When was the first time you heard about ramune – the refreshing Japanese soda with the glass marble in the neck of the bottle? Perhaps you found it on Japanese marketplace JapanHaul? Or you found it in a TokyoTreat monthly subscription box.
Ramune is a staple in the world of Japanese soda. For over a century, people in Japan have loved and enjoyed this delicious Japanese 'lemonade' by both children and adults alike.
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Thanks to its refreshing flavor, iconic glass bottle and a little creative magic, it made it through the 20th century, when many of its counterparts faded into obscurity.
But how has this drink been able to overcome the test of time to become one of the most beloved drinks in Japan? Keep reading to find out the origins of Japanese ramune.
Our story doesn’t start in Japan…
The journey of ramune begins in London, England circa 1872. Inventor and entrepreneur Hiram Codd (1838 – 1887) had just invented and patented the namesake Codd Neck Bottle, a stylishly designed glass bottle that safely allows the user to stop liquid from leaking with the use of a glass marble. This marble works to form a so-called 'perfect seal' as it rises up from the carbonated pressure against a rubber stopper.
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After travelling the world, Codd realized the need to reduce the demand for cork and decided to invent his own solution. The Codd bottles slowly began to see a growth in popularity throughout his lifetime; however, he unfortunately passed away suddenly in 1887.
The bottles were originally put to use as glass water bottles. But, it turned out, that the bottles were more than perfect for carbonated drinks, as releasing the marble from the wide mouth of the bottle served to release the pressure of the carbonation inside once opened.
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A Journey Across the Globe
There are many different theories as to how Japan came to fall in love with ramune. But one of the most popular theories, however, involves Scottish chemist Alexander Cameron Sim.
Born in northeastern Scotland, Alexander Cameron Sim (1840 – 1900) could be considered the grandfather of ramune in Japan. After starting his career as a pharmacist in a London hospital, he joined the British Royal Navy in 1866.
He was first posted in Hong Kong before moving onto Nagasaki, Japan in 1869. At that time, Nagasaki was a critical port for international trade in Japan, as it was one of the only ports open to trade with the Western world throughout Japan's self-imposed period of isolation, known as Sakoku. During the Sakoku period, almost all trade with foreign nations was forbidden. In 1853, however, the government of Japan had decided to end its period of isolation, and this made way for the many changes to the way of life of Japanese people that would occur within the Meiji Era that was soon to come.
As would be expected, as the country started to open its doors to foreign trade, many substantial business opportunities appeared. Sim moved to the Japanese city of Kobe in 1870 and began working for an import business. Afterwards he was able to go into business for himself, mainly importing medical equipment and medicine.
In 1884, Sim began importing a bottle of a sweet carbonated beverage based on lemonade. At the time, it was thought that this was a suitable medicine to prevent cholera. And luckily for Sim it became immensely popular after it was advertised in the Tokyo Mainichi Shimbun newspaper.
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The original ramune was named Mabu Soda, coming from the English words 'marble soda'. Codd’s signature bottle was used in Mabu Soda's distribution, and the fact that the marble within the glass bottle had to be dislodged in order to get to the liquid proved to be a winning charm point of the product.
Eventually the drink came to be known by the name ramune, based on the Japanese phonetic spelling of the word lemonade, and to this day it remains as one of the most popular Japanese soft drinks available, thanks to its classic lemon lime flavor and iconic bottle design that's known today in simple parlance as the ramune bottle.
Ramune in the Modern Day
Ramune quickly became associated with Japanese summer fireworks festivals, thanks to its refreshing flavor that's perfect to battle away the humidity, and even to this day you’ll see plenty of stalls selling the Japanese soda at summer festivals all over the country. The glass bottles can even be recycled right there at the stall once you've finished drinking yours.
The Codd Neck Bottle eventually became less popular over time in other countries, due to the difficult and expensive production method involved. But Japan continues to keep the Codd Neck Bottle tradition alive through its production of ramune and its ongoing popularity. Only one other drink is known to still use this style of bottle today, and that's the popular soda from India called Banta.
Ramune has also gradually gotten further and further away from its original purpose, quite luckily. Once purposed to be a medicinal drink, that's now old news and the Japanese soda is pushing the boundaries of flavor possibilities! Ramune makers are experimenting with more and more flavors every month, from springtime sakura ramune to fruity flavors like melon, all the way to funky town with a very seafood-like creation… clam chowder ramune? Would you be brave enough to try clam chowder ramune?
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Ramune has made a long journey over the years, but we see the tradition kept alive through Japanese summer festival culture in particular and experimental ramune flavors that always tend to pique the interest of thirsty epicureans, bringing a humble 150 year old invention into the modern day and beyond. We're excited to see what new kinds of unique and seasonal flavors that ramune makers will come up with next!
Be sure to let us know in the comments whether you've tried Japanese ramune before! And if you have, what's your favorite flavor? Are there any interesting flavors that you'd really like to try soon?
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