French accordion music is floating out from lamp-post speakers as people crowd into the narrow strips of shade on either side of a street in Tokyo’s Kagurazaka neighborhood. Long a cultural center, the gentle slope on which the neighborhood now stands once ended at the moat around Edo Castle. Kagurazaka is Tokyo’s “Little Paris,” with a high concentration of French restaurants, shops and expatriates.
Some of the people on the street today are dressed in summer yukata (cotton kimono), some are waving fans to cool their sweating brows, while others are peering into shop windows or contemplating lunch. I’m trying to admire the local Zenkokuji Temple, but the heat is too distracting — my clothes are starting to cling and I’m getting thirsty. On days like this, nothing satisfies quite like a subterranean pint.
I push open the door to basement bar Craft Beer Server Land, take a seat near the entrance and look down the length of the rectangular space to the small bar and kitchen behind. The long, white walls and high stools accented by creeping ivy create a cool and calm, almost Mediterranean atmosphere. Despite the early hour, the bar is already half full. Craft Beer Server Land is one of Tokyo’s few beer bars open for lunch on weekends, with an eclectic menu that runs the gamut from fish and chips to green curry. There’s a ¥380 seating charge, but the quality of food and comparatively low beer prices make up for it.
I order a shrimp and avocado salad and quickly peruse the 18-tap beer list before choosing a Zumona Weizen from Tono Zumona Beer in Iwate Prefecture. When my beer arrives, I take a long pull from the fluted pint glass. This German style wheat ale is crisp and refreshing, lightly bready with tropical fruit notes, including hints of banana and mango.
After lunch I amble along the narrow and winding alleys of Kagurazaka. This area was once one of Tokyo’s high-class pleasure quarters, but now chic restaurants occupy the spaces geisha used to call home. Amid these cloistered rooms sits Le Bretagne Bar a Cidre. Made from fermented fruit juice, cider has risen in popularity alongside craft beer. Le Bretagne Bar a Cidre offers an excellent introduction to the gluten-free libation a la its tasting set of three ciders, available from 2:30-4:30 p.m. on weekends for a reasonable ¥1,800. I’m surprised to find the place nearly empty when I pop in to cool down, but am happy with my seat overlooking the small garden.
The afternoon crowds have swelled when I re-emerge onto the street and make my way to La Cachette, a well-hidden bar amid the many cafes and eateries that surround Iidabashi Station. La Cachette is an unsung institution in Tokyo; it was one of very few dedicated craft beer bars in the city when it opened in 2001. The bar is somewhat indecisive with its French name, German decor, American music and mix of European and Japanese cuisine, but the blend succeeds. You’ll find the hours slipping by easily when you’re immersed in La Cachette’s laid-back atmosphere.
If, like me, you have trouble deciding on what to drink, try ordering the tasting set of five recommended beers from the tap list of eight. While the tap list may be small, La Cachette offers more than 30 bottles, including the Doppo Muscat Pils from Miyashita Sake Brewery in Okayama Prefecture, which is so good it conquers my aversion to both fruit beers and pilsners in one fell sip.
The sun has set by the time I leave La Cachette and head to my final destination for the evening: the pint-sized beer and whisky bar Hop-Scotch. The bar is celebrating its first anniversary this weekend with a special IPA made by local brewery DevilCraft. I order a plate of pulled pork sliders and a Minoh Kozaru IPA, a bright, citrusy brew from Osaka’s Minoh Beer.
Hop-Scotch’s compact, open space is the kind that often leads to spontaneous conversation and shared beers. After dinner, I corner manager Yusuke Koike and ask him what makes Hop-Scotch stand out from the other new beer bars in Tokyo.
“Many people like IPA and drink only IPA, but I want them to drink other types, such as sours or barrel-aged stouts,” he says. “Particularly if you drink barrel-aged beer, you become curious about whisky, so we thought we should offer whisky along with barrel-aged beer for fun.”
To illustrate his point, the barman produces a rare bottle of Takashi Ichiro’s barrel-aged imperial stout made by Shiga Kogen.
“It’s a bit expensive — ¥1,900,” he says. To close his sales pitch, Koike pulls down a bottle of Ichiro’s Malt, one of the most recognizable whiskies in Japan. The strong stout is aged in Ichiro’s Malt barrels for one year to draw out the peaty flavors of the whisky.
He is right that barrel-aged stout drinkers can become curious about whisky. I don’t think twice before asking him to open the bottle and pour a glass of whisky for comparison with the beer. Such good beer is best enjoyed with company, though, and Koike doesn’t hesitate when I offer to share. The beer is as dark as the cellar I imagine it was aged in to be, the flavor complex but smooth with a warm, familiar bite — similar to the Ichiro’s Malt.
This old quarter of Tokyo is one where sensibilities mingle and meld. The interplay between Japanese and foreign influences — old and new — create something unique to discover for any beer-loving bon vivant.
Beer walk: Cruising for brews in Kagurazaka
3-3-6 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-5229-3555; open Tues.-Fri. 5:30-11 p.m. (L.O.), Sat. 11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. (L.O.), Sun. 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m.; www.le-bretagne.com/j/bar.
Okawa Bldg. B1F, 2-9 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-6228-1891; open weekdays 5 p.m.-12 a.m., weekends and hols. 12-10:30 p.m.; www.facebook.com/Craft-Beer-Server-Land-308015516008388.
1-10 Kagurazaka, Shinjuku-ku, Tokyo; 03-3513-0823; open 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; la-cachette.co.jp.
2-2-11 Fujimi, Chiyoda-ku, Tokyo; 050-3136-9699; open 5 p.m.-12 a.m.; www.hopscotchtokyo.com.