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What thirsty Japanese Drink

Updated: Oct 28, 2020

By Gil Asakawa

Japan is well-known for several brands of beer: Sapporo, Kirin, Asahi and Okinawa’s Orion are often served in the U.S. The country’s also known for sake, the rice wine that has many regional variations and some familiar brands are available in American liquor stores and restaurants in a range of prices from $8 a bottle (great for cooking) to $30 and more. In recent years, Japan has even become known for its whisky, and some of the premium bottles are regarded as better than U.S. and U.K. whiskies.

But for most Japanese (including people like me who are allergic to alcohol), day-to-day thirst-quenching features a unique mix of soft drinks, a dizzying array of bottled cold and fresh-brewed hot tea, an increasing sophistication for coffee, and of course water.

Don’t think of the typical cup of tea in a dainty cup, steeped in a ceramic pot of boiling water – sure there’s plenty of loose tea and green tea varieties still made and consumed every day throughout Japan. But Japanese are often on the go, and lots of their tea is bottled. There are many variations, but the main types are plain green tea (sencha or plain ocha), green tea with roasted rice (genmai cha) or roasted green tea (hojicha).

Other popular types of bottled tea – often available in the US at shops including Pacific Mercantile and Pacific Ocean Market – include oolong tea (ooroncha) and barley tea (mugicha, especially popular iced during hot weather).

For years, Japanese didn’t have a taste for coffee – their idea of great coffee was Sanka or Taster’s Choice instant coffee. Now that Starbucks has spread throughout the country and homegrown coffee roasters and shops have sprung up throughout Japan, you can find Japanese brands of canned and bottled iced coffee (such as the popular brands “Boss”).

Japanese soft drinks tend to avoid sugar-laden syrupy drinks like Coca Cola or Pepsi. You can find them in vending machines or stores but usually in smaller-sized cans (no Big Gulps in Japan!). But one of the most popular in Japan is a sweet syrupy yogurt drink called Calpis. When the drink was first imported to the US, it didn’t sell to Americans, because of the unique flavor, but mostly because saying it in English sounded like you were asking for “cow urine.”

So it’s now available as “Calpico” here, bottled, canned and in concentrated syrup form. Several varieties of flavors have been added, like mango, peach and lychee.

Other popular non-alcoholic drinks in Japan include sports drinks (one of the most popular is “Pocari Sweat” a name that works in Japan but sounds awkward in the US), and of course plain bottled water.

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