Japan is a country well-known for its weird and wonderful cuisine. From traditional Japanese dishes like fermented soy bean natto and salty-spicy pollock roe mentaiko, to modern snacks like cough drop flavored Kit Kats and horse meat ice cream—Japan is a wonderland for adventurous diners looking to challenge their taste buds.
But Japanese food isn’t the only source of unique gustatory experiences—Japanese drinks are another area of unexpected, original delights! Here are some of the most unique Japanese drinks you can find in the land of the rising sun today.
Whether you call them soft drinks, soda, or pop, Japan has you covered when it comes to carbonated sweet drinks. Some of these are obvious—like Coca Cola, which is as readily available in Japanese convenience stores and vending machines as any other Western country. That said, Coca Cola in Japan does come with its own unique twist: limited edition designer bottles! Over the years, Coca Cola Japan has released a plethora of special bottle designs inspired by different Japanese regions, from Tokyo’s omotenashi (hospitality) bottle to the “michinoku” design showcasing three popular summer festivals from Japan’s Tohoku region. Add in the yearly release of limited-edition sakura designs emblazoned with pink cherry blossoms, and Japan is a bottle collector’s paradise.
Luckily, for those of us less interested in fancy designs and catchin’ them all, there are plenty of drinks in Japan that boast one-of-a-kind flavors, too. You’ve probably already heard of ramune, with its unique glass bottle and marble seal, but you might be surprised to hear that on top of its base lemonade flavor, ramune also comes in a number of surprising varieties, including curry, takoyaki, and a troubling “cream stew” flavor. These are definitely not lemonade flavors you’ll find anywhere else!
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After ramune, there’s also melon soda. This Japanese classic is a simple mixture of melon flavored syrup and carbonated water, and has been around since at least the 50s. It’s also eye-catching to boot, with its vibrant neon green color making it favorite with kids at family restaurants and cafes. Despite the name, melon soda actually doesn’t taste all that much like melon—instead, it has a mild, sweet, fruity taste. You’ll often see it being used as a base for another popular Japanese drink, cream soda, which is simply melon soda topped with a scoop of vanilla ice-cream! Another perfect summertime beverage.
No list of unique Japanese drinks would be complete without mentioning Calpis, dubbed Calpico in the US. This troublingly named beverage is a milky drink made by lactic acid fermentation, taking its name from a portmanteau of ‘calcium’ and the Sanskrit word for clarified butter, ‘sarpiṣ’. Like many fermented milk drinks, Calpis has a range of vaunted health benefits: from aiding digestion to reducing fatigue and high blood pressure. It’s wildly popular in Japan, where it can be found in both carbonated and uncarbonated varieties, and is even a frequent addition to kakigori shaved ice and alcoholic cocktails.
Calpis’s close cousin is Yakult, another Japanese probiotic yoghurt drink with a similarly milky and mildly acidic taste. Although you can find single-serve and multipack portions of Yakult in supermarkets and convenience stores, true fans of this milky beverage are likely to avail themselves of the services of a so-called “Yakult lady,” a woman you will often see driving a motorbike around Japanese neighbourhoods, delivering these drinks door to door!
Finally, rounding off this category is the popular Pocari Sweat energy drink. Pocari Sweat is a mild, slightly sweet drink intended to replace the body’s supply of electrolytes and nutrients after exertion—hence the surprising use of the word ‘sweat,’ which can be off-putting for English speakers! Pocari Sweat—and its competitor, Aquarius—is a mainstay not only of sporting events but Japanese summers, when you’ll find it stocked in nearly every vending machine and convenience store you pass. It’s the perfect answer to Japan’s hottest, most humid season.
Speaking of fermentation, there is, of course, another popular fermented drink in Japan that isn’t quite so healthy: Japanese sake! Sake is an alcoholic drink made of fermented rice that has been polished to remove the bran. Called nihonshu in Japan, sake comes in countless varieties, generally categorized according to their nihonshu-do (alcohol and sugar level), san-do (acid level) and aminosan-do (umami level). With so much variation, there’s something for every palate. If you’re of age, sake is the quintessentially Japanese drink not to be missed!
If you can’t find something to your taste, however, don’t worry! Japan has plenty of other alcoholic beverages to wet your whistle. Shochu, for example, is a Japanese alcoholic drink made through distillation. Compared to sake, shochu has an earthier taste that varies widely according to the starch used in the distillation. Then there’s umeshu, or Japanese plum wine, which combines Japanese ume plums with sugar and shochu or sake to create a sweet, fruity alcoholic drink popular with light drinkers. Last but not least is chuhai, one of Japan’s most popular mixed alcohol drinks, which combines shochu with carbonated water in a variety of different flavors, from lemon to pineapple, lychee, strawberry, and even cream soda. Sake might have made its mark as Japan’s national alcoholic beverage, but there’s plenty of other drinks to choose from!
Finally, is any list of Japanese drinks complete without a mention of tea? While black teas were briefly produced in Japan, today, the market is dominated by green tea, and in particular matcha, the famous bright green tea powder used in traditional Japanese tea ceremonies. Indeed, matcha is so popular it has spawned a whole category of Japanese drinks, from matcha lattes to milkshakes and frappuccinos.
Besides matcha and sencha, matcha’s less famous, loose-leafed equivalent, Japan is also the birthplace of hojicha and genmaicha, which build on a sencha base to create different green tea flavors. Hojicha, made by roasting Japanese tea leaves, has a nutty aroma and no caffeine, while genmaicha combines sencha with roasted rice for an earthy, toasted flavor.
Finally, there are the teas made from things other than tea leaves, of which mugicha and sobacha are the most famous varieties. Mugicha is a type of barley tea that is particularly popular served cold throughout the summer, while sobacha uses the roasted buckwheat kernels from which Japanese soba noodles are made.
As you can see, Japan has a whole range of unique beverages for every occasion. Whether you’re looking for something with a punch or simply a nice cup of tea, Japan is sure to have the perfect drink to quench your thirst—and surprise your tastebuds!