Monday, July 26, 2010

THE TOP FIVE: #1 Baird Brewery

Number one. #1. First place. No doubt.

Japanese beer sucks. I am in the habit of generally qualifying my statements with things like "I think" or "I have heard." But there is no need for that now. I don't think Japanese beer is bad. I know it is. I know it like I know I breathe oxygen. Along with qualifications, I am a fan of colorful adjectives. Japanese beer doesn't even deserve that justice. It sucks.

Now all of that might sound quite harsh, but I would like my readers to fully appreciate the expanse of the hopless desert I have found myself in. I had been here for a few months before I got in good with another ALT, Brian, and he saw that my passion for beer was like his own. Serious passion. So he said he knew a place. We went, I fell in love, and have returned many times since.

Baird Brewery is in Numazu, a port city well known for its fishing industry. It is a 55 minute train ride on the local, costs me 950 yen one way. Then a 30 minute walk from station to pub. Its a pretty natural trip at this point. They now have two other establishments in Tokyo, but the Fishmarket Taproom in Numazu is the original and flagship.

Last week I helped Baird Brewery celebrate its ten year anniversary. It is still a young business, but doing quite well. This year they won three gold medals at the World Beer Cup, tying a Californian brewery for most medals.

On any given day they have about ten year-round taps, and 4-8 seasonals that are always changing. The brewmaster is always experimenting and infusing local ingredients like mikan, yuzu, and tea. One beer used green tea as a source of bitterness instead of hops. While not every beer may be for my palette, they don't ever make a less than great beer.

Never before, and probably never again will I find a brewer that is so aligned with my own preferences. Essentially, they LOVE to use hops. Three of the year-round beers are IPAs. And they are always brewing seasonal India Pale Ales featuring English hops, American hops, or a mix of both. Some truly bitter stuff.

The taproom is cozy place where one pulls up a stump to drink a pint. There is a strong log cabin decor, very warm. Until sunset, the place gets by just fine with the natural light of the big picture window facing toward the bay. Even though it takes me an hour and a half to get there, the place is full of familiar faces. There is a definite community. Locals and commuters, all gathered because they know they found something special. One of the best breweries in the world, growing in the middle of a hopless desert.

Baird Brewery, the Fishmarket Taproom, and all the wonderful folks working and drinking there, will above all, be missed so much. I have a few days left here. Time for one more visit...

More about Baird:

New Huffington Post article

World Beer Cup

Baird Brewing

Thursday, July 22, 2010

THE TOP FIVE: #2 Fujisan

One of the best known and most recognizable mountains in the world sits in my backyard. Or perhaps I am in Fujisan's backyard. It took a few weeks before I first saw it. Especially elusive in the hot summer haze. Winter is when Fuji really dominates the horizon, all skirted in snow. Unless you are behind a hill, Fuji can be seen from all over the place. Visible at three of my six schools, I would steal away to the upper floors in the afternoon, and just stare at the mountain. I stared at it as if in a moment it might be gone. I stared at it in preparation for the days, most days, when it could not be seen. In my final week, hot and humid, I am unlikely to see it again. But mountains are unpredictable, and I retain some hope. One last peak.

I've seen bigger, but nothing compares to Fuji.

THE TOP FIVE: #3 Mikans

I like fruit. Bananas are solid. Grapes are tasty. Apples have their moments. I never really cared for oranges. Perhaps they were just too much work. Too messy. Whatever the reason, I didn't often bother with them. That changed rather quickly in Japan. Mikans (Japanese oranges) happen to be among the numerous agricultural specialties of Shizuoka, my prefecture. At farms, in yards, and all over the city, trees were full of these little orange balls. They were so readily available that I began packing them in all my lunches. Then teachers, wanting to share their regional heritage, would share even more of the things with me. There was no getting enough. I loved them. And golly were they easy eating! They would get to the point where the orange outer layer was no longer skin, but a loose pouch holding the firm and juicy fruit inside. I have never held a fruit so ready to bust out of its casing. Of course this is all past tense. Mikan season is over, and not soon enough to occur for me. I am glad that the grocer isn't pushing some imported crap upon me, but sad that I had to say goodbye to mikans many months ago.

For me, a mikan is the flavor of Japan.

THE TOP FIVE: #4 Shinkansen/Trains

It has been two years since I have last operated an automobile. I have been a passenger a few times, but I have gotten by pretty well without driving. For trips around town I usually bike. When I go a little further, I take the train. The Japan Railroad has been quite accomplished in moving me around. For bigger trips I opt to take the Shinkansen (bullet train). There have been a few occasions here where we start tracing lines across an imaginary United States map, wondering where all the hubs could go for American high speed rail. What cities are crucial, what states to bypass. There is nothing like it back home. I remember people getting excited last year when the president was talking about high speed rail. The "high speed" that he was talking about was the same speed that Japan was talking about prior to World War 2.

I will really miss having a good train system.

THE TOP FIVE: #5 Drinking in the Street

For most of my second year here, I have had an ongoing list loosely rolling around my head. It was a list of my favorite things in Japan. The things that would be hardest to replace, and I would be missing the most. I am inside of my last ten days here. Time really does have a knack for moving fast. There are many unique things that I have experienced. Some well known, some less so. (As a side note: There are no people on the list. I have met some wonderful folks here. I just don't want to place people on the same list as things.) So here it is, straight from the east, we're going live, far from the least, its the Japan Top Five.

#5 Drinking in the Street.

I must admit some reluctance to having this on the list. Being able to have some alcohol out in public is not a cause I fight for, or something to write home about. But it is something that I will certainly miss. It is done well here. People go for a picnic and bring some rice wine. They have a beer at a parade or festival. Movie theatres have beer vending machines. It doesn't cause a scene. Its one more excuse not to sit in some overpriced smokey bar.

My second night in Japan, I was in Tokyo for orientation and we went out to dinner for a prefectural welcoming party, then to karaoke, then one of the ringleaders, a British guy, said "I know a place." So we followed him to a convenience store. He bought everything he needed to mix up some drinks, and a group of us proceeded to sit on the curb and chat until we realized the sun was up and we had to get back to our workshops.

That's something I am going to miss.