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Cheers from Sapporo

8th July 2016

Hiroshi-san drops his formal persona for a second and takes hold of the tap handle, placing the glass under the spout with practiced precision. In a deliberate and well-controlled flow, the dark frothy liquid slowly fills the glass, leaving an exact head of creamy suds adorning the top. Japanese perfection is a thing to behold.

Japanese beer brewing history

Here at the Sapporo Beer Museum on the northern island of Hokkaido, we pay homage to the Japanese art of brewing. Brought to Japan by Seibei Nakagawa in 1876, the young and energetic lad who took off to Europe on his own when such expeditions were forbidden was, instead of being arrested on his return, installed as head brewmaster at the new Sapporo Beer Factory. On his wanderings, Nakagawa had studied brewing in Germany and was clearly a brilliant student.

Today the three-floors of the 125-year-old red brick Sapporo Beer Museum occupies the original brewery and contain historical machinery, artefacts and marketing of Japan’s oldest beer brand, now sold worldwide and brewed in locations as far away as USA and Canada.

Wandering among the many displays in the renovated museum is certainly a trip back in time, with the geisha-inspired beer advertisements and merchandising demonstrating Japan’s dedication to perfecting any imported technology just as they have done with cars, electronics and consumer goods. ‘Made in Japan’ has long since evolved from a derogatory term for shoddy goods into one of meticulous quality and pride.

Hokkaido: a land of many wonders

The northern island of Hokkaido is perhaps better known for its vast ski fields, many of which are managed by Australians to cater for the annual pilgrimage of Aussies who love to ski this region and its slopes at places like Niseko, Rusutsu, Kiroro, Teine, Kokusai, Nakayama-toge and Furano.

This dramatic alpine scenery and landscapes plays host to trekkers, kayakers, climbers, rafters and mountain bikers who revel in the off-season, snow-free forests.

Those who choose to visit the relatively sparsely populated, mountainous island outside of ski season can include, apart from the Sapporo Beer Museum, such sites as the Ainu Museum near Shiraoi, where the arts and culture of the island’s original inhabitants can be seen.

While in the capital: Tokyo Destination Guide

Stay on track: Exploring Japan Via Train

About 50 kilometres south of Sapporo, visitors can witness several re-enacted traditional dances, wander an authentically recreated kotan (village), tour the museum or buy unusual mementos like dried whole salmon, tamasai (jewellery) and tribal t-shirts. Proud Ainu guides escort the tours and cheerfully relate the secrets of their people and intricate ceremonies. Poignant 19th century photographs hang on the walls, showing clearly a handsome, defiant and distinct race of people who can trace their origins back well before the arrival of the people of Honshu who now dominate the population.

Meanwhile, the Niseko Adventure Centre (NAC) on the pristine Mukawa river, offers a free shuttle bus from Sapporo to Mukawa where there is a smorgasbord of mild and wild activities to entertain and exhilarate visitors of all ages for days on end. Their adrenalin catalogue reads like a how-to manual for the modern adventurer. Take the kids and let them learn the finer points of indoor rock climbing, river rafting or orienteering. There’s even a stag beetle search for those not afraid of the creepy-crawlies.

Beer crawling in Sapporo

But to continue the beer crawl in Sapporo, you might like to explore the competition with a visit to Asahi Beer’s Hokkaido factory, the only large-scale beer factory in Sapporo. A 20-minute tour will show you the working facility and allow you to enjoy three different styles of brew, perhaps accompanied by their famous grilled mutton dish, “Genghis Khan”.

Back at the Sapporo Beer Museum, Hiroshi-san confidently slides the elegant glass across the counter to me, little droplets of condensation already forming on the spotless surface. With a short nod, he gestures for me to enjoy. The perfectly chilled liquid meets my tongue like a moist velvet drape. My choice was the Yebisu Black, brewed in European dark lager style, and is quite possibly the best example of the sort I have tried. My expression says it all and Hiroshi-san breaks into a broad smile.

Here’s cheers from Sapporo, I’ll certainly be lifting a glass to this fine brew again.

Did you know? From April 2016, the shinkansen “bullet trains” are connecting Tokyo with Hokkaido for the first time by high-speed rail. The time to travel between Tokyo and Hokkaido is about an hour faster than before and only about a half hour slower, allowing for transfers and check-in, than air service. You save a little on the fare, plus get to enjoy the scenery as it speeds past at up to 260kmh.