Christmas in Osaka
This Christmas Day did not start with stuffed stockings on the mantle or presents under the tree. It started by waking up on a bench in the Incheon Airpot near Seoul, South Korea. By the time the sun was setting on our lonely Christmas we found ourselves atop one of Japan’s Most Famous Landmarks, Osaka Castle (a must if in Osaka). While we were quite excited for our Japanese vacation away from teaching English in South Korea, we were pretty sad to be so far from family during the holidays. No family. No presents. Just us and Osaka. We knew exactly what could save Christmas – Japanese craft beer!
Our Hunt for the Japanese Craft Beer Godfather
When researching Japan, we came across a short blurb online touting a small brew pub in Osaka founded by “The Godfather of Japanese craft beer”. Having spent the past 6 months in Korea, we were seriously missing good beer, and were not expecting to find a solution to our draft drought anytime soon. So when we found out about Osaka’s hole in the wall brewery, Beer Belly, we decided Christmas dinner’s main entree would be Japanese craft beer and the side dishes would be any street food we encountered along the way. Sure, we could have taken a cab the 2 miles to our beer oasis, but what fun would that be?
There is simply no better way to get to know a place, than to get lost in it. So we did exactly that. We bundled up, braved the cold and wandered the streets of Osaka. As we made our way across the downtown area, Japan began to unfold before us. One thing Japan offers better than anywhere else in the world, is the juxtaposition of past and present. Ancient history and traditional culture mixes seamlessly with uber new and in your face technology and modern convenience. Along our way, we met groups of friends dressed in American Halloween-esque Christmas costumes and stopped to listen to street artists dressed as Santa and his helpers playing Christmas tunes. We crossed rivers reflecting neon signs and Christmas lights. Jack Frost nipped at our nose. While we weren’t spending the holidays with our families, the feeling of a totally different kind of Christmas magic was in the air.
Craft Beer Christmas Star
Having very vague instructions on how to reach this supposed Japanese craft beer pub, we weren’t exactly sure if our Christmas dreams would come true. We made our way towards Beer Belly, stopping for octopus balls, BBQd squid and any other street food that caught our eyes along the way. We were enjoying the walk, but after a while and still not to the bar, we started to become restless. Wandering alleys with so many letters, words and signs written in a language we couldn’t read, our hope for Japanese craft beer started to waiver.
We were looking for something but we had no idea what it looked like or what to expect. The bright lights of central Osaka were far behind us now. We were walking in a seemingly abandoned part of town. Were we chasing a myth? Then finally…along an empty street with dark buildings towering overhead, a light shown illuminating a small sandwich board. Drawn to the light for some reason, we picked up our pace. As the sign became clearer, we could read the magic words “Beer Belly”. We made it! That sign was our own personal Christmas Star.
The Perfect Craft Beer Scene
Inside the tiny brewpub was cozy, very similar to a typical Japanese izakaya. The difference is instead of coming for the food, people come for the beer. 2 Japanese businessman sat at the bar, intoxicated, but jolly. Another foreign traveler sat in a stool, facedown on the bar top. We took our seats in the only 2 remaining stools at the end of the bar. A menu was placed in front of us.
The lone bartender pointed at the pizza and gave us a smiley thumbs up. When in Osaka, right? We opted for a black miso pork pizza. It had a “Japanese” enough twist to make it exotic, and seemed like a great match for what we really came there for…the beer. The full back page of the menu was dedicated to beers. They even had tasting notes/descriptions in English. Many of the beers on the menu that night were dark beers. A real departure from the light lagers we’d been stuck drinking for months. We ordered up a couple of stouts, and when they arrived, it took our breath away. It had been so long since we’d seen a beer that beautiful…these were the best Christmas gifts we could give each other.
We Had stumbled upon Minoh Beer
The brews were Minoh beers. Minoh was founded in 1997 when a liquor store owner bought a brewery to expand his business. They dub him “The Godfather of Japanese Craft Beer” because he was the first one to brew small batch beers in the entire country. But beyond that, he was an advocate for the acceptance and expansion of Japanese craft beer. Now, Minoh is run by his daughters, and is one of Japan’s most innovative breweries. Framed articles and pictures of “The Godfather” and his brew awards only added the magic of this bar.
We came here seeking something different. Rich delicious craft beer, brewed in small batches was what we joyfully got. The flavors were bold and long lasting on the tongue. These were interesting brews for sure and, the first we’d had in awhile. We tried as many as we could handle and enjoyed every one. Even the pizza, hand made then cooked in a tiny toaster oven behind the bar was surprisingly tasty.
Buzzed & Full at Christmas Dinner…Our Japanese Craft Beer Christmas Miracle
As the night continued, the Japanese businessmen became jollier and chattier. We couldn’t understand a single word, but we sure could lift our glasses and down our beers in unison. At one point the foreign gentlemen awoke from his Christmas nap, and jumped right into the group beer drinking festivities. Everyone in the bar was having a grand ol’ time. Full and buzzed for our walk home, we thanked all the gentlemen, donned our coats and hats and headed back into Osaka’s Christmas night.
For us, it was truly a departure from any Christmas before. Our first Christmas away from home was spent on the beaches of South Australia with other English speaking backpackers. This foreign Christmas was more solemn and intimate. A special night where we were guided by a beacon of hope…Beer Belly. “The Godfather of Japanese Craft Beer” was our own Christmas miracle. Our walk back home was full of Christmas joy and laughter.
Beer Belly / Minoh Beer Today
According to my research, Beer Belly and Minoh are now a full on craft beer operation. Now, with 3 bars in the Osaka area, it’s grown from a tiny hole in the wall we will never forget to a legit craft beer icon. I believe the bar we visited has since received a bit of a facelift and is now a more modern establishment, as are the other Beer Belly bars. We advise you to visit any of the 3 so you may try some beers born of Osaka – brewed by local Osakans – as it should be. While it may not be the same magical Japanese Craft Beer evening we had, the beers are well worth the journey. And if you’ve ever spent enough time in Asia, you’d know just how truly special finding a dark beer, a delicious beer, or a craft beer really is…meaning Beer Belly is a truly special place.
Next time you’re in a foreign place, seek out a local brewery and wander across town to get there. You might just have your very own magical beer infused evening.