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Japan is recognized around the world for its incredible cuisine. Often presented like works of art, Japanese foods are not only delectable but also very beautiful. And yet, for the uninitiated, not much is known about Japanese drinks.
Most people know about sake and over the last few years, interest in matcha has grown. While these two represent a unique facet of Japanese culture, there are so many other popular Japanese drinks and beverages that you deserve to know about.
This list covers 40 but I’m sure I missed other notable drinks. After all, the Japanese are known for ingenuity and craftsmanship – they could be crafting yet another gem as I write!
Without further ado, here are some of the most famous alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks in Japan to try on your next trip!
Alcoholic Japanese drinks
Before we dive into other popular Japanese drinks, it’s apt to start with Japan’s national beverage, sake, or Japanese rice wine. In Japan, the kanji character for sake can refer to any alcoholic drink. But the sake most non-Japanese people know about is usually called nihonshu.
Sake is polished rice that has been fermented with yeast, koji mold, and water. A drink that dates back to the 3rd century, sake has a huge number of varieties and regional specialties that often depend on methods of pasteurization, filtration, and the addition of distilled alcohol.
Sake can be served either warm or chilled. When served during special ceremonies, it is gently warmed in a small earthenware or porcelain bottle and sipped from a small ceremonial cup called sakazuki. Popular varieties of sake include Honjozo, Nigori, and Junmai.
Pale-colored light lagers, Pilsner-style lagers, and draft beer with about 5% alcohol are the most common types of beer in Japan. Craft beers are also booming.
In Japan, brewed alcoholic beverages are taxed according to their malt content. Regular beer with regular malt content costs more. To sell cheaper beers, brewing companies came up with newer ranks of beers:
- Happoshu or low-malt beer, which has a lighter taste
- Shin Janru or new genre beers, which contains no malt and uses pea, soy, or wheat spirits instead
Four major beer producers dominate the market – Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo, and Suntory. Asahi Super Dry, Kirin Lager, Sapporo Premium, and Suntory Premium Malts are loved by both locals and tourists in Japan.
Whisky production in Japan started in the 1870s. But the first commercial production began in 1924, when the first distillery in the country, Suntory’s Yamazaki distillery, opened.
The world finally took notice in 2001 when Nikka’s Single Cask Yoichi 10 years old won the Whisky Magazine’s Best of the Best 1st prize. Suntory’s Hibiki 21 years old won the 2nd prize, with Japan beating renowned Scotch whiskies.
Suntory and Nikka are the two prominent whisky makers in Japan, producing both single malt and blended malt whiskies. Distilleries like Yamazaki and Yoichi also offer tours and sampling.
Dating back to the 16th century, shochu is a Japanese drink distilled from rice, barley, sweet potatoes, buckwheat, or brown sugar. This drink can also be made from chestnuts, sesame seeds, or even carrots.
Usually available at 25% ABV (alcohol by volume), shochu is one of the popular Japanese drinks that have become staples of the izakaya (informal Japanese bars). This makes it a common drink of choice for after-work drinking.
Japanese fruit liqueurs
Fruit liqueurs are traditional Japanese drinks. In izakayas, you can drink it on the rocks, with soda, with water, or on its own.
This beverage is made by macerating fruits in neutral alcohol, shochu, or sake. The fruits are soaked for three to six months. Their flavors are steeped until it’s time to be filtered (or not, in the case of nigori liqueurs). Syrup or fresh pulp are sometimes added.
Top fruit liqueurs in Japan include:
- Umeshu or plum wine, the most popular fruit liqueur
- Yuzushu, made from yuzu, a popular citrus fruit in Japan
- Momoshu, or peach liqueur
- Midori, made from Yubari melon and muskmelon
For those who don’t or can’t drink beer or heavy spirits, Japanese cocktails are the next best thing. While there are many Japanese drinks like these, the most popular kinds are chuhai, haiboru, and kamikaze.
Chuhai, in its original form, is shochu with sweet soda. The most popular is lemon chuhai but nowadays, izakayas have come up with more varieties. Sometimes, shochu is replaced with vodka. This drink also comes canned.
Haiboru, or the Japanese highball, combines Japanese whisky and soda water. What makes it special is the meticulous preparation, beginning with the carved ice that is used to frost off the glass. A precise number of stirs and level of soda water are also required, making this drink almost an art form.
Kamikaze is also a popular Japanese cocktail. It is made with equal parts vodka, triple sec (sweet, clear orange liqueur), and lime or lemon juice.
Indigenous and unique to Okinawa, awamori is distilled from fermented long-grained Indica rice. Unlike other Japanese drinks that use koji mold, awamori is distinguished for its use of black koji mold, which is also indigenous to Okinawa.
Awamori typically contains 30 to 43% alcohol and is aged in traditional clay pots. The most popular way of drinking it is with water and ice, but it can also be taken in cocktails.
Non-alcoholic Japanese drinks
Amazake means ‘sweet sake’ so you might be wondering, how can it be non-alcoholic? Technically, there is alcoholic amazake made from sugar, water, and sake kasu, the lees left from sake production. This gives amazake low traces of booze.
Amazake dates from the Kofun period (250 to 538 AD). It was even mentioned in The Nihon Shoki, the second-oldest book of classical Japanese history. The non-alcoholic amazake uses fermented rice, koji mold, and water. The result is a creamy, mildly sweet drink that is popular at festivals, during New Year’s Day, and as a winter comfort drink.
This Japanese drink can be served chilled or warm. It’s also believed to be nutritious as it contains vitamin B1, B2, B6, folic acid, dietary fiber, and other minerals. It’s also often considered a hangover cure.
You can’t make a list of Japanese drinks and not mention tea.
Tea was introduced to Japan by Chinese Buddhist monks more than 1,000 years ago. Because of its flavor and health benefits, it became popular among the nobility. Soon, the tea ceremony, an elaborate activity steeped in history, was born.
Tea eventually became available to the masses and nowadays, you can find various types of Japanese tea.
- Sencha – a type of ryokucha (green tea), prepared by infusing loose leaf green tea. This is the most popular kind of tea in Japan.
- Matcha – a finely ground powder of green tea leaves from tea plants grown under shade. These tea leaves are larger, finer, and produce more chlorophyll, hence the brighter green shade.
The centuries-old tea ceremony uses ceremonial grade matcha but these days, premium-grade matcha, matcha-flavored drinks and food, and culinary grade matcha are widely available.
- Genmaicha – green tea mixed with roasted brown rice. This results in a less bitter, more rounded, nutty, and toasty flavor.
- Hojicha – made from roasted stems and leaves of tea plants harvested later in the season. Its flavor is nutty, similar to coffee, but with virtually no caffeine.
- Mugicha – made from roasted barley infused in water. Like hojicha, it is caffeine-free.
- Sobacha – roasted buckwheat kernels. It’s caffeine-free and rich in fiber.
- Gobocha – made from the roasted shavings of gobo (burdock) root, a root vegetable that’s popular in Japanese cooking. It’s earthy and believed to have anti-aging benefits.
- Kombucha –Japanese kombucha is nothing like the Western kombucha. This tea uses powdered konbu (kelp), which makes it almost broth-like.
- Sakurayu – cherry blossom tea. This is made by steeping pickled cherry blossoms with boiled water, creating a slightly salty and sweet herbal drink.
Milk tea deserves a separate spot, simply because milk tea in Japan is different from milk teas found in other parts of Asia.
The most popular type of milk tea in Japan is Royal Milk Tea. One of the most popular Japanese drinks, royal milk tea is made with Assam or Darjeeling tea leaves and milk. What makes it unique is the process of brewing it. Milk and tea are boiled together. Sugar and syrup may be added to sweeten it.
Compared to other milk teas, royal milk tea also uses more milk. This balances the strong flavor of the tea. Many cafés and restaurants in Japan serve this drink. It also comes in sachets, cans, bottles, which are available in convenience stores and vending machines.
Flavored soy milk
Soybeans are a major crop in Japan so it doesn’t come as a surprise that soy milk is also a popular Japanese drink. For those who are lactose intolerant, soy milk is a great alternative for milk.
For centuries, soy milk, tonyu in Japanese, has been used in cooking Japanese dishes. In recent years, however, soy milk with various flavor options has become popular.
This probiotic drink was invented by a Japanese scientist, Dr. Minoru Shirota, in 1935. Each small bottle is full of gut-friendly lactobacilli which helps improve digestion.
In Japan and other countries, the drink is sold door-to-door. It is so popular that it event has a baseball team named after it (the Tokyo Yakult Swallows) and a brand of cosmetics (Yakult Beautiens).
You may think nomu yogurt (drinkable yogurt) and Yakult are the same. But they’re not.
While both are cultured dairy products with live bacteria, they don’t use the same bacteria. Yakult uses the Lactobacillus casei Shirota strain, while yogurt and yogurt drinks contain lactic acid bacteria.
That being said, yogurt drinks also have many health benefits and are also popular in Japan.
Non-alcoholic Japanese drinks tend to be on the healthier side. Aloe drinks, which became widely popular in the last couple of decades, are believed to have anti-inflammatory and antiseptic properties.
Just make sure to pick sugar-free variants for maximum health benefits. And since Okinawa is the only place in Japan where aloe vera grows, it’s best to get aloe drinks from Okinawa.
One of the most unique Japanese drinks, Calpis is a non-carbonated drink made from skimmed milk, yeast, lactic acid bacterium, and sugar. Invented in 1919, it’s also one of the oldest commercial drinks in Japan.
Calpis, available as Calpico in some countries, has a milky texture and a light, slightly sour taste like Yakult. What’s more, it’s a concentrate so you need to dilute it with water. But if you want ready-to-drink Calpis, you can buy Calpis water or Calpis soda.
Japanese carbonated soft drinks
Fizzy, carbonated soft drinks are also popular in Japan. They’re a fixture in most vending machines and convenience stores, and some of these drinks hold important spots in history.
Perhaps the most popular flavor of soda in Japan, melon soda is available almost everywhere in Japan. Distinguished by its bright green color, it goes well with ice cream floats, cocktails, or as a companion to Japanese snacks.
Ramune was invented in the 1870s, making it one of the oldest Japanese sodas.
Aside from its distinct fizzy lemon-lime flavor, this drink is distinguishable for its codd-neck glass bottles. The drink comes in plastic bottles and cans now but the glass bottles are still popular. Ramune candies even replicate this packaging.
The original drinks had lime and lemon flavors with added sugar. But like most Japanese snacks and drinks, different flavors were soon developed.
It now comes in flavors like strawberry, peach, green apple, watermelon, matcha, and more crazy ones like wasabi, curry, kimchi, and wasabi.
Asahi’s Mitsuya Cider has been quenching thirsts since 1884. Although branded as a “cider”, it is non-alcoholic. Its taste can be described as a mix of Sprite and ginger ale. Fruity flavors like grape, lemon, and peach are also available.
Like Ramune, candies were also made after Mitsuya Cider, proving just how loved this drink is.
When it comes to carbonated Japanese drinks, nothing comes close to Fanta’s variety of flavors.
While Fanta is present in many countries (and there are over 150 flavors worldwide), Japanese Fanta flavors are truly unique.
It has most of the regular flavors like orange, melon, and grape. But it also has special and flavors like clear apple, salty watermelon, tropical yogurt, ume, melon cream, and yuzu.
Coca-Cola is one of the biggest beverage makers in Japan. Surprisingly, this is not solely because of Coke. Its bestsellers are actually canned coffee (more on this later), Fanta, a sports drink, a bottled green tea, and the Qoo fruit juice.
Nevertheless, Coke is still one of the most popular carbonated drinks in Japan. Like Fanta, it’s notable for having unique flavors which include apple, lime, clear lime, white peach, vanilla, green tea, raspberry, and coffee.
Calpis soda is the carbonated version of Calpis. Unlike other sodas on this list, it has a strong milk flavor and is smoother and creamier.
While its name may be off-putting for some native English speakers, it simply suggests that this drink restores all the electrolytes and nutrients lost when sweating.
Launched in 1980, Pocari Sweat is Japan’s most popular sports drink. It’s also one of the most exported domestically-produced non-alcoholic Japanese drinks.
While most of us know Japan as the land of green tea, there is actually a vibrant coffee scene in Japan.
Japan mostly depends on imports for its coffee beans. Despite this, Japan is known in the coffee world for its specialty and third-wave coffee shops (Kurasu, % Arabica, Maruyama, etc.) that specialize in hand drip coffee, award-winning baristas, and high-quality coffee gear.
The Japanese way of making iced coffee is also popular among coffee enthusiasts.
On the other end of the coffee spectrum is canned coffee, one of the most ingenious products to come out of Japan. Invented in the 1970s, these caffeinated drinks are found in vending machines and convenience stores.
They come in so many varieties, too! Hot, cold, black, sweet, milky – name it, the vending machine or konbini’s got it.
Launched by Coca-Cola in 1999, Qoo is a non-carbonated drink popular among children and teens. It comes in fruity varieties like orange, grape, and apple. It’s also hugely popular in some Asian countries.
The last entry in this list of Japanese drinks is a more recent invention but one that’s steadily rising in popularity: alcohol-free beer.
The first alcohol-free beer was introduced by Kirin in 2009. Brewers like Asahi, Suntory, and Sapporo soon followed. Since the pandemic has curtailed the social lives of many, some drinkers took it as a time to give their livers a rest, opting for non-alcoholic or low-alcohol options.
And there you have it! The world of Japanese drinks is filled with variety and you’ll never run out of options. Keep this list handy for the next time you visit Japan!