Often disparaged as little more than the gateway to Tokyo’s northwestern suburbs, the area of Ikebukuro is still shaking off a reputation for delinquency that it got 16 years ago from the TBS drama “Ikebukuro West Gate Park.”
With tourists flooding Shibuya and Shinjuku, however, Ikebukuro is starting to look more attractive to the locals. Between the sprawling department stores, local theaters and ramen shops the area is also known for, trendy new bars and eateries have been quietly opening their doors. If you look in the right place, this neglected corner of the capital offers some top-notch craft beer bars that can easily be strung together for an evening of light fare and cold brews.
Most of these gems are found on the east side of Ikebukuro Station. Tucked away between the curves of the Yamanote Line and a highway (Autobahn?) overpass, Kraft Work Dining is truly a diamond in the rough. I arrive just as the bar is opening, the only time I could get a reservation on such sort notice. Despite its far-flung location, Kraft Work draws a crowd.
As soon as I’m seated at the counter, a cup of warm and smoky chawanmushi is placed in front of me for the ¥300 seating charge. Wanting to cool down, I order a collaboration brew between Onidensetsu from Noboribetsu, Hokkaido, and Y.Market from Nagoya. The session IPA is light and grassy with a hint of lemon, perfect at the end of a summer day. The distinctly Japanese, seasonal and seafood-focused menu may seem more geared toward the 33 kinds of sake on offer, but my choice of beer pairs nicely with seared white corn from Hokkaido and grilled ayu (sweetfish), a house specialty. While the beer prices here are comparatively high, the quality of food makes Kraft Work well worth the journey.
The sun has set by the time I leave Kraft Work and head south toward the center of Higashi-Ikebukuro. Most people walk by the nondescript entrance to Vivo! without a second glance, much less a first one. This hidden treasure of a bar is unusually empty for the hour of day, but the number of staff on hand tells me a crowd is in the forecast. I order the Belgian frites, perfectly warm and golden, and an Ikebukuro Sunshine St. Pale Ale, made just for Vivo! by Baird Brewing. Vivo! offers four glass sizes, ideal for sampling your way across the well-curated tap list of 20 beers, which are mostly Japanese and American. The bar begins to fill as I contemplate my next selection, and soon the din of conversation and clatter of dishes from the open kitchen conjure up the convivial atmosphere that has always made Vivo! stick in my mind.
Ikebukuro is pulsing with energy when I step back outside. I weave through the crowds as I cross Sunshine Street and make my way to tiny Gotsubo, a new and charming entry to Ikebukuro’s craft beer scene. During the day Gotsubo is a modest lunch counter serving gyūkatsu (fried beef cutlet) curry, but after nightfall it transforms into a stylish standing bar with a modest selection of beer and sake from Nagano, owner Hirofumi Mibu’s home prefecture. Those non-Japanese residents who lament the local predilection for foamy-headed beer should make a beeline to Gotsubo, where ¥1,000 pints of Shiga Kogen IPA are poured to the brim without any white collar. Like the pints it pours, the bar is nearly overflowing when I arrive. The other patrons squeeze against the bar to let me by, but when my glass arrives we all kanpai (cheers). Most of the half-dozen or so other customers are snacking on fried soba, cucumber with miso and other spot-hitting small plates. Gotsubo’s evening menu consists solely of otsumami (snacks) such as these, all priced between ¥100 and ¥350.
Gotsubo’s simple charm keeps me there longer than I’d planned, but I break free for the long stroll south to get to Pump before its kitchen closes at 10:30 p.m. I’ve got a hankering for nachos, and in this neighborhood only Pump can deliver. An absolute pearl, this greatly underappreciated bar serves American pub fare with beer from both here and there in an open, vaguely industrial space. Their 10 taps rotate regularly, and when I arrive a little after 10 p.m., I see that one of my favorite Japanese beers is on draught. I order without a second thought and settle in with satisfaction. The beer arrives and I take a long, lip-smacking pull. The Iwate Kura Oyster Stout, which is indeed a beer made with oysters, won the World Beer Award in 2015 for Asia’s Best Experimental Specialty Beer. It’s smooth and buttery with definite umami undertones.
The Iwate Kura Oyster Stout is a fitting way to end my night. Just as with Ikebukuro, it might not look so good at first glance, but its depth and complexity keep me coming back for more.
Beer walk: Cruising for brews in Ikebukuro
- Kraft Work Dining
Morihata Bldg., 1-47-5 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 050-5869-5107 (for reservations), 03-6907-3899 (for inquiries); open weekdays 11:30 a.m.-2 p.m. (lunch), 5 p.m.-midnight (dinner), Sat. and Sun. before hols. 5 p.m.-1 a.m.; closed Sundays; www.facebook.com/banjikaichou
2-47-3 Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 03-3987-1588; open Tues.-Fri. 5 p.m.- 2 a.m., Sat., Sun. 3 p.m.-2 a.m.; Mon. 5-11:30 p.m. (L.O.); www.vivo-beer.com
1-13-2 Higashi-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 11:30 a.m.-3 p.m. (lunch), 5-10 p.m. (bar); www.facebook.com/GotsuboinIkebukuro
3-8-3 Minami-Ikebukuro, Toshima-ku, Tokyo; 050-5590-8596 (for reservations), 03-5927-9733 (for inquiries); Mon.-Sat. 5-11:30 p.m. (L.O. for food, 10:30 p.m.), Sun. and hols. 3-10 p.m. (L.O. for food, 9 p.m.), www.facebook.com/PumpCraftbeerbar