Japanese cuisine is so popular all over the world with its many scrumptious delicacies that it doesn’t need much of an introduction. But how about popular Japanese drinks? They are not only good for pairing with Japanese dishes but are also great to enjoy on their own. Of course, most have heard about Japanese tea and sake, but there is much more to discover in the world of Japanese drinks.
Let’s have a look at some of the most popular Japanese drinks that you should try!
1. Japanese Tea
There are many countries that produce tea, and teas from different origins have their own characteristics. Depending on what you are looking for, drinking Japanese tea can be one of the best ways to enjoy the second most-consumed drink in the world. Tea from Japan is distinguished by its crisp, grassy, and slightly toasty flavor and it goes very well with wagashi, traditional Japanese sweets. Some of the most famous types of Japanese tea are sencha green tea, matcha green tea, and mugicha barley tea. A famous manner in which to enjoy Japanese matcha tea is by way of a tea ceremony.
Also known as ‘rice wine’, sake is an alcoholic beverage that is brewed from fermented rice. Japan’s most traditional alcohol is quite strong at an alcohol percentage of 15-20% and sometimes even higher, and is best enjoyed with umami-rich side dishes. Sake comes in different varieties, some of which point to the drink’s quality with junmai and daiginjo being of especially high quality, and some of which are specialty sake such as nigori sake (cloudy sake) or even happo-seishu (sparkling sake). No matter which one you will try, they tend to pair very well with Japanese food.
Sometimes explained as ‘Japan’s version of vodka, shochu is a crisp distilled beverage with an alcohol percentage of around 30% on average. Usually enjoyed on the rocks or mixed with a non-alcoholic drink like oolong tea or lemonade, shochu is a drink that features prominently on izakaya drink menus. The strong drink can have different ingredients as its base, with the most common ones being potatoes, barley, and rice. Its taste is refreshing and slightly sweet, and many people think it is surprisingly easy to drink for a beverage with a relatively high alcohol content.
Popularized after WW2 as an affordable drink for the masses, Hoppy is a light, beer-flavored carbonated drink. While it can be enjoyed by itself, Hoppy is mostly used as a mixer to lower the alcohol content of strong drinks like shochu or sake. With an alcohol content of only 0.8% and containing fewer calories and carbs than most drinks, Hoppy is a popular drink with those who aren’t strong with alcohol or are watching their diet. There are 2 types that are served at most restaurants, White Hoppy and Black Hoppy. White Hoppy is the plain version that is similar to pilsner beer, while Black Hoppy boasts a slightly malty, bread-like flavor.
In spite of its name, Amazake is a non-alcoholic drink that is enjoyed by people of all ages. Amazake literally means ‘sweet sake’, and in Japan, it is especially popular in the winter months, as it is possible to heat the drink up and enjoy it as a warming beverage in the colder time of year. The taste is ricey and sweet, and it is a bit similar to Mediterranean semolina. It’s usually produced from leftover byproducts of the sake brewing process, and because it is rich in probiotics and metabolism-boosting enzymes it is good for your health.
7. Flavored Soy-Milk Drinks
Soybean-based foods and drinks are extremely popular in Japan, think about soy sauce, miso, and tofu that are widely used in Japanese cuisine. Soy milk is a very common alternative for regular dairy in Japan, and any supermarket will have a huge assortment of soy milk flavors to choose from. Some of our favorite soy milk flavors are matcha, vanilla, black tea, chocolate, cherry blossom and plum. For those who like it a bit more strange, the cola-flavored and ginger-flavored soy milk varieties are for you!
8. Pocari Sweat
Despite the slightly off-putting name, Pocari Sweat is actually a very accessible drink that most people will love. It is very similar to sports drinks like Aquarius or Gatorade, and it also replenishes fluids and minerals you lose when you sweat a lot. So especially on warm summer days, you may want to grab a bottle of Pocari Sweat to rehydrate yourself while you’re on the go.
9. Tapioca Drinks
Originally from Taiwan, this drink trend became highly popular in Japan in 2019 with bubble tea shops popping up left and right. Bubble tea is a (usually) sweetened tea with tapioca balls on the bottom of the drink and a dash of milk. It often comes with a selection of tasty toppings such as whipped cream, caramel, chocolate, and even cream cheese. Tapioca drinks can be found in all popular areas of bigger cities in Japan, especially in shopping malls and areas where young people like to hang around like Shibuya and Harajuku.
10. Caplico (Calpis)
Calpis is a non-carbonated soft drink that is based on milk, and it is widely loved in Japan by people of all ages. The drink contains lactic acid bacterium and is fermented, making it a healthy drink for your gut. If you buy pure Calpis, you have to mix 3 parts water and 1 part Calpis in a glass, but you can also get it ready-to-drink. You can get Calpis from almost any vending machine, which are ubiquitous in Japan, and there are many flavors to choose from such as mango, strawberry, and peach.
Do you like sweet alcoholic drinks? Then you should definitely give umeshu, or plum wine, a try!
Umeshu is created by leaving Japanese plums in shochu or another white liquor and adding sugar, and it works well as a dessert drink or can be enjoyed on its own. Its alcohol percentage is around 10-15%, and drinking plum wine in moderation actually brings health benefits with it as the sweet beverage chock full of antioxidants, vitamins, and minerals.
12. Japanese Whiskey
While not receiving much international attention before 2000, but then Nikka’s 10-year old single malt won a prestigious prize. Suddenly, whiskey from Japan started receiving a lot of interest. Now, certain whiskeys from Hibiki, Nikka, and Yamazaki are coveted bottles all over the world. According to the experts, Japanese whiskey distillers are likely to keep trying to reach perfection, meaning that the flavor of the whiskey is more delicate than that of classic Scotch. This also fits in the common mindset of Japanese artisans who tend to keep working on their craft and make it better every time.
One of the best ways to enjoy Japan’s gastronomical delights is to do a private food-focused tour. The guide will take the language barrier away for you, and will take you to the best local places to taste an amazing diversity of high-quality foods and drinks. Please check out our Tsukiji market tour, local street food tour, izakaya hopping tour, and other food tours that we offer in Tokyo, Kyoto, and Osaka!
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Stefanie Akkerman moved from the Netherlands to Japan in 2013 with her Japanese husband and son. She jumped into the niche of Dutch tour guiding in Tokyo and Kamakura in 2015 and occasionally writes articles about all the great sights and activities Japan has to offer. She loves (Japanese) food, and to work that all off she goes diving, snorkeling, cycling, or hiking.
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