asazuke

Life in Japan, food, music, whatever…

Belgian happoshu? 22 July, 2016

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 5:47 pm
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Breaking a long cyber silence here to celebrate Nagoya’s early exit from the “Tsuyu” rainy season with a post on one of my favourite topics – beer. “Happoshu” – a sort of imitation beer which uses low quantities of malt to get a lower tax rate – has been with us for some years now, followed by “third type” beers which get the tax bracket even lower. At first they were pretty disgusting with all kinds of weird aftertastes, but the clever brewing companies have been polishing their techniques and now some of these cheap “third beers” are actually sort-of OK. Some people who have been forced to switch from real beer by their falling incomes (even under Abenomics) have started to prefer them to beer! I wouldn’t go that far at all, but get it well chilled in the fridge and some of these “third beers” can be enjoyable enough on a hot summer evening.

crystalbelg

Sapporo beer have been working hard on this, with Suntory and Kirin close behind (I don’t like Asahi), and “Mugi to Hoppu” is still my favourite, but back in 2014 they came out with something called “White Belg”. Someone had obviously twigged that those delicious Belgian beers contain a lot of things other than malt and hops, and might not pass the Japanese malt percentage bar either. White Belg is a copy of the Belgian white beers, like Hoegaarden White, and along with added wheat is flavoured with orange peel and coriander seeds. It really isn’t too bad – a little bit sweet maybe, but quite refreshing. Since then they came out with “Gold Belg” and “Brown Belg” which were pretty good too, each in their own way, but limited issues which disappeared as soon as you found them.

The latest one is called “Crystal Belg”, which I found by chance in a supermarket last week. It’s inspired by the Belgian “saison” style – a summer brew, a little lower in alcohol and with a delicious hoppy aroma. This might be the best of all, and I liked it enough to go back to that supermarket to buy a case of it. No luck. Sold out, and no plans to get in any more, apparently. Hmm.

Anyway, this one’s got a great flowery start, light body and a clean finish that… Just a minute! We’re not talking about some special craft beer here, this is one-hundred-yen-a-can “third beer”. If you see one on a shelf please try it. If like me you have looked everywhere and still can’t find any, you might look on the internet. I was able to order a case via Amazon which came yesterday. Happy ending.

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Farmlog February 2013 5 July, 2013

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 3:00 pm
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Sweltering in early July, the time when we were shivering in the snow and slush of february almost has a certain nostalgic appeal…

3rd~4th

Yesterday was Setsubun, the changing of the seasons when we drive out demons and invite fortune into the house. Originally this came just before the New Year celebrations, which seems appropriate, but since the Westernization of the calendar back in the Meiji era New Year has been at 1st January and many other traditional events of the Japanese calendar have been dislocated.

On Sunday we are presented with impressive views of rows of snowy white mountains in the distance.

The supermarkets are laden with massive stocks of chocolate for the impending Valentine’s Day celebration. This is one of those synthetic Japanese “customs” dreamed up by the marketing department of some company – suddenly it became the day on which girls give presents of chocolate to the boys they are interested in. (I remember years ago receiving a heart-shaped box of chocolates soon after starting teaching here, and totally failing to follow up on the possible romantic opportunity it represented because I had no idea of this Japanese Valentine thing…) Later, in the 80’s or 90’s maybe, the “custom” expanded to include all men to whom the woman (yes the age bracket has expanded too) in question felt some kind of obligation, so “giri-choco” had to be given to people like superiors in the office, romantic feelings or not. Chocolate sales just before Valentine’s day rose to some 40~50% of the year’s total! (Presumably that chocolate salesman who invented this got a good bonus.) These days the trend has moved on to “self treats” or something, so those young women now buy chocolate to stuff into their own faces on February 14th! I’m not sure what St. Valentine would make of all this.

That evening a few people come round to help us expel the demons with the help of some beer, sake and an excellent bottle of the smoothest vodka you ever tasted, brought back from a trip to Russia by T’s nephew. Anyway, guests are avatars of the God of Good Fortune, right? Among our visitors is Snake Doctor Yamada who passes round, along with some home-brewed sake, some pieces of dried mamushi for us to munch on with the drinks. Hmm…

It’s wet and cloudy on Monday and we leave a bit early, but the misty hills are beautiful on our way back to Nagoya.

Min. temp -6°C max. 7°C


10th~11th

mystery turd on toilet roofSunday is chilly, with low, grey clouds, and there are no mountains for us this week.

Miso nabe for dinner – not bad. Later it starts snowing.

On Monday the light snow melts in the sun, but we get a bit more in the late afternoon.

The weekly batch of compostable rubbish to dispose of, and I cut some more thorns from our nasty wild citrus tree to help keep the cats out of our garden in Nagoya. There’s a turd on the roof of our outside toilet… It’s quite big, 8~9cm, definitely not a bird or mouse, or even a stoat/weasel type animal, so I have to think we must have had a visit from monkeys at some point.

Once the sun goes down it gets pretty cold. Obviously it’s still Winter, but here and there buds are starting to swell…

Min. temp -4°C max. 7°C


17th~18th

Even at mid-day in Nagoya the air has a bite. It’s been a cold week.The overcast sky clears in time for us to see some white mountains basking in the cold winter sun, till it clouds over again and snows that night. There’s yet another mouse in the chutoruman, a weekly occurrence.

Monday is white with that snow, but by the time I get up it’s turned to rain. Still cold though. I just hope the snow gets melted before it’s time to leave. The rain means no work outside, so I practice guitar a bit. (We’ve got a concert coming up in a couple of weeks.)

Min. temp -6°C max. 4°C


25th~26th

Anyway, it’s cold, with blizzards on the Sea of Japan coast, apparently. The midday clouds clear up and we arrive in bright sunshine but the wind is so bitterly cold as to take away any warmth. Turn on the oil stove and get in the kotatsu, but even the cups that had hot tea in 15 min. ago are now icy to the touch. It will take half a day for the room to warm up a bit. The old fan heater did better than that, but had the disadvantage of not working if the electricity is cut off, as we found out one cold winter when heavy snow brought down tree branches on the power lines. For dinner: Vietnamese beef stew, squid stir-fry and a salad.

It takes me 30 min. to get out of the futon on Monday. Outside it’s sunny but even at 11:00am it’s -1°C. That might not mean much to some, but it’s plenty cold enough for us. I put on working clothes but after disposing of the compost my fingers are numb. It’s too cold to get any work done. The joy of a Japanese bath! (It’s just as hard to get out of as the morning futon, though.) Back to Nagoya for the last Daihachi Ryodan practice before our gig at Tokuzo on the 3rd March.

Min. temp -7°C max. 3°C

 

British Beer 13 July, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 2:44 pm
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T and I were in Heathrow terminal 4 last year waiting for our flight back to Japan and found a plastic “pub” in a corner of the departure area. On the menu was a beer called “Fuller’s London Pride”, which I’d vaguely heard of, so we had a couple of pints. It turned out to be very nice, amazingly for an airport, Heathrow especially.

So, when, with all the London Olympics thing going on (though I gather they’re taking it all pretty low-key over there), our wine merchant sent us a list of British beers from one of their importers I recognized that Fuller’s London Pride right away. Hmm, so this year instead of cheap lager on Thursdays we decided to do a  British Beer Fair every day to mark the Historic Event. We stocked a dozen varieties for the duration and are selling them at no-profit prices just to turn people on to the wonderful world of British Beer … and maybe entice a few new customers into Raffles …

When they arrived, a look at the cases suggested they might have come via some wholesaler in the USA – a long journey round the world to Exotic Japan, but on opening a bottle I was pleasantly surprised. And the next bottle… Most of these beers are from either Fuller’s in London or Wychwood in Oxfordshire and they’re all delicious. Really. I’ve been a fan of Belgian beer for some time, and didn’t really expect anything from the UK to be able to compete, but most of these top-fermented ales could stand up there.

Maybe after the fair’s over we’ll keep on one or two on our regular menu – at a more regular price though. I’m sure you’ll understand.

Cheers!

 

The Third Beer 31 May, 2012

Filed under: food & drink — johnraff @ 1:49 pm
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Taxes. Unavoidable of course, and liable to change people’s lives. Fewer windows, less lung disease… Land tax in Japanese cities is high, with the result that empty lots are quickly put to some useful economic purpose to pay the tax. On the other hand, beautiful Japanese-style houses are knocked down because their owners could no longer afford to live in them.

Spirits like whisky and shochu are relatively low-taxed, so there’s not much reason to buy anything in the duty-free shops on your way here; beer, however, is hit with something like 45% tax! It used to be luxury item, for the snooty westernized Japanese who didn’t want to drink sake or shochu. Postwar, everyone started drinking beer, but the government, addicted to that nice 45% revenue, aren’t going to lower it any time soon. There are more oddities in the messy Japanese liquor tax system. The level of tax on beer is determined by its malt content. Under 67%, and it has to be called “happoshu“, not beer, but as compensation the tax rate is only 35% or so. Happoshu tastes vaguely like beer, but it’s pretty anaemic stuff, not really worth putting up with for the ¥15 you save over the price of a real can of beer. Even so, in these hard times pseudo-beers have been selling quite well, especially since the beer manufacturers discovered yet another tax category: this is for those “alcopops” that have been popular in the West, just flavoured water with some distilled alcohol added, and much lower taxed even than happoshu.

These so-called “third beers” were flavoured with anything the maker could come up with – soy beans, seaweed, or if you were lucky a very weak happoshu – dosed with some extra hops and a dash of cheap industrial alcohol to bring the strength up to the usual 5% or so. They tasted about as horrible as they sound, but cost about half what real beer did – maybe ¥2400 for a case of 24 350ml cans. Every month or so a new brand came out, each tasting as vile as the last, but the market shifted down from beer to happoshu, and finally the only sector where sales were holding up was that Third Beer stuff.

OK now the (sort of) good news. Over the years, those beer companies’ R&D departments have been hard at work, and the latest varieties of beeroids are very slightly less disgusting than they used to be. A couple of years ago Sapporo had a happoshu called “Sugomi” which wasn’t bad at all; it was soon dropped for some reason, but now they’ve got a Third Beer called “Mugi to Hoppu” (麦とホップ) which I’d have to admit isn’t really too bad. Mugi to Hoppu BlackThe name means “wheat/barley and hops” and somehow they’ve managed to concoct this stuff only from those ingredients without going into a beer tax bracket. It seems as if they brew a low-grade happoshu with a little bit of malt, boost the taste with some unmalted barley or wheat, add more hop flavour and some alcohol which has been distilled from wheat or barley (the two words are the same in Japanese). Put it in the fridge for a while, and amazingly it’s not too bad, especially on a hot summer day. Now don’t get me wrong, I’d rather drink real beer any time, preferably a craft beer from one of the local microbreweries, but at ¥100 a can this will do for a quick one after work. Last winter a “black” version came out which is even harder to distinguish from some kinds of black beer. If you don’t want to work your way through every variety of beer-like beverage in the supermarket, check this one out. (Sapporo haven’t yet paid me anything for writing this, but of course donations are welcome…)

Now the recent sales of beery things have been generally pretty poor in fact. Young people are abandoning beer in favour of sweeter “cocktails” and those alcopops which might have inspired the Third Beers. Actually, young people are abandoning alcohol in general, believe it or not. Instead of going for a quick one with the gang from the office after work, they go straight home and… do whatever it is they do… The single beverage category whose sales are booming is non-alcoholic beer. Seriously.

The country is going to the dogs.

 

Kitemiteya きてみてや 29 April, 2012

Filed under: city,food & drink,places — johnraff @ 1:40 am
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This is the kind of place that Japan excels at. Just a counter with room for 6~7 people, and a bit of tatami at the back with a couple more tables. One guy, Ina-chan, runs the whole place – serving drinks (though beers from the fridge are self-service) and the snacks that are obligatory when drinking in Japan – squid with spinach, noodle salad, mackerel stewed in soy sauce… and because Ina-chan’s from near Osaka you can also get good Kansai style okonomi-yaki (the negi-yaki’s especially good) and yaki-soba which will fill you up if you’re hungry. In Britain you’re lucky to get a couple of crisps or peanuts but here you can easily have your whole evening meal down at the pub if you want. There’s a kind of fuzzy area between eating out and drinking out which I thoroughly enjoy exploring.

Here at Kitemiteya anybody’s welcome, but most of the people at the counter are regulars, and there’s a pretty good chance you’ll know somebody. Lately he’s taken to putting the TV on more often, to show off the shiny new wide-screen digital picture, and because he’s a Hanshin Tigers (baseball) fan, but Ina-chan’s got a music background and the sounds he puts on tend to be choice – usually some Japanese artist you’ve never heard of because they’re outside the music industry machine. Prices are really cheap too, especially the food which is generally in the ¥300~¥400 region. Add to all that the fact that it’s just a two-minute walk from where we live and you’ll see why Kitemiteya’s been our regular place for some years.

Musicians tend to drop in quite often, and the other day this guy we know brought in a friend who’d just finished playing a concert. He had this instrument case with him and asked if we’d like to hear a bit – well, sure, we said and he takes out this Mongolian horse-head fiddle thing and starts playing it. It sounds pretty good, and then he gets into this Mongolian “throat singing”. Gosh. I don’t know if you’ve heard any, but it’s very strange, a bit like playing a Jew’s harp with your voice. Till then I’d only heard it on CDs or the radio but at a distance of 1 metre it’s very impressive. I was ready for more, but it was getting late and we had to leave. I don’t know how often you’d get to hear Mongolian Throat Singing down at the local back in the UK.

When I came to Japan 36 years ago you’d be able to call Kitemiteya a typical Japanese bar, but it’s really not easy to make any sort of living doing this these days. People can no longer afford the sort of prices an owner would have to charge to make a proper living from it, and drink instead at chain pubs with food that comes out of factories. These little street-corner drinking places are becoming quite scarce, along with the local sushi-shops. Inachan just seems to get by somehow… anyway, long may he continue!

A few pics:

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An evening in the country 19 April, 2012

Filed under: countryside,food & drink,people — johnraff @ 1:32 am
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We had invited Yamada san over to our place for a drink, but, a couple of days before, he called up to suggest his place instead. It turned out to be a much better evening than the Cold Sake Debacle of last year.

We get there around 6 and he’s invited some friends over and started grilling some iwana one of them had taken from his pond. Yamada san’s got this great lean-to attached to his timber warehouse, with huge beams in the ceiling, traditional tools hanging on the walls and a big wood burning stove in the middle. He’s got plenty of timber offcuts and keeps the stove well stocked up so it’s toasty warm, even in summer… He says you have to keep the stove hot or it’ll rust. There’s nothing fancy about the place at all – we sit on an old saggy sofa while others have battered armchairs. ( The guy right next to the stove will be roasted in a while. ) Anyway, it’s a good place to drink beer, later wine and shochu (but not too much cold sake), while eating the grilled fish.

The food’s pretty good on the whole. We took something over and other people brought contributions, but later on we get the evening’s feature dish, “tori-meshi”. Meshi means rice, and tori means bird, usually chicken, so “yakitori” is grilled chicken on a stick and torimeshi is chicken rice. Anyway our torimeshi today isn’t chicken, it’s small birds that were caught that day (some of those cute little birds that were round our persimmon tree?), burnt to get the feathers off, chopped up, stewed in soy sauce then cooked with rice. The rice has little anonymous black bits and crunchy bone fragments in, but doesn’t taste too bad if you don’t think too much about it. Many years ago I once ordered “yakitori” in a railway station kiosk and, instead of the tasty chicken I was expecting, got some little birds – sparrows maybe – impaled on a skewer. Compared with that, this torimeshi is quite tasty in fact. After that we have the comparatively innocuous wild boar cooked in a pot with miso, leeks and Chinese cabbage. It’s not smelly or greasy at all – really good. I think some hunters nearby had just caught it.

The place warms up as Y pushes more wood into the stove with his foot. The guy in the Hot Seat has moved elsewhere. This isn’t a young crowd at all – I don’t think anyone here is under 50 – but the conversation is lively and interesting, including the 75-year-old in the corner. Yamada san himself is 72 but still working, eating, drinking, joking and generally enjoying life.

We return home around 11, happy after an excellent evening. It Was Real, as they say.

 

Farmlog November 2011 31 January, 2012

Filed under: countryside — johnraff @ 1:53 pm
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Please bear with me as I try and get up to date here. I suppose these records are as much for my own future reference as anything else really. December 2011 will follow soon.

6th~7th

  • It’s amazingly warm and humid for November, but looking like rain.
  • No speedcops out in this bad weather.
  • Ikemoto san’s floor needs the sawdust and general debris cleaning off before putting down the futon, but the vacuum cleaner leaves marks. The wax, or whatever it was, is still not completely dry. How long will it take?
  • A big caterpillar on the “nozenkazura” tree. The leaves are yellow and dropping off so there can’t be too much to eat up there.
  • T picks more and more persimmons – 300 this week! We’ve got this big book on traditional medicinal plants, and apparently the green frills at the base of the fruit are good for something – high blood pressure? You ferment them for five days, strain off the juice, put it in a bottle and bury it up to its neck in the ground for several months.
  • Pick the last chillies before the frost hits. Out in the field with just the background music playing in my head. It’s 60s stuff – Cilla Black’s “Anyone who had a heart” then Shocking Blue’s “Venus” finally a bit more recent with Steely Dan’s song about grapefruit wine. “No static at all”??
  • Min. temp. 7°C max. 19°C

20th~21st

  • Last week we stayed in Town, and it’s got quite chilly in the last two weeks, but sunny on Sunday.
  • In Kimble we buy some dishes, look at the incredibly cheap second hand furniture and pick up a free DVD of the film “Lost in Translation”.
  • The supermarket is running out of “Mugi to Hoppu Black”.
  • Is the Beaujolais Nouveau boom finally petering out? They used to fly it in so the Japanese could enjoy their easternmost position to be among the first people in the world to drink the new brew – at a price of ¥1800 a bottle or more. It’s not really worth that price, but now they’ve started using lightweight plastic bottles and we got one for ¥880. It turned out to be not so bad – immature, rough, funky… but enjoyable, from a producer I hadn’t heard of. (which isn’t saying that much)
  • The frost is late, and the chilli plants are still alive.
  • Monday brings a cold wind, fast-moving clouds and a bit of sun.
  • Pick a few last chillies. There are lots of those hot “Ishigakis” left, still alive though starting to look a bit sad. The frost will kill them soon, maybe tonight.
  • Lots of birds around, but all sensible creatures are bedding down for the Winter.  (or dead)
  • As we leave the house, the temperature’s down to 6°C, which is quite cold after the Japanese Summer and Autumn.
  • On the road home two dogs in front of us – no, monkeys! They soon get out of the way.
  • Min temp 3°C max 17°C

27th~28th

  • Autumn has come to Nagoya too, though at 16 it’s a bit warmer and very pleasant. The gingko trees on the sunny side of the street have turned bright yellow. Out in the country they can grow quite big and look very impressive.
  • “Vacant” and “To Let” signs on buildings everywhere.
  • A huge semi-nude poster advertising jeans (all she’s wearing) by a bridge on the road out. After a year or two it’s faded a bit but still sort of distracting.
  • A long queue outside McDonalds, like last week.They’re giving away free hamburgers or something.
  • The first strawberries of the season in the supermarket. To me, strawberries are a late Spring/early Summer thing but here they’re an essential of “Christmas Cake”, which for some reason is a strawberry sponge cake with whipped cream, not the rich dark fruit cake with icing and marzipan that I know.
  • By the time we get to the house it’s down to 5°C and cold. The pump that refills the oil heater’s tank is broken – an insect got in and built a nest. Manage to fill the tank somehow.
  • Yes, last week’s frost got the chilli plants. Season over.
  • A gloomy cold Monday and it’s hard to get  out of the kotatsu after breakfast. It turns out to be warmer outside.
  • min temp -1.5°C, max 10°C
 

 
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