Rayna Denison "investigates" the Yebisu Beer Museum
The Yebisu Beer Museum is free, informative and it has beer in it. In a city as expensive as Tokyo, these are all serious points in its favour! Though found near the train station in Ebisu, the museum and its beer are technically “Yebisu,” a name designed to flummox language learners due to its use of the archaic, rarely-used “ye” character.
Getting off the train (JR Yamanote or the Hibiya metro), there can be no mistaking that you are in beer country. Practically every famous face from Japanese film and television graces the walls, supping one of the many Yebisu and Sapporo beer brands (Yebisu is now brewed by Sapporo). Head for the sky walk, with its airport-style travelling walkways, and you should end up in Ebisu Garden Plaza. In a further manga link, the Plaza may look familiar to die-hard Japanese dorama fans, as the Hana Yori Dango television series filmed important scenes here, including the spin-off film’s climatic wedding sequence. This should help explain why people will likely be taking photographs of the pretty ugly statuary at the top end of the Plaza when you get there.
For thirsty visitors, the beer museum is well-signposted, and you can get to it by walking down through the Plaza (there are all sorts of events at the Plaza, from Christmas decorations to outdoor film screenings in the summer months) and then turning left through the shopping mall; or, by going straight across the top of the Plaza and turning right at the signpost. You’ll know you have reached the right spot when you can see the giant beer cans guarding the entrance.
A greeter thrusts an English-language explanatory guide into your hands as you walk into the foyer. That is your first indication of the kind of experience you are about to have. The museum looks for all the world like a mix between a really posh hotel and a theatre, with a sweeping staircase and multiple layers of foyer space leading towards a tasting area on one side and the Yebisu Gallery on the other. How you know you are in a beer museum? The giant copper vat in the middle of the room!
The Gallery leads you through Yebisu’s 120-year history, from its beginnings when a group of merchants saw the profit to be made from beer (which, the museum relates, was a high class, expensive beverage in its early years in Japan). Beer would quickly become one of Japan’s most popular kinds of alcohol, with the spread of beer culture in the form of beer halls, beer trains and even beer barges coming to Japan before the advent of World War II.
During the war, all brewers were amalgamated and brands were done away with, and it was not until a wave of public nostalgia for older brands swept through Japan in the 1970s that the Yebisu brand was reborn. The museum offers a treat for manga fans at this point, prominently displaying manga alongside models of the Yebisu brand beers they feature.
The little shop on the opposite side from the Gallery has extremely nice, helpful staff, complete with all the beer paraphernalia you might expect (glasses, t-shirts, stationery and foodstuffs). Next to this, and the real destination for many, is the “tasting” bar, where you can purchase tickets from a machine that equate to beer and nibbles (1 token = 400yen). This is not the cheapest way to drink Yebisu (which you can get at most convenience stores and in vending machines), but the surroundings are nice and the staff is pleasant. It is a lovely way to escape the nearby bustle of Tokyo and relax for a few minutes while contemplating copper vats in museums. And, given the average bar prices in Tokyo, it is certainly not the most expensive way to get a drink, either. The only snag is that you need to be willing to start drinking early in the day – the last admission is 5:15pm and the Museum shuts at 7pm. However, if you want to decamp after that, there is a Sapporo beer restaurant right around the corner…
No writers were harmed in the preparation of this article. Although they might have swayed a bit.