9 Popular Japanese Drinks
Japan is most commonly known for its culinary industry, a fantastic restaurant scene home to the largest number of Michelin-starred restaurants per capita, as well as the pride and care each chef puts into their work.
However, it’s not only its food that is revered; the Japanese drinking culture is also fascinating. From a mix of eloquently made matcha to convenience store coffees, Japan has anything and everything you could ever want to drink.
Let’s take a look at the nine most popular Japanese drinks.
Recently, matcha (green tea powder) is more commonly used in tea lattes or as frappuccinos. However, matcha runs deep within the veins of Japanese culture and plays a pivotal role in society. Japanese tea ceremonies, known as chadō (the Way of Tea), evolved in China in the 8th century to become a refined and Zen-Buddhist-inspired tea party.
The father of the modern way of tea was Sen no Rikyu (1522-1591), who advocated an austere, rustic simplicity. One important meaning of the tea ceremony is Wabi and Sabi, together meaning beauty in simplicity.
From the 16th century, tea ceremonies became more minimalistic, with drinks in shades of brown and green, giving more emphasis to matcha. Each action in the ceremony was executed precisely and elegantly to highlight its importance.
“The tea ceremony gives you a precious moment of encountering other guests. A good cup of tea makes people united; it has magical power. The tea ceremony is an important dining experience at my restaurant because it’s a symbol of unity and peace as well as caring for one another.” Namae Shinobu, L’effervesence
High-quality matcha can be found across the country but in particular in Kyoto. The first place to start cultivating green tea was a small town called Uji in Kyoto, and since then it has grown in popularity.
Matcha can be commonly found in cafes. It has an earthy, bright, and sweet taste, which pairs perfectly with wagashi (Japanese sweets).
Matcha tea lattes and matcha frappuccinos are very common. These can be found in most cafes and even in Starbucks. While the grade and quality of the matcha are not as high as that found in traditional tea houses, the balance of sweetness and earthiness in these drinks makes them delicious! Matcha is without a doubt the most must-try drink in Japan.
2. Green Tea
Although matcha is technically green tea, they are different types of drinks. Green tea is loose tea leaves, creating a light and grassy flavor. It contains several vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants, making it very healthy. There are many different types of green tea: Sencha, Genmaicha, Gyokuro, and Houjicha.
Sencha is the most common and is grown from Camellia sinensis tea bushes. It has a vegetal, grassy, and refreshing flavor.
Genmaicha is sencha tea but with toasted hull rice. The addition of rice adds a delicious roasted flavor and pairs nicely with savory foods.
Gyokuro is known as the highest-quality green tea. It is cultivated in a particular environment to enhance the flavor. It is smooth and has a light fragrance.
Houjicha is similar to Genmaicha in taste; however, the tea leaves themselves are roasted. This completely changes the flavor profile of the tea leaves and reduces caffeine levels.
Green Tea vendors can be found throughout Japan, especially in department stores. If you are looking for the best, Kyoto has multiple vendors with hundreds of different types of green teas. Various kinds of green teas are sold in convenience stores and vending machines; they are all delicious and refreshing.
Mugicha is like a holy elixir for people wanting to escape the summer heat. It is made with roasted barley and is a bit of an acquired taste. This tea is traditionally made by simmering roasted barley grains in hot water creating a toasty and slightly bitter taste.
It is mostly made with Mugicha tea bags, which can be immersed in cold water. Despite having a bitter undertone, there is something much more refreshing to Mugicha than water on a summer’s day.
Mugicha can be found in any convenience store and most vending machines. At some Izakayas, or family restaurants, it is served in place of water. In Japanese homes, families often make up jugs of cold-brewed Mugicha to get them through hot summer days. Some add sugar to make it more child friendly, but it is often brewed without.
Carbonated soft drinks are seen everywhere, especially in anime or adverts, and Ramune is perhaps one of the most popular. It is widely consumed during the summer and has a lychee flavor, although there are countless other flavors available.
Ramune is known for the distinctive design of the bottle it comes in. Called cold-neck, the bottle is made from glass and has a small marble at the top. A plastic device is provided to open the bottle by pushing the marble inward. As you drink, the marble rattles around, giving the drink the name marble soda.
Amazake is one of the most unique drinks out there. It is made with fermented rice, has a thick, creamy, and sweet flavor, and can be drunk hot or cold. The name means sweet sake, but it can be both alcoholic and non-alcoholic.
Non-alcoholic Amazake is made from rice koji, which is rice that is covered in a koji mold. This mold is used in many Japanese staples, such as soy sauce, sake, and mirin. Rice is fermented with rice koji at around 25-140º F (50-60º C) for around 10 hours. In this environment, the koji breaks down the enzymes and sugar of the rice.
Acholic amazake usually contains around 8% alcohol and is made from the leftover lees from sake production. Sake lees are steamed with rice and water and are often sweetened with sugar.
Amazake has fantastic nutritional value. It improves the metabolism, prevents fatigue, aids digestion, and is even said to be anti-aging. It is widely available in convenience stores and specialized rice stores. The drink is commonly enjoyed during New Year, with many temples and shrines offering free samples during celebrations.
6. Nihonshu (Sake)
Nihonshu, often referred to as sake, is a rice wine made from rice, rice koji, and water. There are thousands of varieties and it can be drunk chilled, at room temperature, or even warmed.
During winter, sake is usually served hot but depending on the quality, it can be served at room temperature. Nihonshu is often drunk in small ceramic cups, called choko or o-choko, similar to a shot glass.
Another popular method of drinking Nihonshu is in a masu, a wooden box usually used for measuring rice. A small shot glass is placed in the middle and the drink is poured in until it overflows.
A good Nihonshu has a balance of sweetness, acidity, and astringency. There is also an umami punch, adding a savory element and making it full-bodied. Cheap Nihonshu can be found in convenience stores and almost every izakaya. Higher-end restaurants often offer a Nihonshu pairing option, which is a fantastic way to experience the different flavors of Japan.
Shōchū is a common drink found in almost all izakayas. Whereas Nihonshu is a fermented liquor, Shōchū is a distilled liquor, similar to vodka. It can be made from various ingredients such as sweet potato, barley, rice, and buckwheat, resulting in various flavors and aromas. The alcohol content can reach up to 40%.
It can be served in multiple ways – on the rocks, with soda, or as a cocktail. In some cases, it is simply diluted with hot water to bring out the natural sweetness from the distilled ingredients.
Chūhai is one of the most popular alcoholic drinks in Japan. The name is an abbreviation of Shōchū Highball, which can be found in every Izakaya and convenience store. The traditional version is made with Shōchū, carbonated water, and lemon. However, you can now find various flavors, including peach, yuzu, and pineapple.
One popular variation you can find in convenience stores or supermarkets is strong zero. As the name suggests, it packs a punch with its 9% alcohol content, so it’s a great way to drink cheaply!
Another popular alcoholic drink is Umeshu or Japanese plum wine. Plums are stepped in Shōchū and rock sugar for 6 months to 1 year. The result is a sweet, sour, and fruity liqueur that can be drunk on the rocks, with soda, or as a sour (plum wine with ume-flavour shōchū and soda water). The sweetness and fruitiness are unparalleled and the sourness from the plums provides great balance.
Although Japan has a worldwide reputation for food, its drinks are just as highly rated. There are hundreds of unique Japanese drinks out there, most of which can be bought from convenience stores and in Izakayas.