As our little group walked down the rather dreary central shopping arcade we could hear strains of vaguely German sounding music coming from up ahead. There in a small corner park was the stage, covered in musicians playing Studio Ghibli tunes to a beer swilling, sausage munching crowd. The Oktoberfest had come to Maebashi.
I talked about the Maebashi Oktoberfest a few weeks ago, and while I was excited about the idea of an Oktoberfest here, there were a few points worthy of consternation. The adverts for the event seemed to list a of 2,000 yen advance ticket, with the door charge being 2,500 yen. But in reality this was simply a discount deal, you could preorder 2,500 yen worth of drink and food tickets for 2,000 yen and save a bit of money. All of the vendors accepted both tickets and cash, and there was no cover charge to enter the event.
There were three booths selling beer and one selling mixed drinks and cocktails. There was one beer booth selling a nice variety of proper German beer on tap, one selling members of the Asahi family of beers, and one that had a strange array of Belgian beers in the bottle. As you can imagine I spent most of my time going the the German booth and sampling all of their draft beers.
These draft German beers sold for 750 yen (about 7.50 USD), which is a reasonable but not fantastic price. It is more expensive than your average restaurant beer, but cheaper than you would usually pay for imported beer in the greater Tokyo area. The selection was impressive, with a nice variety of traditional German styles. I started things off with a Aecht Schlenkerla Rauchbier. The brewery is based in Bamburg, and the brewpub has been around since 1405, which is one of those sorts of things that always impresses me. That is a long time to be selling beer! Rauch means smoked in German, and Rauchbiers are made with malts that have been dried over a fire. This is one of the oldest methods of drying malts, it was only later that brewers figured out how to get the isolate the malt from the smoke. Rauchbeier is a window into what beer tasted like hundreds of years ago. The drying process imparts a deep smokiness to the resulting beer. These flavors can be pretty overpowering, but here they just added a nice bit of complexity to the overall beer. It was subtle without being forgettable, and a great way to start the evening.
About the time I polished off my Alpirsbacher Klosterbräu Hefeweizen and my plate of sausages and potatoes the next act was due on stage, the world famous German Hula Dancers! This is the sort of thing that can be a bit of a problem/ cause of mirth here in Japan. Here the world can break down to Japan and Gaikoku (Outside country), with very little definition between the many non-Japan countries in the world. So if you need to fill a spot on the stage at Oktoberfest, why not use the local Hula Troupe? Germany and Hawaii are both foreign right? It totally works! While it was good for a laugh, the hula dances went on for a bit too long, especially considering the chill autumn evening.
Post hula I dipped into the Irlbacher Premium Festbier, which was a nice basic beer, perfect for drinking several of them. Around that time the hula swapped for yodeling, which was actually rather magnificent. Having these very European sounds echoing through the buildings of downtown Maebashi was positively surreal, especially after a few beers. The whole thing really brought a smile to my face, in all it’s absurdity. As much as the Maebashi Oktoberfest was small and strange it was a start. Japan is a conservative place in all things, and change comes slowly if at all. Having a place as remote as Gunma host an Oktoberfest, no matter how small, is a huge step forward in both internationalization and good beer. I hope that similar and larger steps follow, now that the door is cracked a little wider.
Did you go to the Maebsahi Oktoberfest? What did you think? What’s your favorite beer?