Browsing articles in "Features"
Mar 4, 2013

The Beer Hunter

Asahi Silkscreen

Design & silkscreen printing: Louise Rouse, Shane Busato and Kohji Shiiki

 Most who live here have a “go to” brew; the one they reach for automatically at the conbini or dig from the ice of a summer cooler. But is the choice based on taste—or is it just prejudice? With St. Paddy’s Day around the corner, we put the Japanese beer blarney to the test.

Asahi Super Dry is often cited as the best-selling beer in Japan. But does the “silver bullet” deserve its market share? Or is Suntory Premium Malt’s—with its bizarre apostrophe—better? We decided to separate the barley from the chaff with a blind taste-test.

To narrow the field—and avoid wanton drunkenness—we used the five top-selling beers (conveniently covering each of the big four brewers: Kirin, Asahi, Sapporo and Suntory) plus a curveball at number six.

The contestants (prices from Kakuyasu, the discount booze broker):

1 Asahi Super Dry (¥195)
2 Kirin Ichiban Shibori (¥195)
3 Sapporo’s Yebisu (¥218)
4 Suntory Premium Malt’s (¥225)
5 Kirin Lager (¥195)
6 Suntory Rich Malt (¥114)

Though often mistaken for a happoshu, Suntory Rich Malt is an even lower class of the much-maligned “near-beers” littering store shelves across the country [for more on happoshu, see p05]. The low malt content means brewers pay less tax—and can therefore charge as little as half the price of a normal beer. We were keen to see if it’s really as bad as they say; or if it would warrant inclusion in your hanami basket or St. Paddy’s beer pong.

Before they were allowed to put cup to lips, our 19 test participants were asked two screening questions. The first was designed to set them up for embarrassment:

What is your favorite Japanese beer?

While eight respondents (42%) answered Yebisu to question one, the number who chose it in the blind taste test was a resounding zero. In fact, two of the eight ranked it dead last.

The second question was to quantify the anti-happoshu bias:

Would you rather drink a cold happoshu or a room-temperature Heineken?

This had an 11-to-7 split in favor of cold low-malt brew, with one belligerent respondent refusing to choose a lesser evil.

The pourers poured, the tasters tasted and to determine a winning brew, people ranked their six cups from best to worst.

The clear cut winner? Suntory Premium Malt’s. The most expensive can in the contest, it received double the first-place votes of its nearest competitor, though it was marked last on two ballots. It also scored best through our algorithm of one point for a first-place vote, two points for second, etc. This beer has allegedly won awards in Europe, so its high price may be justified.

Surprisingly, near-beer Suntory Rich Malt finished far from the bottom rung. That dishonor went to the second-most expensive (and some say prettiest) label: Yebisu. The Rich Malt also finished ahead of 5th-place Asahi Super Dry and 4th-place Kirin Lager. Is it possible that the default beers of millions are just not very good?

So there you have it: Suntory Premium Malt’s is the best mainstream beer to be found on convenience store shelves countrywide. And you can get away with serving happoshu at parties—if you use a glass.

Mar 3, 2013

Dance: Shen Yun

Shen Yun

Courtesy of Shen Yun Performing Arts

Interestingly this theater company, which represents a 5,000-year-old Chinese tradition, is based in New York City. Shen Yun says this is because of persecution and co-opting of Chinese classical dance by the Communist Party. With the storytelling of the Peking Opera and the acrobatic derring-do of the Shanghai Circus, Shen Yun is a song and dance spectacular consisting of thematic routines that tell the stories of China’s many ethnicities, regions and dynasties. Performances are delivered with brilliant costumes, digital projections and an orchestra combining both classical Western and Chinese instruments. Shen Yun literally translates as “the beauty of divine beings dancing.” 

Tokyo Bunka Kaikan, Apr 19. Nearest stn: Ueno. Bunkyo Civic Hall, Apr 22. Nearest stn: Korakuen. Yokosuka Arts Theater, Apr 28. Nearest stn: Yokosuka. ¥5,000-20,000.

Feb 25, 2013

Must Haves

Unazuki beer curry

Courtesy of Unazaki Beer

Unazuki Beer Curry

Deep in the Northern Alps of Japan lies the sleepy onsen town of Unazuki. Since 1997, Unazuki Beer has produced a line of three multi-award winning beers: the bitter Jujikyo, the fruity Torokko and Kamoshika, a mellow and rich brew. For almost ten years, they specialized solely on these three varieties, until 2006, when they embarked on a new venture—marrying one of Japan’s finest foods with their intoxicating thirst quencher. Thus, the Unazuki Beer Curry was born. Using their bitter Jujikyo as a base, it comes in two different strengths: medium and spicy. The company also runs a restaurant and a michi no eki (roadside station) that sells locally grown vegetables and souvenirs as well as beer-related products. Keep an eye out for their beer tea and beer cake—perfect for hanami season.

¥2,150 for a set of four containing both flavors. Available online at

Fuji T-Dry

Former architectural student, interior-design store owner and corporate designer Tomohiro Ikegaya is fulfilling his vision through start-up company Goodbymarket. While his portfolio is diverse, he’s hit the mark with some clever Mt. Fuji designs. The Fuji T-Dry will help you look the part when you ascend the snowcapped peak—or give you a fashionable twist for some urban jogging. Flip up the hem of the T-shirt and Mt. Fuji appears in all its mountainous glory.

¥3,776 (of course); available

Lixtick Paper Wallet

Lixtick Wallet

Photo courtesy of Lixtick

What’s not to like about the water-resistant, expandable, and durable Lixtick Paper Wallet? As well as being environmentally friendly, you can customise it by doodling on it yourself with a permanent marker. If you’re not so creatively inclined, you can choose from one of many patterns like graffiti, cow spots, stonewall, denim (good for camouflage from pickpockets) and more.

¥1,680; available from


Choco Burger

In collaboration with Mary’s Chocolate, Japanese burger joint Lotteria has combined two of your favorite foods into one easy-to-hold snack. The traditional beef patty is transformed in their new Choco Burger, on sale now. These petit bouches come in three sweet and differently flavored “buns.” There’s matcha (with a creamy white chocolate patty), chocolate, and strawberry (both with milk chocolate centers), sold separately for ¥180 each. Or, you can grab all three in a gift box for ¥500, share it with your date, and then junken for the last one.

Available until the end of February at Lotteria stores nationwide.


Feb 25, 2013

Events: Three To See


1,000kg of driftwood in Bahia Solano, Colombia. © nicholasdombrovskis


Australian photographer and Tokyo resident Nicholas Dombrovskis presents—in conjunction with lens maker Sigma—an exhibition of photography exploring how life and landscapes endure, with some works displayed on a 4K monitor, and one spectacular 1.2m print. The images range in subject from humpback whales disappearing off Colombia’s Pacific coast to a Martian-like saltpan in Namibia; from the Perito Moreno glacier in Argentina to a curling leaf suspended between space and sunlight.

Eizo Galleria Ginza, Feb 19-Mar 2

Fiercesounds 6th Anniversary


Courtesy of Fiercesounds

Born out of London’s underground techno scene, Fiercesounds celebrates its sixth anniversary with top female spinner DJ Clodagh, who was promoted from bedroom DJ to the big time when she was invited to warm up for Carl Cox on his 2005 tour of France. “Ireland’s techno princess” will be making a special mix CD to be given out to the first 50 punters. To complement the hot and heavy techno in the main room all night, the lounge area offers up DJs and live artists playing deep house, electronica, and more. Fiercesound’s Dreams of Widnes and another live artist Prefect will be celebrating debut releases on Kingbeat records.

Amrax, Mar 2

Larry Coryell Special Unit

Larry Coryell Special Unit

Courtesy of Billboard Live

We’re usually a bit suspicious of all-star units, but this one is just too good to belittle. Larry Coryell, one of the most tasteful guitarists on the planet, is joined by mercurial organist Joey DeFrancesco, trumpeter Wallace Roney and tenor saxman Rick Margitza, all backed by the uberfunk rhythm section of Daryl Jones and Omar Hakim. Jazz-fusion fans—it really doesn’t get any better than this.

Billboard Live, Mar 8





Feb 20, 2013

Digital Choc: French Institute Festival

A Gallic take on digital culture

Courtesy of the French Institute

The French Institute offers a Gallic take on digital culture in an ongoing festival of art, moving images, architecture and video games as well as digital publishing, music and performing arts. Following on last year’s inaugural event, the 2013 edition explores areas that digital technologies has disrupted, influenced or revolutionized. Among the creators making the trip to one of Japan’s five French Institutes and Alliances are Benoît Broisat, whose video Ghost Tokyo unearths a forgotten Tokyo, and arts group HP Process, who present their latest interactive installation Word City. 

French Institute and other venues, until Mar 3

Feb 20, 2013

Tohoku Artist Caravan

Kodo reunite for a kickoff party at SuperDeluxe

Courtesy of TokyoDex

TokyoDex’s Daniel Rosen and Jay Horinouchi, who spent almost a year as a volunteer leader in disaster-hit Tohoku, spearhead a community arts project in the devastated town of Karakuwa. A kickoff party for the effort at SuperDeluxe will see several former members of taiko drum powerhouse Kodo sharing the stage for the first time since they went their separate ways. Under Rosen and Horinouchi’s crowd-funded Tohoku Artist Caravan, artists will paint murals around Karakuwa in an effort to revitalize the community and encourage tourism.

SuperDeluxe, Mar 8

Feb 18, 2013

Artist File 2013

Artist File

Wonderland - “Snow White” (2004); Yeondoo Jung. © Yeondoo Jung

Going to group shows of contemporary art in Tokyo is the artistic equivalent of Russian roulette. There’s just no way of knowing when you’re going to bite the bullet of bad taste. But luckily, this year’s “Artist File”—the annual show for rising artists staged by the National Art Centre Tokyo—is a welcome reprieve from “instant art death.”

Of the eight participants, only two will make you groan—Shiho Kagabu with her garbage installation and Jun Azumatei with his bedwetting-stain art. The other six are pretty good and, surprisingly, three of them are foreigners.

British artist Darren Almond’s main installation—a tribute to his gran—is disappointing, but a series of photographs taken using long exposures in moonlight fascinates, even though the images produced are not dissimilar to daytime photography.

Indian artist Nalini Malani has a heavy-handed painting style, but by setting her images on diaphanous revolving cylinders suspended from the ceiling and projecting a movie through them, she manages to create a kaleidoscope that seems to generate myths.

Korean artist Yeondoo Jung’s work shows a keen sense of humor. He takes naïve children’s art as a starting point and then stages photographic recreations of it that are daft yet endearing.

The remaining three artists are also well worth seeing. Takamasa Kuniyasu’s large assemblages of bricks and logs may seem pointless, but the aesthetic effect and tangible sense of effort behind their creation is impressive.

Hideaki Nakazawa’s mesmerizing paintings of children are a surprise. The subjects stare at us with innocent eyes that elicit a similar unguarded response from the viewer. Delicately painted with alternate layers of thinned oils and tempera, they have a nostalgic atmosphere of works from long ago.

The highpoint, however, is the mysterious flash photography of Lieko Shiga. One of the irritations of many exhibitions in Japan is the slow-moving line of visitors crawling along the walls of the gallery, looking at each picture in sequence. Shiga avoids this by refusing to hang a single work on the walls. Instead they are propped up on the floor in a chaotic, maze-like arrangement that forces visitors to wind their way among them as if in a dream.

National Art Center Tokyo until Apr 1


Feb 11, 2013

UFC Japan 2013

Wanderlei Silva

Pictured left: Wanderlei Silva. Photos: © Getty images

The Ultimate Fighting Championship returned to Japan last February after more than a ten-year absence. Fight fans streamed into Tokyo from all across Japan—and the world—to get their MMA fix, selling out the Saitama Super Arena for 12 televised fights over the course of the day. In the end, Benson “Smooth” Henderson defeated Frankie Edgar by unanimous decision to become the new UFC lightweight champion.

This year the headline encounter will feature former Pride middleweight champion Wanderlei Silva stepping into the Octagon against top contender and decorated US Marine Brian Stann in a five-round, light heavyweight bout.

Silva, from Brazil, is an aggressive striker known for dropping his opponents to the canvas—earning him the gruesome nickname “The Axe Murderer.” He holds Pride records for most wins, knockouts, title defenses, and the longest winning streak in the organization’s history. Stann, a Marine Corps vet with a Silver Star for combat, was born in Tokyo on Yokota Air Base and should prove to be a hometown favorite.

Stefan Struve

Pictured right: Stefan Struve

The tallest fighter in UFC history will stalk the ring in the heavyweight throw down. Seven-foot-tall Stefan “Skyscraper” Struve, from the Netherlands, will make his first appearance in Japan against “Super Samoan” Mark Hunt. Hunt’s Maori warrior spirit has made him a popular fighter in Japan. He knocked out Cheick Kongo in the first round last year, and is currently on a three-fight winning streak.

Japanese MMA fans have much to cheer for at the March event. Like last year, Japanese fighters and favorites figure prominently in the mix. Said UFC Managing Director Mark Fischer, “We’re delighted to bring a world-class card with a distinctly local flavor back to Japan.” As such, proceedings will also pit Yokohama native and former Pride champion Takanori Gomi against Diego Sanchez in a lightweight matchup, and Korea’s Dong-Hyun Kim against knockout specialist Siyar Bahadurzada in a contest of up-and-coming welterweights.

Brian Stann

Pictured left: Brian Stann

Other showdowns include Japan’s own Riki Fukuda facing off against Brad Tavares at middleweight, Japanese bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki vs. Bryan Caraway, and the UFC debut of two Koreans: welterweight Hyun Gyu Lim and bantamweight Kyung Ho Kang, taking on Marcelo Guimaraes and Alex “Bruce Leeroy” Caceres, respectively. Also making his debut is Japan’s Kazuki Tokudome, who will take on Cristiano Marcello in a lightweight matchup.

“This exciting mix of former Pride champions, contenders from various weight divisions, and up-and-coming stars from the region,” says Fischer, “is sure to entertain all our fans here—whether old or new to the sport.”

Saitama Super Arena, Mar 3. Tickets are ¥5,800-100,000 and can be bought from Lawson stores, or online at or UFC Japan 2013 will air live on numerous UFC broadcast partners in Japan and globally.

Feb 11, 2013

Valentine’s round-up

Romantic Kanji

Lover letter: romantic kanji

Love letters


ai ai kasa

When it comes to romantic expression, school age Japanese kids are no different than their Western counterparts. Mostly. Instead of a simple mathematical expression (John + Jane = Forever), they use an “umbrella of togetherness” to lay bare their true feelings.

Similar to many kanji, this doodle is a pictogram. It’s just like writing your name next to the other person’s and bringing them closer. Aw.

相 (ai)

Together, mutually, fellow (can also be read as “saga” meaning one’s nature or destiny)

合 (ai)

To come together, unite

傘 (kasa)


Gift ideas

Car Mania Set V5

Courtesy Kobe Frantz

There are only a few days to go before the most romantic day of the year, so if you’re looking for some not-so-cutesy chocolates to impress the manly man in your life, then this handy box of treats could be the tool for the job. From Chocolatier Kobe Frantz comes Car Mania Set V5, an edible toolkit that is bound to get your parts moving. The set includes a spanner, a pair of pliers, a monkey wrench, a G-wrench, a nut and bolt, a screwdriver and a Valentine’s card. Don’t eat the last one. Scoff the utilitarian snacks as is, or dip into hot water for instant cocoa.

¥3,500; available at


…and what not to buy

Ever wonder what’s the worst gift you can give your man? If you really want to impress your partner on Valentine’s Day, be sure to avoid these common pitfalls:

1 Too many “obligation” chocolates that need a response on White Day

2 Handknitted scarves and sweaters

3 Clothing that doesn’t suit your taste

4 Large boxes of cheap chocolate

5 Loud or garish neckties

6 Stuffed toys

7 Expensive chocolate

8 Romance novels

9 Too sweet or badly made homemade chocolate

10 Underwear


So now you know…

Feb 1, 2013

Grow Ops

© Fotolia

Hiroto Matsafuji and his fruit at the Earth Day Market

Farmers’ markets are nothing new to Japan. Asaichi (morning markets) traditionally took place at prominent public places where regional farmers would display their wares for perusal by city residents. Some, like Akita’s Gojome market, still run five hundred years later as popular tourist attractions and sources of locally grown food. Others disappeared as modern supermarkets impacted farmer numbers, or because of changes in landowner priorities.

In 2009 the Japanese government, facing a dual conundrum of declining food production and a citizenry wary from a series of food scares, created Marché Japon. New markets and some established ones joined this effort to boost the ailing agricultural sector and soothe public fears. A public-relations campaign involving celebrities, YouTube, and various events started reconnecting eaters with growers.

Today, a handful of Western-style markets in Tokyo bring farmers, producers, craftsmen, and customers together to talk, trade, and build community in an age-old tradition. Successful markets have solid customer and vendor bases, reliable schedules, and fun atmospheres. Customers know where to find a favorite grower and the grower knows the effort of coming into the city will be rewarded.

“It’s very different from the supermarket,” says Yusuke Tanaka, manager of both the United Nations University and the Gyre Farmers’ Markets. “People come because they like the vegetables, but they also really like talking with farmers. At the supermarkets there is no talk.” Visitors find, he says, what they like to call “my favorite farmer.”

Since setting up their first tents in 2009, the number of vendors and visitors at the UNU market has more than doubled. The 60 regular vendors meet upwards of 10,000 visitors a day, claims Tanaka.

Gyre Farmers’ Market

“At first, people only walked by and looked,” says Tanaka. “When they saw us here every Saturday and Sunday, they stopped. They met the farmers. They became regulars.”

Takayuki Shimizu, manager of the Ebisu Farmers’ Market, agrees. “These kinds of places are ‘B2C’—business to customer—rather than B2B,” he said during a recent visit to the bi-monthly market. Customers meet the grower, the pickler, and the jammer. Producers, in turn, put a face alongside their products, answer questions and develop relationships.

Goda Masaki, an Akita rice farmer, finds the Ebisu Farmers’ Market a perfect testing ground for his carrot, sun-dried tomato, and basil yasai mochi (vegetable rice cake). On this Sunday he hands out samples with a small crew he met through NOPPO, a company that partners university students interested in agriculture with farmers seeking new ideas. “It’s a great way to support independent farmers,” says NOPPO CEO Yukiko Fukumoto, also helping at the table that day.

Shigeto Katayama, manager of the Roppongi Ark Hills Farmers’ Market, recalls when his market was started ten years ago by a group of Ibaraki growers who came in every Saturday with their wares. Four years ago, the Mori Corporation offered them the use of Karajan Plaza at the center of a newly completed residential complex. Now in that plaza, upwards of 40 vendors meet 1,500 loyal customers every week.

“Our purpose is to make community. Farmers and customers talking and laughing together is the most important,” comments Katayama. “We think a good farmers’ market is part of a good lifestyle.”

Yoshio Kosaka’s stall at the Roppongi market is piled with bundles of carrots, haksai (Chinese cabbage), negi (long onions), daikon, and an assortment of winter greens from his farm in Kokubunji. He nods and smiles as a woman points to a basket of pale udo (spikenard). “I bought that last week. It was really delicious,” she says. Kosaka grins wider as he thanks her. They talk about how it grows (under cover to keep it white) and its season (January through April). She asks a few more questions before buying more udo along with other vegetables. As she arranges her bag, she waves farewell before heading to a nearby fish vendor.

Goda Masaki and NOPPO helpers, Ebisu Farmers’ Market

Kazuo Keino, owner of the high-rise and plaza where the monthly Nippori Farmers’ Market takes place, had something similar in mind. Steps from Nippori Station and the historic Yanaka district, a market seemed a good way to integrate new residents. Atsuko Fujita, Nippori’s manager, recalled the first market two years ago—made up of just herself and four farmers. Nippori now hosts more than thirty vendors a month along with workshops, prepared foods, and music.

The Earth Day Market started in 2006 in order to support organic growers. According to Hiroshi Tomiyama, manager and founder, most farmers there have been in business less than ten years. Nearly all are small family operations with many in their first year, while other vendors are transitioning from other work to farming.

“The first years of farming can be very unstable. By coming here, farmers establish a customer base that will help them become successful,” explains Tomiyama.

Hiroto Matsufuji, a Yamagata fruit grower, comes to the Earth Day Market each month. Originally from Chiba, Matsufuji left the airline industry ten years ago to focus on his orchard. He sees the market as a place to share his joy in farming and make a living. “Farming is art. It’s my life. If I don’t sell, then I’m done. The market communicates all of that,” he says.

Shoppers find it worthwhile, too. Prices, especially for organic items, are the same as or less than in the supermarket. Farmers’ markets also offer an unmatched diversity of fruits and vegetables—more than 180 can be found at one Earth Day Market, according to Tomiyama—as well as a unique selection of other food items and crafts.

The markets also mean less packaging, more seasonal eating, and new recipes to help with that. There is your train fare, and lugging home two kilograms of rice in a backpack full of produce can be a weighty affair. But meeting the grower, having fun, and knowing the where and how behind the food on your table is a tough deal to beat.

Earth Day

Tokyo’s only all-organic, all fair-trade market features a fantastic variety of vendors offering all one might need for dinner, breakfast, and beyond. Some of Shizuoka’s best organic tea, a fine selection of rice growers, purveyors of old-fashioned grains, homemade miso, and an ume jam that will knock the socks off your taste buds are just a few of the treasures to be discovered here. Throw in a little music, workshops, and artisans and you’ll find yourself becoming a regular.
Last Sunday of every month, 10am-4pm, Yoyogi Park Elms. Nearest stn: Harajuku.


A charming market at the entrance of Ebisu Garden Place, visitors will find a lovely selection of growers and producers from all over Japan showcasing everything from the usual seasonal fruits and vegetables to the more exotic dried natto (a delicious, crunchy version of the usual “aromatic” bean). Handmade soaps and other craft items also join an array of juices, jams, and teas. Each month also features a different region of Japan and its culinary delights.
First and third Sunday of each month, 11am-5pm. Nearest stn: Ebisu.


One flight of stairs below Omotesando’s fashionable hub-bub, the Gyre Farmers’ Market is where fashionistas do their grocery shopping. Gyre offers visitors a more intimate and indoor version of the UNU Farmers’ Market. Seasonal produce, including a nice selection of heirloom and foreign varieties of vegetables, is showcased at its best along with a variety of pickles, jams, and baked goods. Never overly crowded, there’s plenty of opportunity to talk with the farmers or sample a tasty new spread.
Second and fourth weekend of every month, 11am-5pm. Nearest stn: Harajuku or Meiji Jingumae.


Just outside Nippori Station and on on the edge of Yanaka, one of Tokyo’s most outstanding historic districts, the Nippori Market features a carefully selected combination of seasonal produce, music, crafts, and prepared foods. Tohoku farmers display their best vegetables, and a monthly regional theme draws growers and producers from around the country. A nice selection of food carts, too, offer some of the best manju and tea around, as well as other tasty fare.
Third weekend of every month, Saturday and Sunday, 10am to 5pm. Nearest stn: Nippori.

Roppongi Ark Hills

A bustling market nestled in the central courtyard of Roppongi’s Ark Hills where shoppers will find everything from household items, preserves, handmade crafts, fresh produce from Tokyo farmers in Kokubunji and Okutama, along with a wide variety of fruits and vegetables. Small- to medium-sized growers and producers will help visitors discover a new variety of citrus or a novel way to love old friends like daikon and spinach. Regular workshops and seasonal food themes make for a fun atmosphere, too.
Every Saturday, 10am-2pm. Nearest stn: Tameikesanno.


Sixty growers and producers from all over Japan are on hand every Saturday and Sunday with the best seasonal fare their fields and kitchens have to offer. Find everything from jams to pickles to fresh produce to baked goods and tea along with a wide selection of unique handmade crafts. Some vendors don’t come every weekend, so ask about a schedule if you find someone you like. A night market every third Saturday offers music and themed food sampling, too.
Every Saturday and Sunday, 10am-4pm. Nearest stn: Omotesando or Shibuya.