A Tokyo Beer Story, Part I: In the Shibuya Backstreets, An Ex-Salaryman Taps a New Life

Akira Hiranoya Tokyo

Things were different at Liquor Shop Hiranoya before Akira Hirano took over. “We used to be a normal, ordinary liquor shop. We would mainly sell sake and shochu, snacks, chips—nothing special. But I changed it.”

Hirano was a typical Tokyo salaryman. He wore a tailored black suit with polished leather shoes to work every day, every long day. Then, in his third year working sales for General Motors, just when he was getting into the swing of things fand had developed comradery with a tight-knit group of colleagues, the global and Japanese economies tanked. Hirano was laid off, or “forced to quit,” as he puts it. “It was kind of depressing. I researched new jobs, but it was a bad situation,” he says.

Despondent, Hirano accepted an offer from his former employer to meet with a career counselor. It sounds like a Murakami-like setup for a soul-seeking journey into the far reaches of Japan, but the slight, wispy-voiced Hirano left his appointment with a plan far more tangible: take over the family business, something he’d never planned to do.

Today Hirano is the fifth-generation owner of his family’s pint-sized booze shop, which has operated in the backstreets of Shibuya since 1907. His father, now 70 years old, still helps out, but Hirano guesses he’ll soon be ready to retire. It’s his show now, and to make it his own Hirano reduced the shop’s old product staples—sake and shochu—to one or two corner shelves, then replaced the sake cabinets with a clutch of tables and chairs and six fridges packed with well over 100 bottled beers (and a few wines) from more than 10 distributors. The list includes some Japanese breweries, like Osaka’s excellent Minoh Beer, though the focus is American and European craft, with a particular focus on Belgians.

When I ask Hirano if he has any favorites, he spends 30 seconds surveying the Belgian section before picking out a Belgian Wit IPA. “I’m always surprised that people don’t know about this place, because it’s the best beer selection in Shibuya or Ebisu,” says Hamilton Shields, the general manager of Mikkeller Tokyo and my drinking partner for the night.

Before Shields and I leave armed with roadies—one can of Evil Twin Brewing’s Retro IPA each—Hirano tells me about his Hiranoya Running Club, a monthly 7.5-kilometer jaunt through Tokyo he readily admits aligns closely with the Mikkeller Running Club Tokyo. (“It’s on different days, though.”) He pulls out a Hong Kong design magazine with a Japanese craft beer story and flips to the page with his listing; that page is bookmarked with a neon-pink sticky note. When a guy dressed as an everyday salaryman walks in, Hirano introduces him as the EDM deejay presiding over Hiranoya’s DJ night every first Saturday of the month. “He designed the toilet speakers at the old Mikkeller bar, too,” chimes in Shields.

What you think is a typical Tokyo salaryman, it seems, may not be so typical after all.

Liquor Shop Hiranoya is located at 11-10 Shinsen-cho, Shibuya-ku, Tokyo. +81 3 3461 1368. Open Monday to Saturday 12pm – 11pm. Closed Sunday.

>> Next Read Part II: In Setagaya, It’s a Small World After All

>> Then Read Part III: Japan’s Brewer as God Syndrome, and Mikkeller Strikes Back

Brian Spencer
written by: Brian Spencer
Brian Spencer is a Singapore-based freelance journalist and the founder of Beer Travelist. Say hello at brian [a] beertravelist.com.