What Unique Sodas Are Sold in Japan?

by Justin Sevakis,

Jerry asked:

Every time I see one of the famous Japanese drink vending machines in photographs or in anime, I usually see CocaCola and/or Pepsi, and maybe something else familiar like Mountain Dew, but I recognize almost nothing else. What kinds of sodas are available in Japan that aren't available here?

Most of what you're seeing in Japanese vending machines aren't sodas at all: much of it is canned and bottled coffee (with varying strength and amounts of creamer and/or sugar) and teas (usually green and unsweetened, but sometimes other kinds with creamer and/or sugar). Those are often available hot or cold, depending on the vending machine.

That said, there are quite a lot of sodas available in Japan that are not available elsewhere, or at least aren't too common in the West. The most famous homegrown Japanese soda is known as either "Calpis" or "Calpico Water". Calpis is a lightly carbonated, slightly milky soda with a slightly tart pineapple flavor. It's everywhere in Japan. Varieties also exist that give it a hint of strawberry (and a pink hue). The drink was invented by Kaiun Mishima roughly a hundred years ago, who got the idea from a traditional lactic culture drink made in Mongolia and Central Asia.

Pocari Sweat is another common Japanese soft drink, and its name is often the subject of amusement for Westerners. It's a non-carbonated, slightly sweet drink that was marketed to athletes in a similar way to Gatorade, hence why it's called "sweat." There's also Mitsuya Cider, which is not alcoholic and does not taste like apples: it's often described as a mix of ginger ale and Sprite.

There are also Japanese energy drinks, such as Oronamin C and Lipovitan D. These are in tiny glass bottles, and unlike 5 Hour Energy and similar "energy shots" in the West, these don't usually have caffeine, but instead have a unique assortment of vitamins. And sugar. Quite a lot of sugar.

Fruit tends to be a popular soda flavor in Japan. "Melon flavored" drinks, such as Zeitaku Melon Milk, tend to be overpoweringly sweet and bright green in color. Kirin Salty Litchi actually has lychee juice in it. There's apple sodas like Natchan! And there are ones that combine the fruit soda element with the vitamin shot energy drink element: C.C. Lemon is almost overpoweringly sour, but it has a ton of vitamin C! (It was marketed with The Simpsons, due to their yellow tint.)

Since underage drinking isn't a huge problem in Japan, vending machines also offer light alcoholic drinks, including beer (Sapporo, Asahi and Ebisu being the local favorites) and light pre-mixed cocktails (usually with a heavy soda component).

Japan tends to introduce a lot of different soda flavors, with many limited-time seasonal variations on existing drinks, and other marketing novelties. There are a lot of other Japanese soft drinks that aren't commonly sold in vending machines (such as yogurt drinks and kid-oriented drinks like Qoo and the famous ramune). You could probably do a whole trip to Japan just to try different sodas, and it would take you quite a while to try them all.

And Japanese vending machines are so ubiquitous and stock so many different drinks that you can't even be sure a can really IS just a drink. Soups in a can (particularly drinkable ones) are also pretty common.

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    Justin Sevakis has worked in the anime business for over 20 years. He's the original founder of Anime News Network, and owner of the video production company MediaOCD. You can follow him on Twitter at @worldofcrap.

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