Osaka: Redemption in Tenma—Beer Belly

Photo credit: Cropped from “Minoh beers” by MokenecoCC BY-SA 2.0

I may have mentioned that I’m from Portland. Although we’re not quite what Portlandia makes us out to be, there is one rumor that is absolutely true: we love ourselves some craft beer. My husband—his love for beer surpassed only by his love for me—was interested in trying Japanese craft beers on the trip. Unfortunately, the scene in Japan is barely bigger than a grain of rye, big producers like Kirin and Sapporo muscling out the competition and flooding the country with their vapidly malty bubble water. I began to despair of finding a brewer at any of our stops when I ran across Beer Belly in Osaka, one of the few locations for local microbrew Minoh Beer. Perfect!

Unfortunately, it was a little hard to find. Following the GPS, we arrived at a location in Higobashi, which was closed. I cursed Osaka anew, this supposed Holy Land of Stuffing Your Face where the eating establishments close down before 9. (Of course, it was now Sunday, so there was a little more excuse…barely.) But I was determined to run this one to ground. I set my shoulders and suggested we try the next location. Forty-five minutes later, we arrived. Although the GPS swore to us that we were standing right in front of Beer Belly, the sign on the place assured us that it was in fact an accounting office. The other buildings in the area were similarly convinced that they didn’t sell beer. By now even Shannon was despairing, but I didn’t want to let go until we’d checked out the third location in Tenma, just a few train stops from our hotel.

We arrived half an hour later, hungry, cold, and grumpy. Our breath puffed in visible clouds as we followed the GPS and the smell of yakitori. We plunged into a labyrinth of tiny food stalls, some barely bigger than my own kitchen at home, frequently missing a physical wall between the inside and the outside; instead, patrons crowded around the counters perched on tall stools, their backs rounding into the street protected only by a thin, clear shower curtain. The mass of humanity was so great that it warmed the whole neighborhood and our breath clouds disappeared as we walked deeper into the maze.

We were just starting to feel lost when Beer Belly shimmered into being on our right, the opposite of a mirage. Just like the other shops, warm yellow light fell out its door, but unlike the other shops it was the size of a real(ly small) restaurant. It was long and narrow, a bar running almost the full length of the restaurant on one side and tables crammed in a single row opposite it, leaving just barely the space needed to walk to the bathroom in the back. We stepped through the door, probably looking and feeling like pilgrims fresh arrived at their destination: eyes wide, mouths gaping, hearts pounding, unable to believe…but wanting to. It was warm in here—really warm—so we took off our coats and sidled up to the bar.

The bartender regarded us with wary eyes; we were clearly not regulars. I asked him about the beer, though, and he opened up. There were ten or fifteen beers on top: all Minoh Beers or other microbrews; all fun and interesting styles, well outside Sapporo and Asahi’s boring lagers. There was a stout, a blonde, a “cabernet” beer made partly with wine grapes, and something touted as a “real ale.” We asked about that one, curious what distinguished it from the apparently fake ale we’d been drinking all this time. It turns out it was a cask-conditioned IPA: served at cellar temperature and pumped out by hand, no added carbon or nitrogen gas. Now that’s the kind of seriously nerd-tacular brew that’ll make Shannon blow his keg.

"Minoh Beer Pilsner"   (https://www.flickr.com/photos/omoon/15789233803) by Sataro OMURA (https://www.flickr.com/photos/omoon/), CC BY-ND 2.0 (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-  nd/2.0/)

Not the beer of Shannon’s dreams, but still a surprisingly good pilsner — “Minoh Beer Pilsner” by Sataro OMURA, CC BY-ND 2.0

Shannon got the real ale and I took the stout. It came out smooth and thick with nitro bubbles, the flavor just a little chocolaty. Although low on complexity compared to some of my favorites back home, it was easily the best beer I’ve had in Japan. I sucked it down and ordered another to go with a shepherd’s pie.

My second beer appeared, but before I could take a sip, the girl next to me introduced herself in English: Yuka, and her sleeping boyfriend, Daisuke. We talked, and although she was already very tipsy, she was encouraging of my Japanese and complimentary of my looks, so I couldn’t help but like her. She tried to get me to talk some sense into her boyfriend—by which she meant convince him to frickin’ propose already. He looked weary and hen-pecked, and I declined as best as I could manage. We spent about an hour chatting before she decided it was time to move on, but we exchanged contact info and promised to stay in touch.

About that time, a new group of people came in and the bartender’s face grew a bit stormy as they did: a couple of expats with some Japanese friends; regulars, it seemed, and regularly annoying. One of the expats—Johnny from Ireland, we would later learn—saw us and looked intrigued, but didn’t walk over just yet. Although Johnny looked basically sober, his expat friend was far from it, stumbling and droopy-eyed. Johnny chatted with his friends in quite good Japanese while getting the other expat into a seat.

After a few minutes of being ignored, Shannon struck up a conversation with him. He was boisterous and insufferable in the fun way that Irishmen stereotypically are. He pestered Jason and I for answers about what we were doing in Japan, expressed shock that Shannon could be married to such a lovely woman as myself, and generally made Shannon’s night while making Jason and me squirm (damn shyness). In the end, he and his Japanese friends laughed their way out the door, leaving the hammered one for us as a “souvenir.”

It was quite late by this time, so we collected our bill and packed up to head out. Shannon had already tried at least one of every beer in the place and was in seriously good humor, though not too drunk, having build up his immunity on 10% and 15% ABV beers back home.  I’d had my food and enough beer to be just warm. The food and camaraderie and good beer were enough to extinguish the hatred I’d built for Osaka in Dotonbori; in Tenma, it seems, the Osakan dream of eating and drinking till you fall down is alive and well.

"Untitled" by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

“Untitled” by Jason Gerecke; used with permission.

Address: 1 Fl., 7-4 Ikeda, Kita Osaka, Osaka,

Get there: Be warned, you’ll want a GPS for this. This area is a maze and will be hard to navigate to a specific place without one. From Tenma station (Osaka Loop line), exit north. Head north on the first road that allows you to do so, and follow it for two blocks. Turn right. Beer Belly is on the corner (ish) of the second block on your right.

Tips:

  • Bring your Japanese (or Japanese-speaking friend). This whole neighborhood screams “locals’ hangout,” so you’re not going to get much in the way of English signage or behind-the-bar help. My intermediate Japanese was enough, but I wouldn’t walk in with much less than that.
  • Try all the places! Although I definitely recommend Beer Belly, the whole Tenma neighborhood looks fun and interesting. I was particularly intrigued by the places so tiny you’re only protected from the outside by a shower curtain (but maybe that’s my own insanity). Regardless, it looks like there’s plenty in the way of good food and beer available all over the neighborhood.


Based on my diary entries from November 17, 2013.

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