Taihū Tokyo Brings Taiwanese Craft Beer to Shinjuku’s KagurazakaFood and Drink Entertainment Travel
Taiwanese Beer in a Tokyo Back Alley
Walking up the sloping main street of Kagurazaka in Shinjuku, I take a right just before the iconic temple Bishamonten Zenkokuji. Down the alley, there is a two-story house in the kominka traditional style. The white noren curtain hanging over the entrance is tasteful and elegant, giving off the feel of a fine old Japanese restaurant. But the signboard standing nearby reads in Japanese “Taiwanese craft beer and authentic Taiwanese cuisine.” This is Taihū Tokyo, run by Taiwanese craft beer brand Taihū Brewing.
I step inside imagining a bright Taiwanese restaurant atmosphere but am met instead by what appears more like a top-class urban bar. The walls are papered in black and there is a long row of beer taps lined up behind the stylish bar top.
Going up the stairs to the second floor reveals another twist: a bright, white-tiled space that would be instantly familiar to Taiwanese diners. It is lined with stainless steel tables and chairs, and the menu is stuck to the wall. It feels like being right back in Taiwan.
The vastly different concepts of the first and second floors creates an unexpected harmony through contrast.
In the Edo period (1603–1868), Kagurazaka was lined with samurai manors and temples clustered around Bishamonten. The opening of Kōbu railway’s Ushigome Station (now Iidabashi Station) in the Meiji era (1868–1912) led to rapid development of the area, and soon the neighborhood was home to one of Tokyo’s leading geisha entertainment districts. Kagurazaka came through the Great Kantō Earthquake of 1923 relatively intact, and it continued to thrive and grow on into the prewar period. It was a culturally rich area and home to such Meiji literary figures as Ozaki Kōyō (1868–1903) and Izumi Kyōka (1873–1939).
During Japan’s postwar economic boom, it once more flourished as a red-light district and also became the scene of so-called ryōtei seiji, or “high class restaurant politics,” where government officials met for secret, behind-the-scenes dealings.
Taking on the Craft Beer World
Japan is gaining a reputation for its craft beer scene. A reform to tax laws in 1994 led to craft breweries popping up all over the country, and as of 2021 the number had surpassed 500. Competition is fierce.
So, what would make Taiwan’s Taihū Brewing want to enter the fray? And why choose Kagurazaka? Taihū’s public relations officer Chen Hsiang viewed sites all over Tokyo and says the neighborhood’s scenery really fit. “It’s rich in culture and history, and I felt like it was a laid-back spot.”
Taihū Brewing took over the current site after the previous occupant, a traditional Japanese restaurant, closed, and established Taihū Tokyo.
Even as many of Taihū’s shops in Taiwan feature modern, stylish designs, some use remodeled kominka left from the days when the island was a Japanese holding, for a “Japanese-modern” sensibility. The Tokyo location melds these two elements to better blend into the local culture.
“The shop exterior has not changed” says shop manager Tanaka Shinnosuke. “We are hoping that Taiwanese cuisine and craft beer can become part of Japanese life. Even if a food comes from another country, it can still become part of local culture.” Tanaka, whose wife is Taiwanese, is a fan of the island’s culture and has been promoting Taiwanese craft beer ever since he joined Taihū Brewing.
A Global Tour for the Palate!
The secret to craft beer’s success is how it uses the local flavors of its source area to create individuality. Most of Taihū Brewing’s craft beer is in the hops-heavy IPA style, with the addition of uniquely Taiwanese flavors like grass jelly, guava, hibiscus tea, green plum, and dried citrus peel.
Grass jelly is made from an herb known as Chinese mesona, which is considered to be good for quenching thirst. Grass jelly is a popular dessert in Taiwan, but Japanese frequently find its distinct aroma off putting, like drinking medicine. “It can be really divisive in Japan,” says Tanaka.
The beer made with dried citrus peel also has a distinct bitterness, while the one with candied fruit is quite popular with Taiwanese residents of Japan. The green plum beer is a hit with ume-loving Japanese customers. According to Tanaka, “One thing I can say about craft beer fans, they love to explore new worlds and new flavors.” Enjoying craft beer from other countries is a way to take the palate on a world tour.
A Total Taiwan Experience
Taihū Tokyo not only serves up beer, but also offers a variety of Taiwanese cuisine. The second floor, in particular, has an authentic Taiwanese pub atmosphere. Stepping into the bustling interior is like going home to Taiwan.
The food is made by head chef Nagaya Rika. Nagaya was born and raised in Taipei, but has lived for over 10 years near Kagurazaka. She started out as shop staff at Taihū Tokyo on its opening, and since becoming chef, she has been gathering ingredient information and researching Taiwan’s latest trends, which she then brings to the menu.
“We 100 percent re-create the taste of Taiwan,” Nagaya declares. “We particularly wanted Japanese customers who couldn’t visit Taiwan during the pandemic to come and get a little taste of Taiwan here.” The head office fully supports the Tokyo shop’s efforts to offer authentic Taiwan taste without adapting to local palates.
But there are still ingredients that the shop cannot get in Japan. For instance, the Taiwanese basil used in many dishes is simply unavailable in Japan, so staff must substitute other ingredients. It is also difficult to get raw pork tripe for a traditional stir-fry, and the dish must made do with pre-cooked varieties. Taiwanese-style pubs are known for serving quick meals, and Nagaya says when she first took over the kitchen, it was busy enough to make her head spin. But she also insists that she is happy to be able to share the taste of Taiwanese home cooking with Japanese customers.
Through the Pandemic
From March 2020, the COVID-19 pandemic brought the world to a near standstill; Taihū Tokyo opened in June of that year. The 2021 declaration of a state of emergency in Japan forced the shop to close for six months. The long period of measures to prevent the spread of COVID-19 was a tough one for restaurants, including restrictions on serving alcohol after 8:00 pm.
Since the brewer could not serve beer inside the shop, it shifted to a take-out style service. The staff say they prepared clear glass bottles so that customers could enjoy the flavor of craft beer fresh off the tap. Tanaka says, “Those customers who came to enjoy ‘Taihū at Home’ during those days saved us.”
The period of restrictions meant that business was mostly limited to daytime, so the restaurant focused on lunch. “I did see some workers who would order a glass of beer with lunch,” mentions Tanaka. He also says that some would hurry in after work finished at 6:30 in the evening. The staff at Taihū were particularly moved by one customer’s claims that they simply wanted to eat something from Taiwan.
Tanaka looks back with emotion. “There was that phrase, ‘Taiwan loss,’ wasn’t there? We actually had Japanese customers who felt a sense of loss because they couldn’t visit Taiwan.”
With the pandemic abating, Kagurazaka is bustling once again. The shop has gradually gotten back on track, too, and throughout 2023 sales have been on the rise. According to Tanaka, deliveries of kegs from Taiwan have almost doubled since summer. In the future, the shop looks to move beyond craft beer to become a place to share authentic Taiwanese food culture. In this historic district of Kagurazaka, Taihū Brewing is using craft beer to blaze a new trail into cuisine.
(Originally published in Japanese. Banner photo © Semba Satoru.)