25 Must-Try Japanese Drinks: How Many Have You Had?
If you think that sake and matcha green tea are the only two beverages in Japan, then boy, do we have the list for you! Sweet, sour, tangy, and even salty - Japan has every type of flavor you can imagine and more. Do you enjoy alcoholic drinks like plum wine or chuhai? Or perhaps you wash down your midday snack with a delicious cup of sakura tea? To list every drink in the country would take too long, so for now, we'll introduce our pick of 25 must-try drinks in Japan and let your imagination take it from there!
Oct 28 2021 (Aug 30 2022)
15 Non-Alcoholic Japanese Drinks
1. Matcha (Green Tea)
Matcha is green tea powder often whisked into a frothy brew with a delicately balanced sweet and bitter flavor profile. While matcha tea is the traditional way to go, matcha powder is often used to flavor sweets such as cookies, cakes, and even lattes. In addition to being delicious, the history and culture of matcha green tea go way back and can really bring your appreciation of the beverage to a whole new level.
Genmaicha means “brown rice tea” in Japanese. Legend has it that long ago, Buddhist monks combined the stems and leaves of green tea with the browned rice scraped from the bottom of their bowls to curb food wastage. The result was genmaicha, a nutty, earthy drink particularly popular with breakfast. Today, in place of rice scrapings, modern genmaicha is made from roasted brown rice in addition to green tea. It also boasts a rich aroma and is said to lower blood pressure.
3. Uroncha (Oolong Tea)
Uroncha, the Japanese way to write "oolong tea," is one of Japan's most widely consumed beverages. Although green tea, black tea, and uroncha are all made from the same tea leaves, the difference in the oxidation process gives uroncha strong floral notes, making it an excellent palate cleanser. In fact, when drinking at bars/izakaya, many Japanese people will order a glass of uroncha in between beverages to give their stomach a rest.
Meaning "green juice," aojiru is a vegetable beverage associated with improving one's health. Aojiru is a tasty blend of kale and other leafy green vegetables said to help with signs of aging, encourage weight loss, and even prevent cancer. Aojiru is usually sold in packets that you can mix with water, which have become incredibly popular with health-conscious Japanese and the elderly. Although some aojiru is quite bitter, mixing it with milk or juice makes it surprisingly easy to drink!
5. Sakura Tea (Cherry Blossom Tea)
If you visit Japan in spring, pastel pink cherry blossoms known as “sakura” will be in full bloom almost everywhere you look! And these pretty pink petals aren't just for show - sakura can also be brewed into a light and smooth tea with a silky floral aftertaste. Much like the flowers, sakura tea exudes a beautiful gradient of pink, making it the perfect companion as you enjoy the whimsical nature of the season.
6. Royal Milk Tea
Royal milk tea was originally made by Lipton in Japan in 1965 and has grown to become one of the most widely consumed drinks across the country ever since. While traditional milk tea is made from black tea and milk, royal milk tea enjoys a touch of regality with a base brewed from high-quality Darjeeling or Assam tea leaves. Royal milk tea is very smooth and can be served either hot or cold to add a smattering of opulence to your meal.
7. Kombu-cha (Kelp Tea)
Kombu-cha and Kombucha are not the same thing! While in recent years, the fermented drink kombucha has been all the rage overseas, kombu-cha (literally "kelp tea") is a simple Japanese tea made from just dried kelp and hot water boasting centuries of history. With deep umami and a prick of saltiness, kombu-cha is a soothing, nourishing beverage with zero caffeine, making it a popular bedtime brew.
New Year's Day in Japan cannot be celebrated without this lucky tea! Ofukucha (literally "good fortune tea") is another lesser-known Japanese tea said to bring wealth, prosperity, and good luck if consumed heading into the new year. Ofukucha is made from a green tea base with floral flavors alongside pickled plum and dried kelp just like kombu-cha. The salty undertone of the kelp cuts down the acetic notes of the pickled plum, forming a very well-balanced and agreeable flavor.
9. Melon Soda
While most are familiar with orange or grape soda, the sweet fizziness of melon soda is the drink of choice for many in Japan. Emerald green melon soda can be found pretty much everywhere in Japan, from convenience stores and restaurants to karaoke bars and vending machines. With a touch of syrupy thickness, the viridescent fizz is incredibly sweet, making it particularly popular with kids. Another trendy way to enjoy Japanese melon soda is as an ice cream float. Many family restaurants and karaoke bars will serve it this way, allowing a tasty refresher to beat the heat during the scorching Japanese summer.
It is often said that Yakult is the Japanese drink that conquered the world. First introduced in 1935, Yakult is a probiotic yogurt drink that not only tastes fantastic but is extremely good for you. Yakult really started to soar as a household name during the 1980s with the introduction of the Yakult Lady, a business tactic whereby friendly and cheerful women would go door to door selling Yakult products. Today, Yakult is enjoyed in 40 countries and regions worldwide, and 35 million Yakult products are said to be consumed each and every day. A true testament to the success of Japanese beverages!
11. Canned Coffee
What could be better than a nice cup of coffee to warm you up before starting your day? Luckily, Japanese vending machines have the unique capacity to produce both hot and cold versions of the same drink, so a steaming cup of joe is never too far away! Japanese vending machine coffee is often sold in a compact little can, allowing you to gulp it down in just a few sips before jumping on the train. Mocha, latte, decaf, espresso - you name it! If you can order it at a Starbucks in Japan, you can most certainly find it in a Japanese vending machine as well.
Funky, fruity, and refreshing, Calpis is one of Japan’s most beloved drinks! Now popular all across the globe, Calpis first made a splash in 1919 when it became Japan’s first drink to be made with lactic acid, a component that gives it a smooth, creamy consistency despite its fruity taste. Although the drink is traditionally non-carbonated, these days you can find Calpis-flavored soda, Calpis water, Calpis ice cream, and yes, even Calpis alcohol!
Pop, plunk, fizz! That’s the sound of a nice cold bottle of ramune being opened on a sizzling hot summer’s day in Japan. This retro beverage is best known for its uniquely shaped bottle and old-school opening method that requires you to push a glass marble through a rubber stopper. Ramune comes in a plethora of flavors and is notoriously sweet and popular amongst children. Culturally, ramune is closely associated with Japanese summer festivals and, while opening it can prove a challenge, the satisfying reward will always be worth the effort!
14. Pocari Sweat
While the name isn’t all that enticing, Pocari Sweat is one of the best-selling Japanese drinks of all time and a favorite amongst athletes and those on the go. Somewhat similar to Gatorade, Pocari Sweat is a refreshing and energizing Japanese sports drink with a sweet taste balanced by a touch of saltiness. Because it works to replenish electrolytes, many choose to carry it when mountain climbing or engaging in other intense physical activities.
15. Lipovitan D11
When it comes to energy drinks, Japan has pretty much everything under the sun! Sold in tiny 100 ml bottles, Lipovitan D11 is one of the most popular boasting a potent punch despite its unassuming character. While the flavor is not much to write home about, within a few minutes of drinking you’ll feel more awake, alert, and ready for action. When asked to stay overtime, Japanese workers will often drink one to power through and make the last train. Also, if you’ve had a bit too much to drink the previous night, downing one before heading out will ensure none shall be the wiser!
10 Alcoholic Japanese Drinks
For many, sake or “nihonshu” is a drink synonymous with Japan. Made from fermented rice, sake has been enjoyed in Japan for thousands of years, and today there are over 1,500 sake breweries all across the country. Depending on the strain of rice, fermentation process, and more, the taste of Japanese sake can range anywhere between sharp and alcoholic, grainy and packed with umami, or even rich and sweet like a dessert wine. Each region of Japan has its own unique local brew, so make sure to get a sample everywhere you go!
While fairly similar to sake in the initial fermentation process, shochu is a distilled alcohol similar to vodka traditionally made from ingredients like rice, barley, sweet potatoes, or sugar cane. Shochu has a very pure and clear taste that can exude an earthy undertone depending on the brew. Sweet potato shochu is the most popular, and it is widely believed that drinking shochu will cause fewer hangovers due to the high levels of enzymes. While there has been no concrete scientific evidence to prove this, it doesn't make it any less pleasant!
18. Umeshu (Plum Wine)
For those without a stomach for hard liquor, umeshu is a far more palatable option than other traditional Japanese alcohols. Umeshu is a syrupy plum wine with a sweet or sour sparkle. Best served cold, umeshu is very easy to drink despite having 10-15% alcohol content. One interesting fact about umeshu is that in Japan, while the home brewing of sake, beer, and liquor is illegal, there is an exemption for umeshu and many people will make their own. Some take great pride in their personal or family umeshu recipe, so don’t be surprised if you are offered a glass when visiting someone’s home!
19. Highball (Whiskey Soda)
If you walk into a Japanese bar or izakaya and can't read the menu, the safest bet outside beer is arguably the humble highball. Made from Japanese whiskey diluted with sparkling water, a highball is simple, delicious, and easy to drink. Suntory, perhaps the best known Japanese whiskey producer, and their Kakubin brand whiskey served as a highball is often referred to as a "Kaku-highball," and is a staple of the Japanese bar scene.
Chuhai is actually an umbrella term that stands for "shochu-highball" and is typically sold in a can at practically every convenience store in Japan. With shochu as its base, any number of flavors such as lemon, melon, grape, grapefruit, or orange are added in addition to carbonation for a little extra fizz. Among all the chuhai sold, the ubiqutous 9% Strong Zero is particularly notorious for essentially tasting like juice despite its high alcohol content. Good news if you hate the taste of alcohol. Bad news if you have work tomorrow!
Japan faces no shortage when it comes to excellent beer. Asahi, Kirin, and Sapporo are just a few well-known breweries that grace the shelves of Japanese liquor stores. But have you ever heard of Happoshu? Happoshu is a beer-like beverage that contains less than 67% malt, a key ingredient in beer. The difference is made up of things like corn, soybeans, and starch, giving happoshu a much lighter flavor than beer. In addition, happoshu is said to be healthier than beer, allowing those on strict diets to enjoy the taste of beer without the belly.
Amazake is a low-alcohol variant of sake with a thick, sweet, and milky texture similar to oatmeal. Fermented grains of rice are left unfiltered, making it chunky and filling, while the alcohol content is typically so low that oftentimes even children will be given a glass. Amazake can also be found at mountaintop huts sold by the cup and is a great way to lift the spirits before heading back down.
For fans of the sweet, look no further than momoshu. Just as umeshu is plum wine, momoshu is peach wine and is a much more pleasant drink for those who can't stand the taste of alcohol. You can relish all the freshness of a sweet summer peach alongside additional nutty or herbal tones while avoiding the harsh taste of liquor!
Yuzu is a popular Japanese citrus fruit similar to a lemon. If sour is your style, then yuzushu might just be the drink for you! Yuzushu offers a carefully balanced equilibrium of tangy and tart tastes often enjoyed alongside sashimi or other seafoods to bring out the flavors of fish. Light, refreshing, and perhaps unexpected, yuzushu cannot be missed!
A plane ride and ocean away from Tokyo, awamori is the poster child drink of Okinawa and one of the most unique alcoholic beverages you'll ever try. The oldest distilled drink in Japan, the awamori recipe has supposedly remained unchanged for over 500 years. To make awamori, you need to malt Thai rice until it forms a type of black mold called koji. You then add water and yeast until it is fermented and then distilled. However, for the right kind of mold to form, you need very specific temperature and climate conditions, which is why nowhere outside of the Okinawa islands can properly brew this enticing elixir.
Japanese Drinks: A Taste For Everyone!
When it comes to trying new drinks in Japan, you really can't go wrong! There is so much to enjoy and experiment with, and don't even get us started on pairing Japanese drinks with delicious foods! While we've listed 25, there are so many more that couldn't make the cut, so don't stop here. Get out, try as many as you can, and continue to experience the culinary wonders of Japan!
If you want to give feedback on any of our articles, you have an idea that you'd really like to see come to life, or you just have a question on Japan, hit us up on our Facebook, Twitter, or Instagram!
Title Image: Peter Gudella / Shutterstock.com
The information in this article is accurate at the time of publication.