Ah, summer is here. It’s the season of sweat-soaked shirts and the insessant complaint of ‘atsui neeee’. But fear not, because here in Japan the glorious Shinto gods have created the greatest cure for the rising of the thermometer: the beer garden. Yes, all over Nagoya, as sure as karaoke follows izakaya, once the year has brushed the fallen sakura from its shoulders, beer gardens sprout up everywhere and you can stand outside in the sweltering summer heat, cooling yourself with glass after glass of ice cold beer.
Not that beer garden culture is without its flaws, of course. For a start, their culinary offerings – stale chips, cold karaage, mountains of fried crap in trays – leave a lot to be desired. Also, when it comes to design and atmosphere they are mostly pretty much the same, each displaying a total lack of variety or ingenuity. Mostly, but not all.
Kanihonke, the chain of restaurants with the huge animatronic crab above its door, waving its arms in the air like it just don’t care* is a touch different. Now, there are probably three things that you know about Kanihonke: they sell high quality, top-notch crab; it’s kind of on the pricey side; animatronic crabs are cool. But I bet you didn’t know that they have a beer cave.
That’s right, giant animatronic crabs and beer caves. That’s piqued your interest, hasn’t it?
If you head over to the Kanihonke in Sakae from June to September, they can show you down a set of cool rocky stairs that could have been quarried from the same ancient rock as Nagoya Castle’s foundations, and into the belly of the restaurant where you will find a layout quite unlike any beer garden you will have seen. So unusual is it, it’s quite difficult to explain without invoking the old Batman series from the 1960s, all high camp and extravagant sets.
Now imagine there was a super villain called ‘The Fisherman’ or, ‘The Pirate’ with his three sidekicks, Yo, Hou and Ho. So, got that in your head? Now, try to picture his beach cave hideout: fishing nets on rocky walls, plastic crabs and fish, pools of water and a slightly unearthly, watery, flickering lighting. Got it? Well, now you are in Kanihonke Beer Cave, and it is even cooler than it sounds.
With a choice of tables – some segregated for privacy around the edge of the cave in nooks and crannies, others open to encourage more of a party atmosphere – we feeling adventurous, chose a poolside seat. Ah, I forgot to mention the pool, didn’t I? But of course there is a pool, because where else are the crabs going to live?
Of course I was a little concerned by the potential ramifications of combining a load of beer and a pool teeming with live crabs, but with a smile of encouragement from the seafood chefs on the opposite side of the pool – preparing the dishes from a small wooden boat, naturally – my curiosity overcame my fear and we parked ourselves down. Gingerly.
Now, as I have mentioned, Kanihonke can be a little bit pricey, but this being a beer garden, they have a separate menu that is a little more accessible. We perused the fare on offer, supping on ice cold beers (Super Dry and Super Dry Black, the thermometers showing -2.2 and -1.8 degrees respectively), and after considering the pretty phenomenal two-hour all you can drink menus (they have a choice of two at ¥4,000 and ¥5,000 depending on quite how much seafood and extra crab you can eat) we decided to take it easy and enjoy a bit of sakana, in both the fish 魚 and beer food 肴 senses of the word.
However, at Kanihonke beer food takes on a whole new meaning. There are no sad steel dishes of unappetising fried food here. We started with some grilled squid, which, with no word of a lie and no sense of hyperbole, was the best squid I’ve had since I caught and barbecued my own on Australia’s west coast. It was gently flavoured and the texture was perfectly balanced – neither too soft nor too rubbery like you may find elsewhere. In the words of my faithful interpreter, as she leaned back contentedly in her chair, a tentacle between her chopsticks and her ice-cold glass in her hand: “aah, beer garden no kanji ne!” It feels like a beer garden now!
We followed that up with some meatloaf, which seemed to me to be a bit of a left field choice for a crab restaurant, but this too was the best of it’s kind I had ever eaten. Okay, admittedly it is the only meatloaf I have ever eaten, but it was succulent, oozing with cheese and the tang of the ume dressing cut through the fat delightfully, totally taking me by surprise and forcing me to reappraise my previously less-than-generous ideas of the American dinnertime staple.
We also chose a sashimi plate which was pretty decent and came with tuna, yellow tail, squid, a light and fluffy salmon, and ikura eggs from which I usually shy away due to their overly fishy piquancy, but these were light in taste and I ploughed through them, to my partner’s astonishment.
The next dish was what I had been looking forward to most. Apparently you can’t go to Kanihonke without trying their kanifuto makizushi, crab sushi rolls, and with good reason: Christ they were good! So good, that I got a little giddy with the crab (and perhaps also with the beer) and asked about perusing the other menu, the upstairs menu. The posh one.
The manager Mizuno-san was only too happy to help, and following a casual glance at the price (it wasn’t as extravagant as I had expected) ordered up a crab steak and crab tempura and… Meltdown. Absolute meltdown. They were like nothing I have had in my life. Out of this world.
After a couple more beers, sated grins slapped casually across our faces, we were done, and we ascended the steps out into the summery heat. And yes, it’s hot, it’s sticky, but without the summer we wouldn’t have beer caves, and for that alone, I could happily live in summer all year round.
*Probably because they don’t. Animatronic crabs care about very little. Other than how they will one day enslave humankind, once they have figured out how to climb down from restaurant-front walls.