Japan from the inside out

Baby, it’s cold outside

Posted by ampontan on Monday, February 1, 2010

ONE OF THE DELIGHTS of living in Kyushu is the mild climate. The temperature seldom, if ever, falls below freezing in the lowlands; only once in my years here have I seen even the thinnest layer of ice form in a puddle next to the curb. It does snow every once in a while, but that never creates any problems and it’s usually gone the next day.

The winning sogaki

Not every region in Japan is so fortunate, however. The prefectures of the Tohoku region and Hokkaido in the north are known as the Snow Belt. Every winter, the snow can accumulate up to two meters deep (that’s six and a half feet), and it sometimes crushes and buries homes. One man now in Kyushu rented a house in that part of the country years ago, and he told me he didn’t realize there was a fence around the property until the snow melted in the spring.

To protect their homes, as well as the trees and shrubs in the garden, the people of the Snow Belt devised structures called yukigakoi, or sogaki, which are installed from the roof to the ground. Sometimes they’re put in place permanently because of the time required to build one every year just for the season. Some can be rather simple, while others, built around shops, even have glass walls and automatic doors that are rather expensive to install and take down.

And some designs are so good they deserve recognition and greater dissemination among the public. Earlier this month, the Obanazawa Yamagata Snow Research Association awarded its 2009 Yukigakoi Grand Prize for the best amateur snow shelter to the design created by a Mr. Endo, who is 81. (There’s more than one possibility for the reading of his given name.)

The association bestows the award to recognize particularly imaginative techniques for building sogaki. This year a five-person committee selected the best design from among 12 candidates. They used the criteria of functionality, attractiveness, and artistry.

What the judges liked best about Mr. Endo’s version was its structural beauty. The design features long pieces of wood lashed together with vines to create a conical shape. The winner said he created the design more than 30 years ago to protect the trees and shrubs in his garden from the weight of the snow.

Now that the sogaki keeps everyone warm from the cold outside, how do we get warm from the inside out?

Well, one way is to drink some HOtty.

HOtty is a variety of what is called happoshu in Japanese, which is officially translated as “sparkling spirits”. Beer for tax purposes is defined as consisting of 67% malt, so the brewers created happoshu with a lower malt content to offer a more affordable product. Some also refer to it as a “low-malt beer”. HOtty still contains plenty of malt, however—in fact, it has five different varieties, shown on the left in the photo. One of them is chocolate malt, which gives it the dark color. While it’s often used for porters and stouts, chocolate malt is not roasted quite as long as black patent malt, which is also used in similar beverages.

The reason this brew warms the drinker from the inside out is that it is mulled beer; i.e., it’s heated before serving.

Have a HOtty

This is the second year Okhotsk Beer of Kitami, Hokkaido, has brewed HOtty. Judging from their Japanese-language website, Okhotsk Beer seems to be a brewpub, and HOtty is served only on the premises in their three dining areas during winter. (Japanese residents can order their other beers on-line, but that gets more expensive the farther away one is from Hokkaido.)

The Okhotsk brewmaster tried to limit the bitterness by not using any hops. Still, it’s 5.5% alcohol by volume, and that’ll be enough to get some people hopping. He said they also changed the proportion of the malts from last year’s version to reduce acidity. The beer sparkling spirit tastes somewhat sweet when heated, but the brewer’s publicity says it can be drunk chilled and still retain its richness.

Those fortunate to plow through the snow and survive the northern exposure in Kitami can buy a glass for JPY 450 (about five bucks). You’d better make your move quickly, however—the brewery only made 700 liters (185 gallons) and they warn they could sell out by mid-February.

If you think it’s odd to drink hot beer, try this page for an explanation of the long history of mulled beer. Indeed, over the centuries beer has been drunk heated for a far longer period than it’s been drunk chilled. And if you can’t make it up to Kitami to try some for yourself, here’s a site with a mulled beer recipe. February is usually the coldest month in Kyushu, so the opportunity to try some myself might arrive before too long. I wonder about that egg yolk, though.

For their part, the Japanese are unlikely to find anything odd about mulled beer. They already heat sake or add hot water to shochu or whiskey for a warming drink in winter.

I’ve never run across any mulled wine here, but now that HOtty’s on the market, it’s probably only a matter of time!

One Response to “Baby, it’s cold outside”

  1. soma36 said

    And beer also started out as a nutritional drink too!

    I actually found Hokkaido a bit more hospitable like than Tohoku (where I am “from”) as it seemed that people actually planned for this winter thing and were not surprised every year that the snow caused all these problems like accidents of all kinds, and, coldness.

    Anyway, happoshu warmed up is probably the most sensible way to drink it.

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