Big (only) in Japan? Rooftop beer gardens

August 6th, 2010 by Daniel Morales

Hankyu Top Beer Garden

Quaffing brews in the beer garden on top of Hankyu department store

The global economy is in shambles. Summer temperatures and humidity have reached record levels all across the northern hemisphere. In Japan this means two things for certain – an increase in the sales of odorless underwear and an increase in the sales of cheap no- and low-malt beer and beer-like beverages. However, this year real beer has also made a small comeback thanks to a boom in beer gardens.

While beer gardens are a Bavarian tradition (the term comes from the German “Biergarten”), the Japanese have been at the game since 1953, when one debuted on top of the New Tokyo Osaka Daiichi Seimei Building, and they’ve added their own unique touches to the fun. Technically beer gardens can and do happen on the ground (or below ground, in which case they are called “beer terraces”) or in any open area with enough space, but in Japan there is a romantic attachment to ones held on the roofs of department stores and other tall buildings. This makes them top draws in late summer after the rainy season has passed and when fireworks season has started.

Generally the drink service at beer gardens is “nomihodai” (unlimited refills) for a set period of time (90 minutes to two hours), and often food is included as well, putting the ¥3,000-¥4,000 ticket within the budgets of many consumers.

This year Yomiuri and Nikkei Shimbun have both noted that the customer base has also diversified. While the rooftop atmospheres lit with lanterns evoke a Showa-era scene filled with smoke and businessmen, more and more women are taking advantage of the offerings, and some beer gardens are offering healthier, low-calorie fare that incorporates hijiki seaweed and burdock as well as sweets such as tai-yaki. Nikkei Trendy Net also noted that there are more women working and therefore probably more women who want to take advantage of the liberating atmosphere of beer gardens as a form of stress relief.

On a linguistic sidenote, in Japanese beer is normally written “biiru,” but when put next to the Japanese “gaaden,” it is written and spoken “bia.” Japanese commenters on Yahoo! note that this is because it’s closer to the English pronunciation of the word “beer,” but that begs the question why it isn’t always pronounced like that.

Photo: Karl Baron

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2 Responses

  1. Biya is the Australian pronunciation for beer and probably is the result of many Aussies frequenting beer gardens. Biru is closer to the U.S. and Germanic pronunciation and inasmuch as I believe it was the Germans who set up the Japanese beer industry back in the Meiji era, that is where the pronunciation comes from rather than from the U.S. occupation

  2. Was just reading some stuff about the Dutch in Japan and according to the author the term comes from the dutch birru. There are so many loanwords that making the simplification that katakana=english just doesn’t work.

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