It's once again time for an installment of Craft Beer Japan, the series in which we journey to different parts of this wonderful country to discover the delights on offer for craft beer lovers. Since the mid-1990s when the relaxation of brewing laws allowed for the emergence of regional microbreweries, craft beer has seen a surge in popularity and continues to find new fans at every tap.
Following my crafty exploration of Tokyo's sprawling Shibuya district back in January, this time I yearned for somewhere with less bustle and more tranquility to ring in the languid summer months. Luckily I learned of a place said to fuse craft beer and countryside in the way of craft beer brewery camping. Offered by Baird Beer at their Shuzenji brewery in the heart of the Izu Peninsula, camping here presents the chance to enjoy many attractive features including a taproom, atmospheric outdoor relaxation space and brewery tours, all in the most idyllic countryside setting.
I arrived at the brewery in the early afternoon and awaited the brewery tour (on which visitors can book a place beforehand via email) accompanied by a couple of offerings from the brewery's taproom. The bar, like many of Baird's dotted throughout Tokyo and beyond, purveys a selection of the company's staples plus an enticing assortment of seasonal brews. The Lemongrass and the Genmai Cha Golden ales caught my eye on this occasion and provided a wonderfully refreshing start to my time here made even more pleasant by the views of the rolling countryside which can be had from the taproom's terrace.
I made the choice to drive to Shuzenji, but it's worth noting that the brewery is relatively easily reached from Tokyo using public transport. There are a few options including taking a Kodama on the Tokaido Shinkansen followed by the Izuhakone Railway, exclusively local trains, or the limited express Odoriko service that runs all the way to Shuzenji Station. From the station, the brewery can be accessed by bus, alighting at Laforet Shuzenji Iriguchi (ラフォーレ修善寺入口, 10 minutes, 300 yen, 1-2 buses/hour) or by taxi (15 minutes, 2000 yen). For those who do decide to drive, bear in mind that Japan has strict drink driving laws so it is recommended to go steady even when staying the night.
Following my first two tipples it was time for a brewery tour, which are available on Saturdays, Sundays and national holidays at 12:30, 14:30 and 16:30. The free tours last around 30 minutes and consist of a walkthrough of the main brewing area with an explanation (in Japanese, on my visit) of the techniques that go into brewing the beer as well as a close-up introduction to some of the equipment involved. Interesting stuff, I finished the tour ready for food and followed my nose to the outdoor relaxation area to find it.
As well as the delectable aroma of grilled meat wafting through the air, the outdoor area's charming features included a shady benched seating area under the trees, a variety of food stalls and of course, the outdoor bar. Add to this the soothing trickle of the unseen river which flows behind an embankment at the side of the brewery and you have beer-drinking bliss. I celebrated being here with a Shizuoka Summer Mikan Ale (another of Baird's seasonal offerings) and appeased my growling stomach with a plate of mouthwatering barbeque. Perfection.
The brewery is a decidedly family-friendly place, with some of the younger, less beer-partial patrons reveling in the nagashi somen shoot that was erected soon after I sat down with my beer and barbeque. This favorite Japanese summertime tradition consists of a long, open-topped bamboo shoot that is raised on an angle and has water flowing through it. Add copious amounts of somen noodles and kids (and adults) armed with chopsticks, and watch as the fun ensues with participants trying to snag as many noodles as possible as they flow downward on the water. A pleasant family event, I took in the jovial atmosphere as the sun began to sink beneath the mountains.
Dusk was now setting in, and after setting up my tent in a quiet spot towards the edge of the grounds from where I could see the river, I made my way back up to the taproom to taste more of Baird's delicious beer options. During the course of the evening I made my way through a few of the staples including a Numazu Lager ordered alongside deer jerky and, purportedly the taproom's most popular beverage, the Rising Sun Pale Ale. Merry with good-quality beer, I finally made my way back to the camping area to enjoy a great night's sleep in nature.
The next morning I was up with the sun and after taking in more of the countryside views, packed up and made the short drive to Shuzenji Onsen. This famous onsen town is among the oldest hot springs in this part of the country, and grew up around the revered Shuzenji Temple that was itself founded by the great Kobo Daishi around 1200 years ago. Today the town is popular for its serene setting in the hills and its quaint atmosphere. If not driving, the town can be reached either via a 10 minute, 1500 yen taxi ride from the brewery, or a short bus ride from Shuzenji Station (7 minutes, 220 yen 2-3 buses/hour).
After exploring the temple I soaked up the tranquil atmosphere of the town's backstreets before ending up at a delightful soba restaurant for lunch. Here I enjoyed a traditional soba set and after lunch took one last stop at the town's Hakoyu public bathhouse, where I enjoyed a blissful soak that set me up for the drive home, away from this stunning part of Japan.