Like much of the drinking culture of Japan, Beer Gardens originated in Germany. In order to keep their lager beers at a proper fermentation temperature over the summer, Bavarian breweries dug large cellars and planted trees over them to shade the ground. When the law changed to allow the breweries to sell their beer directly to the public these shady areas made a perfect spot to lay out some tables and chairs. These cool collections of beer and friendship are still very popular in Germany and world wide. As often happens though, the Japanese have put their own spin on things.
Japanese beer gardens are usually open from June to late September. While rows of beautiful chestnut trees are a defining part of the German experience, few of the Japanese version have much “garden” to offer. The good news is that while they give up shade and greenery, they gain a spectacular view. Japanese beer gardens are almost always on rooftops, usually a hotel or department store roof. Gaining a few stories really helps disperse some of the summer heat baking away at street level, and I always enjoy looking out over the city with a beer in hand.
Like any kind of restaurant there are a variety of beer gardens around the country. However most do have a few things in common. The average roof top beer garden operates on the nomihodai (飲み放題) tabehodai (食べ放題) principle. Nomihodai means “all you can drink” and as you may guess tabehodai means “all you can eat.” Our local beer gardens have buffet style tables with plentiful bar food like fries, spaghetti, edamame, fried chicken and the like. Of course it wouldn’t be a beer garden without plentiful ice cold lager. Like most of Japan’s restaurants, beer gardens tend to offer one or two of the “big four” breweries, Asahi, Sapporo, Kirin and Suntory. I am quite dedicated to craft beer, but I will admit that a nice beer garden is a perfect place to enjoy these fizzy lagers. They make a perfect counterbalance to a hot and humid Japanese summer evening.
The typical department store beer garden will run between ¥3,000 to ¥5,000 (about $30-$50) for all you can eat and drink. For those who are not beer fans there are usually other drinking options available, like whiskey high-balls, fruit sours, and wine. By going to a beer garden you do give up the more expansive food and mixed drink menu of a good izakaya. However, I do think there definite benefits to the beer garden. For one, you get to eat and drink outdoors, which is a bit of a rarity in Japan. Al fresco dining is just not that popular here, sadly. As well, beer gardens are a bit more social. The definitive Japanese drinking experience is in the izakaya. But most izakaya seating is in separate booths, so it is rare to have a chance to mix and mingle like you do in many Western countries. Beer gardens are wide open and there is plenty of pleasant conversation to be found between groups.
In the bigger cities, especially Tokyo, there are a larger variety of beer garden opportunities. For example, T.Y. Harbor brewing has a beer garden on a boat with their craft beer on tap. Time Out Tokyo has a nice list of top Tokyo beer gardens, though a lot of them are pretty expensive. As is often the case in Tokyo, reservations might be a good idea, especially for a larger group. For those who don’t live in the metropolis beer gardens are popular all across Japan, so this is one aspect of drinking here that you don’t have to visit the capital to experience. For further beer garden information (in Japanese) check out this website.
With the right group of friends and a nice summer night, a beer garden can be a real asset to an evening out in Japan. Beautiful city views, plenty to eat and drink, and a few dozen good friends just waiting to be made. Who could ask for more?