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Quench your thirst with these delicious Japanese drinks, and experience the magic and flavor of Japanese cuisine in more than its iconic dishes.
Be it at a quirky cafe, a huge event, or a luxurious restaurant, these iconic beverages are sure to dazzle, soothe, and awe with their ingredients and flavors. Here are 14 of the country’s most popular drinks you should definitely try, as recommended by a local.
1 – Green Tea (緑茶)
Green tea (緑茶) is such an intrinsic part of Japanese culture, the country even dedicates an entire day to celebrating and honoring it. People in Japan consume the fragrant beverage everywhere – at home, at restaurants, at work, and even during company meetings.
Green tea, and all other teas, comes from the Camellia sinensis plant. However, for green tea, the leaves are steamed and heat-treated to stop the fermentation process and enzymatic reactions.
Green teas come in many different varieties, including sencha(煎茶), fukamushicha(深蒸し茶), kamanobicha(窯伸び茶), bancha(番茶) and gyokuro(玉露).
Sencha is the most popular, accounting for about 80% of all green teas produced in Japan. Sencha tea uses the youngest, highest quality leaves that are steamed before twisted and dried.
Green tea is beloved by the Japanese and it is believed to have many health properties.
2 – Matcha（抹茶）
The Japanese have consumed matcha（抹茶）for centuries before it reached its current cult status in Western countries. Matcha tea is made from a finely ground deep green powder, known for its robust and mildly bitter flavor.
In fact, the Japanese love matcha tea so much that they use it to flavor mochi, ice cream, desserts, chocolate, lattes, and cookies — the slightly bitter drink pairs well with the sweet confections.
Traditionally, teas are made by steeping the leaves in hot water. However, matcha tea is different because the powder is instead combined with water, then consumed.
The Japanese use a delicate bamboo whisk, or chasen, to froth up and blend the green powder with hot water. The chasen is preferred to a metal whisk or spoon as it protects the matcha mixing bowls, some of which are incredibly delicate due to their age.
Also, matcha tea is cultivated differently from other teas. The leaves, called Tencha, grow in the shade as farmers cover the growing tea plants in the field. The lack of sunlight increases the amount of chlorophyll and nutrients in the leaves.
Matcha originated from China and was adopted by Japanese culture in the early 9th century. It was not widely available for many years, and the Japanese created many rules and formalities around its consumption. However, it is now Japan’s most popular flavor export and hailed by the health industry as a nourishing and healthy drink.
3 – Barley Tea （麦茶）
Toasty but slightly bitter, barley tea （麦茶）is an infusion made from roasted barley. Also known as mugi-cha, the tea is made by boiling roasted unhulled barley in water or brewing ground kernels.
People in Japan love barley tea and often drink it instead of water. And, in fact, barley tea is consumed throughout the year – chilled in summer and hot in winter. Its fragrant and refreshing aroma cleanses the palate without leaving a heavy aftertaste.
You can find barley tea at supermarkets and in almost all Japanese households. Traditionally, children always have a bottle of cold barley tea waiting at home when they return from school.
Unlike green tea, barley tea is caffeine-free. It is extremely popular in Japan, China, and Korea, and consumed not just for enjoyment, but also for its various health benefits.
4 – Oolong Tea（烏龍茶）
The Japanese often turn to Oolong tea（烏龍茶）as a digestif, especially after consuming alcohol and salty snacks at an Izakaya bar or rich, barbecued meat at a Yakiniku restaurant.
Oolong tea leaves are the result of a highly specialized labor-intensive process. Before harvesting, the entire tea plant withers in the sun. The twigs, stems, and leaves are then left to ferment, then twisted piece-by-piece, giving the oolong tea leaves their distinctive, spiral shape.
Rich in polyphenols, people not only enjoy Oolong tea for its health benefits, but many also drink it as a beauty tea.
Japanese Soft Drinks
5 – Calpis (カルピス)
Calpis (カルピス) must be the absolute favorite drink of most Japanese children, and it is hard to find a Japanese adult or child who doesn’t like the drink. The company plays on this devotion and refers to Calpis as a “taste of first love” in its slogan.
This white milky uncarbonated soft drink has a sweet but slightly acidic flavor and is a staple in all Japanese supermarkets. Its eye-catching packaging makes it hard to miss with its pattern of light and dark blue circles on a transparent plastic bottle.
Calpis was created in 1919 as Japan’s first lactic acid bacteria drink and has been a front runner of Japanese soft drinks ever since. The lactic acid bacteria and yeast are fermented with raw milk to create a beverage with a truly unique flavor.
Calpis expanded its brand to include Calpis Soda and Calpis Water. An alcoholic version, Calpis Chuhai, is also a popular mixer for cocktails.
6 – Yakult (ヤクルト)
Yakult (ヤクルト) is a Japanese sweetened probiotic milk beverage loved by Japanese of all ages. This beverage is popular in Japan and widely available in many Western countries.
Yakult comes in an eye-catching container – a small cylindrical-shaped 65ml bottle that easily fits in a child’s hand.
The beverage is made from a Shirota strain of lactic acid bacteria. Supermarkets and convenience stores sell this sweet probiotic, but it is also sold door-to-door by the Yakult Ladies.
7 – OronaminC (オロナミンC)
OronaminC (オロナミンC) ranks among the most popular energy drinks for Japanese adults. The carbonated beverage has a slight lemonade or citrus-like flavor and is highly refreshing.
This drink contains plenty of vitamin B6, and many Japanese take Oronamin C when feeling tired or for an extra boost during work. They also like to drink it when sick since it contains vitamin C.
8 – Ramune(ラムネ)
Ramune(ラムネ) is a staple beverage of Japanese festivals (Matsuri) and food stalls. Legend has it that drink was created by a British pharmacist back in 1884, in time establishing itself as Japan’s favorite drink.
This fragrant, citrus-flavored, sweet and sour carbonated soda feels like Japan in a single sip. Even the design of the Ramune bottles, or Codd-neck bottles, have remained untouched since their creation.
Named after soft drink maker Hiram Codd, Codd-neck bottles are made of thick glass and include a marble stop that stops the beverage from losing its fizz.
It takes practice to drink from a ramune bottle for the first time without the marble halting the flow, but trust me when I say it’s worth it!
Several manufacturers produce Ramune, but all variations are lemon-flavored and sold in distinctive marble-stop bottles.
9 – Pocari Sweat (ポカリスエット)
Pocari Sweat (ポカリスエット) is the reigning sports drink in Japan, consumed by many professional athletes and sports players.
The beverage is marketed as an “ion supply drink,” and you’ll be hard-pressed to find a popular sporting event where you won’t see this slightly milky-colored beverage adorned with its simple and sharp blue branding.
Japanese Alcoholic Drinks
10 – Japanese Sake （日本酒）
A historic drink made from rice, water, malt, yeast, and lactic acid, Japanese sake（日本酒）is hugely important in Japanese culture. There were even ancient rituals to regulate the consumption of this famous beverage.
For centuries, the Japanese have offered sake to the gods in festivities and rites. The Japanese believe that sake was a gift from the gods and used as an act of bonding, bringing people and gods together.
Due to its ceremonial importance, sake is not drunk at home or any Izakaya restaurant.
A popular variation is Mizore sake, which is partially frozen until it melts to a soft, slushy consistency similar to sorbet.
This age-old Japanese drink has reached cult status around the world. What Westerners refer to as “sake” is a generic term for alcohol, including beer and spirits. When ordering sake in Japan, specifically ask for Japanese sake (Nihon shu/日本酒).
11 – Sparkling Japanese Sake (スパークリング酒)
Sparkling Japanese sake has a lower alcohol content, usually between 5 to 12%, and is especially popular among Japanese women. Introduced to Japan in the 1980s, sparkling sake is relatively new to Japanese culture.
There are a wide variety of production methods, with one of the most popular being Kasei nigori-shu(活性濁り), in which the sake is roughly filtered and bottled during the fermentation process, giving it a thick, milky texture.
Meanwhile, Binnai niji hakou (瓶内二次発酵) sake, another popular type of sparkling sake, is made by adding yeast and sugar after bottling.
12 – Chūhai (チューハイ or 酎ハイ)
Chūhai (チューハイ or 酎ハイ) is one of the most popular and affordable alcoholic beverages in Japan. Sold in a can and referred to as Chu-Hi, it only costs 100 yen or 88 cents to buy this drink.
Urban legend has it that first Chūhai was a mixture of Barley shōchū(麦焼酎) and lemon-flavored carbonated water, served in a beer mug at an izakaya.
It became hugely popular in the early 2000s, and today many flavors are available to try, including tea, fruit, sweet red wine, and even Calpis.
Its alcohol content is relatively low, usually between 3% and 7%, and it is sold in practically every convenience store. It’s a common sight to see college students hanging outside the stores drinking Chūhai on Friday and Saturday nights in Japan.
13 – Shochu (焼酎)
Shochu (焼酎) is a Japanese distilled liquor that tastes like brandy or vodka popular with the older generation of Japanese men. Produced in Japan since the 16th century, the earliest record of this drink dates back to 1559, and a note made by a humble carpenter.
There are many flavor variations, depending on the ingredients, that range from rice shochu, barley shochu, sweet potato shochu, brown sugar shochu, buckwheat shochu, and chestnut shochu.
Brewing shochu takes place in most regions, but Southern Kyushu, such as Kagoshima, Miyazaki, and Kumamoto prefectures, is most famous for the production.
Most shochu made in Japan has an alcohol content of 25%. People like to drink it neat or add water or soda as a mixer.
14 – Japanese Beer(ビール)
Japanese beer(ビール) is the ultimate “cheering sake” at Izakaya and pubs. Many Japanese choose beer as the alcohol of choice for the first round.
It is essential to first pour for others when sharing bottles, especially for seniors or senpai.
Five major breweries produce beer in Japan: Asahi Beer, Kirin Brewery, Sapporo Beer, Suntory, and Yebisu, and they all make light lagers with an alcohol content of about 5%.
Each brewery has its particular twist and distinctive flavor. Asahi Beer, the most popular, has a dry, crisp taste, while Sapporo Beer is mildly sweet. Kirin has the umami flavor of malt while Suntory is light and easy to drink, and Ebisu includes the aroma of hops with a pleasant aftertaste.
Japanese Drinks Summary
Whether you’re drinking at a bar, enjoying food at a restaurant, or in the humble company of Japanese friends and acquaintances in their own homes, you won’t be short of opportunities to try these wonderful Japanese drinks.
Each brings their own fascinating stories and thirst-quenching fusions to the table, and all these drinks play an integral role in making Japanese cuisine one of the most magical and diverse in the whole world. Try as many as you can, and see which is your favorite.
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Contributor: Izumi Taneda is a freelance content writer, blogger, and Japanese translator based in Tokyo, Japan. She has a deep passion for Japanese cuisine, travel, and culture, and is eager to share more about it with the world through her writing.
Images licensed via Shutterstock