The Kansai region has long had the reputation for being a foodie’s paradise, with Osaka earning the nickname of “the nation’s kitchen.” Fortunately, we now have higher quality beer to help wash down the gastronomic delights. The days of having to settle for your suds from one of the “big four” brewers (Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory) are now a distant memory, with new craft beer breweries continuing to pop up all over the region. From urban taprooms to off-the-beaten-track breweries, let’s take a closer look at a great craft beer maker from each of the six respective prefectures.
Open Air Brewing, Hyogo Prefecture
Open Air is a relative newcomer to the Kansai craft beer scene, having just opened their brewery in 2021. With a head brewer from Oregon, Open Air quickly won over craft beer lovers with their high-quality, well-balanced pale ales, IPAs, and various seasonal and limited brews. They took an innovative approach to constructing their brewery, converting a former elementary school as part of the “Nature Studio” community complex.
Fortunately, Open Air has also opened a stylish taproom in Motomachi, a thriving shopping district just next to Nankin-machi, Kobe’s famous Chinatown. At this conveniently located brewpub, you can choose from more than 10 options on tap. In addition to numerous pale ales, interesting limited and seasonal offerings on a recent wintertime visit included a lemongrass and sansho (Japanese pepper) gose, a smoky amber ale, and a sweet potato pie-inspired brown ale. Kobe pork is the meat of choice on the food menu, with a range of gyoza (dumplings) and grilled skewer dishes on offer. The fine selection of beers will also help to wash down their massive onion ring tower.
Minoh Beer, Osaka Prefecture
We move from a brand new brewery to one of the oldest craft beer breweries in Kansai: Osaka’s Minoh Beer. The brewery was founded in 1997 in Minoh, a city about 25 minutes from Osaka that is home to Minoh Park, a quasi-national park known for its picturesque waterfall and wild monkeys. In the past two-and-a-half decades, Minoh Beer has racked up countless gold medals at international beer competitions for varieties such as their stout, imperial stout, and pale ale. Other options in their regular lineup include a pilsner, a weizen (wheat beer), and a W-IPA (double IPA) that packs a punch at nine-percent alcohol.
There are numerous options for sampling Minoh Beer in and around Osaka city. If you want to quench your thirst after a stroll around Minoh Park, the Minoh Beer Warehouse is a 10-minute walk from Makiochi Station on the Hankyu train line. In Osaka city, there are two aptly-named Beer Belly brewpubs featuring a range of offerings from Minoh Beer on tap. Both are within easy walking distance of the closest stations, Yotsubashi Subway Station and JR Tenma Station, respectively. Food options include pub staples like burgers, jerk chicken, and sausages.
Nomcraft Brewing, Wakayama Prefecture
Despite attractions such as the Kumano Kodo pilgrimage trails and Japan’s tallest waterfall, Nachi Falls, Wakayama could be considered the most underappreciated of Kansai’s prefectures. Fortunately, there isn't a shortage of craft beer to appreciate, thanks to the great work being done by Nomcraft Brewing. Another relative newcomer to the craft beer scene, Nomcraft set up shop in 2019 in the small town of Aridagawa. Their beer lineup is heavy on IPAs, but includes some topnotch hazy IPAs that especially hit the spot during Kansai’s humid summers. A new addition to their lineup is a very drinkable pilsener.
Getting to the source of Nomcraft Beer is a bit of a journey, involving a roughly 40-minute train ride from Wakayama to Fujinami Station, then an extra three kilometers by taxi or on foot. But there is more to Kansai than just the big cities, so a trip to Nomcraft is well worth it, as you can check out the ambitious town development project (“The Living Room”) which includes a former nursery school renovated into a brewery. Right next store is the Golden River brewpub, which offers a range of burgers, hot dogs, and chicken wings to go along with eight Nomcraft beers on tap.
Yamato Brewery, Nara Prefecture
Nara, the capital of Japan between 710 and 794, is well known for attractions such as the free-roaming wild deer of Nara Park and Todai-ji temple, home to one of the three great Buddha statues of Japan. Thanks to its relaxed vibe, Nara is also a great city to explore on foot. After a day of walking, a great pitstop can be made to sample the work of Yamato Brewing at Yamato Craft Beer Table, located just a minute from Kintetsu Nara Station.
Craft Beer Table features more than 10 beers on tap, including Yamato Brewing’s own pale ale, IPA, stout, and saison, along with a selection of guest beers. If you can’t decide, simply go for the beer flight with a sample of all four brews or a beer flight and appetizer combo. Interesting limited bottled options include a chocolate milk stout, a persimmon ale, and a ginger-flavored ale. The food menu features great beer food such as crispy pizzas, pork ribs, and karaage (Japanese-style fried chicken). Another branch of Craft Beer Table, set up with automatic beer serving machines, is located just a five-minute walk from Saidai-ji Temple.
Two Rabbits Brewing, Shiga Prefecture
Shiga may be most famous for Lake Biwa, the largest freshwater lake in Japan, but it is a fascinating prefecture dotted with impressive castles, temples, shrines, and historical sites. On the east side of the lake you will find the charming canal town of Omihachiman, home to Two Rabbits Brewing. Unlike the monkeys that adorn bottles of Minoh Beer, the two rabbits design is not an ode to the local wildlife, but rather the Japanese proverb: “If you chase two rabbits, you’ll catch neither.” The proverb served as an inspiration to pursue one thing and do it well.
Brewing beer is certainly something done very well by Two Rabbits. They produce an ambitious range, including not only a selection of pale ales and IPAs, but also a rare limited annual release black IPA, the Dark Rabbit. Other interesting styles that you won’t come across too frequently in Japan are their scotch ale and barley wine. To sample their tap selections, make your way to Hachiman-bori Canal, the town’s main attraction. Within easy walking distance you’ll find both Two Rabbit’s brewery and nearby taproom, the Beer House. The taproom offers a selection of eight brews and a hand pump (weekends only) for the maltier options. In addition to snacks for sale, they also have a bring-your-own-food policy.
Kyoto Beer Lab, Kyoto Prefecture
Kyoto is, of course, one of the most popular travel destinations in Japan. A lesser known gem is the picturesque southern Kyoto Prefecture town of Wazuka, home to nearly 300 tea farms. The famous tea leaves produced in Wazuka are also the source of “chabeer,” (combining the Japanese word for tea and beer) a unique tea-infused beer series concocted by Kyoto Beer Lab. Varieties in this series include a white ale, IPA, and stout.
You don’t have to travel all the way to Wazuka, however, to sample the tasty brews of Kyoto Beer Lab. They operate a taproom less than 15 minutes on foot from Kyoto Station. If tea-infused beer doesn’t sound like your thing, rest assured that this small and friendly taproom offers something for all beer palates. Kyoto Beer Lab features eight beers on tap, always including at least one or two in the tea-infused series, but also an impressive range of rotating and limited brews. Unique past varieties have ranged from a Trappist ale to a tropical stout to a farmhouse IPA. Snacks and beer food like fried chicken and hand cut French fries are also on the menu.