kubo, Robbie Swinnerton, and Kris Kosaka

Now is the golden season in Tokyo: balmy days, mellow temperatures, low humidity and no mosquitoes. There’s nothing better than a nice, leisurely (and maybe even boozy) lunch outside — dinner, too, as long as you bring a warm jacket or throw.

We can thank the Italians for the term “al fresco,” and we can thank Cucina Tredici Aprile (2-24-9 Nishi-Azabu, Minato-ku; 03-3486-6310; 13aprile.jp) for creating one of the city’s finest little verdant patios for appreciating good cucina. Chef Masafumi Hidaka’s menu includes a lot of organic vegetables, excellent seafood and superb homemade pasta — and plenty of good wine, too. The drawback? There’s just one table, and he only serves lunch on Saturdays and national holidays.

Would you prefer a limpid riverine setting? At Canal Cafe (1-9 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku; 03-3260 8068; www.canalcafe.jp), diners sit beside the moatlike Kanda River, just minutes from Iidabashi Station. The Italian-esque fare is far from the best (or the best value) in town, but it’s worth it for the pleasure of open-air dining to the sound of lapping water while watching the Chuo Line trains rumble past.

T.Y. Harbor Brewery (2-1-3 Higashi-Shinagawa, Shinagawa-ku; 03-5479-4555; www.tyharborbrewing.co.jp), Tokyo’s first independent craft brewery, offers hearty, satisfying American cooking and a refreshing range of craft beers to complement its postindustrial waterside location. When the weather warms up, the patio here is deservedly one of the most popular dining spots in the city.

If Tennoz Isle seems like a trek too far, those same TY brews are also readily available at its sister restaurants. The pick of the pack is Cicada in Omotesando (5-7-28 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 03-6434-1255; www.tyharborbrewing.co.jp/en/cicada), thanks to its superior Spanish/Middle Eastern-tinged cuisine and the beautifully secluded outdoor patio seating.

Madame would like a dusting of Michelin stardust with her dejeuner en pleine air? Then look no further than the chateau at Yebisu Garden Place. Hidden away from the punters in the main mall, the garden terrace at La Table de Joel Robuchon (1-13-1 Mita, Meguro-ku; 03-5424-1338; www.robuchon.jp) offers the most sophisticated outdoor dining in the city.

But for kicking back and hanging loose on a mellow afternoon or early summer evening, there really is nowhere more fun than 246 Common (3-13 Minami-Aoyama, Minato-ku; 03-3487-0959; www.246common.jp). Take your pick of food and drink from a dozen stalls or food trucks, then settle in the shade of the parasols over the communal tables in the middle of the encampment. But make sure to go soon: The clock is ticking on this unique rural-urban experiment, and it will close on May 31. (Robbie Swinnerton)

Tokyo’s beer gardens are in bloom

It may not be beer garden season just yet, but there are a few places in the metropolitan area that are opening up. Last month, Tokyo Dome City (1-3-61 Koraku, Bunkyo-ku; 03-5800-9999; www.tokyo-dome.co.jp) opened its beer garden to the public early. A beer is ¥650 per glass, and there are more than 20 different snacks to choose from — all ¥500 each. Everything is self-service, so expect to go back and forth to make sure everyone in your group is topped up throughout the evening. The nighttime lighting around Korakuen provides ambience while television sets placed around the venue offer up the entertainment — at least until the beer kicks in.

For whisky lovers out there, a Highball Garden has been set up at the base of Tokyo Tower (4-2-8 Shibakoen, Minato-ku; 03-3433-5111; www.tokyotower.co.jp). Enjoy a prime underside view of the landmark with your highball, which is colored the same brilliant orange as the structure itself. In addition to thick slices of bacon on its menu, Highball Garden will also offer Suntory Premium Malts, for those who prefer a simple glass of beer. Roppongi is just a few minutes walk away, if your group plans to have an afterparty.

The head office of the New Tokyo Sukiyabashi includes a rooftop beer garden that is said to have been established in 1936 (2-2-3 Yurakucho, Chiyoda-ku; 03-3572-3848; tokyo.beer-garden.info). Customers pay ¥4,800 for an all-you-can-eat, all-you-can-drink deal. The place is famous for its juicy Genghis Khan, a grilled mutton dish that doesn’t have the strong smell of lamb.

While May’s temperatures are perfect for eating outdoors, sometimes the weather doesn’t cooperate. Don’t let the rain put a damper on your party plans this month, though. If the sky starts to look a bit gray, take refuge at one of the many sheltered beer gardens around the city. There’s a good one on top of Tobu department store in Ikebukuro (1-1-25 Nishi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; 03-3981-2211; www.tobu-dept.jp/ikebukuro ) that features a great view of the city and has slices of bulgogi marinated beef to go with your Asahi beer. In the same neighborhood, the Hoshizora Beer Terrace on top of the Seibu Ikebukuro department store also offers shelter (1-28-1 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku; 03-5949-6841; www.seibu.jp). This year, Hoshizora is doing a “Space Battleship Yamato 2199″ theme that will have the staff sporting illustrated T-shirts advertising the anime. There are also plenty of nonalcoholic cocktails for nondrinkers in your group.

Outside of Tokyo, the Dockyard Beer Garden at Yokohama Landmark Tower (2-2-1 Minatomirai, Nishi-ku, Yokohama; 045-222-5015; www.yokohama-landmark.jp) plans to welcome customers with 18 different beers from 17 countries. There will also be Belgian waffles and shaved ice on the menu. (Angela Erika Kubo)

Kansai dining is top of the class

Golden Week in Kyoto kicks off one of the city’s best and most unique dining experiences: kawadoko dining. That means sitting on elevated terraces above the Kamo River — beautiful when watching the night close in. Extending north of Sanjo Bridge to Gogo in the south, the restaurants, bars and cafes lining the western riverbank construct outdoor dining terraces specially for the summer. They have a reputation for being expensive, but not all will cost you an arm and a leg. Most are accessible via Pontocho, a narrow sliver of a street that is packed shoulder-to-shoulder with eateries and watering holes. Yamatomi (226 Nabeya-cho, Nakagyo-ku; 075-221-3268; www.kyoto-yamatomi.com) offers a good range of Japanese cuisine, from kushiage (deep-fried kebabs) to oden as well as Kyoto cusine.

For a nightcap, try the nearby Sent James Club, Pontocho (180-3 Zaimoku-cho, Nakagyo-ku; 075-223-0707; www.sentjamesclub.com), which also has a terrace overlooking the river. The nibbles are limited, but the cocktails and faux-English ambience are (rather) delightful.

Closer to Kyoto Station and under the lighthouse-shaped beacon of Kyoto Tower, the eponymous hotel has opened its own beer garden (721-1 Shimogyo-ku; 075-343-9090; www.kyoto-tower.co.jp). Families are welcome for the buffet, and ladies and seniors are eligible for a discount at the start of the week.

For some quiet time, stop by the Kawa Cafe (176-1, Minoya-cho, Shimogyo-ku; 075-341-0115; www.kawa-cafe.com), which has two floors and terraces overlooking the river. If the weather is fine, you could always grab a beer at the convenience store and head for the river by Sanjo; it’s where you’ll find locals, tourists and even a few buskers.

While there might not be a lot of nature in Osaka’s Umeda district, gardens are plentiful — beer gardens, that is. The rooftop of the Hankyu Terminal Building (1-1-4 Shibata, Kita-ku; 06-6375-1780; www.hankyu-hotel.com/hotel/osakashh/restaurant) is open following an overdue refurbishment. The theme here is campsites, and they include a Happy Camp Site and a Slow Camp Site. If you really feel like splashing out, try the rooftop rock garden at the ritzy St. Regis in Honmachi (3-6-12 Honmachi, Chuo-ku; 06-6258-3333; www.stregisosaka.co.jp). The original St. Regis in New York claims to be the birthplace of the Bloody Mary; Osaka’s take is the Shogun Mary: wasabi, yuzu, soy sauce and vodka. The fixed menu starts at ¥4,000. For more down-to-earth prices (and a location that’s closer to the ground) try Nakanoshima, a 3-km-long sand bank south of Umeda, that’s close to many of the city’s best museums.

R Riverside Grill and Beer Garden (1 Nakonoshima, Kita-ku; 06-6202-0112; www.nakanoshima-beergarden.com) has a spacious beer garden that extends to the river. As well as fixed menus, it offers a la carte and is open from 2 p.m. on weekends. In the same area, Garb Weeks (1-1-29 Nakanoshima, Kita-ku; 06-6226-0181; www.garbweeks.com) has that studio feeling — big tables, art on the wall and a new terrace to go with its pizza oven.

As the weather heats up, it’s the perfect time for activity followed by inactivity. The Granite Cafe in Kobe offers great views from Mount Rokko (1877-9 Gosukeyama Rokkosancho, Nada-ku; 078-894-2112; www.rokkosan.com/gt/eat/granitecafe) This month, many of the pastries are honey-themed to tie in with a local festival.

Closer to the port, the ship-shaped Kobe Meriken Park Oriental Hotel (5-6 Hatobacho, Chuo-ku; 078-325-8111; www.kobe-orientalhotel.co.jp) has a monopoly on harbor views. Try Santa Monica’s Wind or the Pier for al fresco dining and harbor watching. If it’s Heineken you’re looking for, well, it’s Heineken you’ll get at the Heineken Beer Terrace (Sannomiya Terminal Hotel, 8-1-2 Kumoidori, Chuo-ku; 078-222-6757; www.shukakusai.jp), which has opened in Sannomiya just in time for Golden Week. (J.J. O’Donoghue)

Dining outside in the north

Hokkaido’s al fresco dining season is short but sweet, starting with the May cherry blossoms and ending with October’s chilly winds.

One of the best places to eat outside in Sapporo is Odori Park, where a constant stream of festivals in the late spring and summer months feature outdoor feasting. Locals like to sample booths “ladder style,” climbing up the rungs of taste by spending an hour at one area before trying out something new.

Starting with the Lilac Festival in May, continuing with the Yosakoi Soran Festival in early summer and culminating with the Sapporo Beer Garden and the Summer Festival, Odori Park offers plenty of opportunities to eat and drink outdoors in Sapporo (www.sapporo-park.or.jp/odori/event)

City planners in Hokkaido’s capital are taking al fresco seriously with an initiative designed to prominently feature outdoor dining along a planned urban oasis park, just a stone’s throw from the Old Hokkaido Government Building landmark near Sapporo Station. Construction is expected to be completed by August, with all facilities scheduled to open by September.

To enjoy a taste of this elegant al fresco scene now, check out Nuts Resort Duo (4-1-1 Nishi, Kita-sanjo, Chuo-ku; 011-210-5000; www.nissay-sapporo.com/?pagename=shop20) Sans the name, this restaurant gets everything right, from the upscale, hip menu to the outdoor seating overlooking a wide expanse of northern greenery. Lunch is particularly reasonable, with gourmet meals including coffee and dessert averaging ¥1,000.

Another option is to take al fresco dining to its limit in Hokkaido and head for the countryside. If you find yourself traveling through the area, why not enjoy the best of the outdoors with the best in cuisine? Right outside Sapporo in Tomakomai, discover Northern Horse Park (114-7 Misawa, Tomakomai; 0144-58-2116). In addition to the horses, there are plenty of outdoor activities and a gorgeous glass-enclosed garden restaurant with terrace seating.

Heading out of Sapporo in the opposite direction, the Land Cafe located at Land Mann Organic Farms (Dai2, Aza Mita, Biei-cho, Kamikawa-gun; 0166-92-5800; www.k3.dion.ne.jp/~landcafe) gets you close to the land with farm tours and delicious meals featuring in-season vegetables. With cottages and barbecues available to rent, this verdant paradise offers a welcome alternative to urban patios.

Get another step closer to nature with a tour of Niseko Green Farm (258-3 Hirafu, Kutchan-cho, Abuta-gun; 0136-21-5277; www.nisekogreenfarm.com). Special tours starting in late June allow you to pick your own produce, create your own pizza and then bake it outside in a wood-burning stove.

Whether going out of bounds or just looking for a bit of the outdoors in the city, Hokkaido offers a diverse range of creative options when it comes to al fresco dining. (Kris Kosaka)