Love a delicious drink? From sake to green tea and much more, Japan has some of the best beverages in the world.
What can I drink when I go to Japan? If you’ve ever wondered what the best beverages in Japan are then this is the blog for you. Japan is world-famous for its amazing food and it has the drinks to match! From sake to green tea, Japan is known for many delicious drinks, but it’s also increasingly famous for the award-winning quality of Japanese whisky, its thriving contemporary coffee culture, and its hip craft beer scene. In part one of our special guide to drinks in Japan, we’ll give you the lowdown on Japan’s most popular drinks and recommendations on where to go with your trusty JR Pass (for unlimited rail travel) in hand! Ready to take a sip? Just raise your glass or cup and say ‘Kanpai!’.
The Best Beverages in Japan
You’ll find lots of quality drinks in Japan, from homegrown favourites that Japan is famous for like Sake to western imports that the country has refined, improved, and made its own, to quirky, contemporary beverages! Let’s take a look.
Sake (or nihonshu as it is known in Japan) is arguably the most famous drink associated with Japan and has been a part of Japanese culture for thousands of years. While it is as quintessentially Japanese to Westerners as sushi and sumo, it’s very possible many international visitors have never actually tried sake and they may feel unsure where to start with this complex beverage. First of all, sake is not what you think. The word ‘sake’ in Japanese actually refers to any alcoholic drink so if you went into a bar and asked for sake, you’re not being very specific. If you want the Japanese fermented, alcoholic beverage made from rice (commonly known as sake to westerners) then you should actually order nihonshu. This is sake’s true name.
There are many different types and varieties of sake (nihonshu) available, from the inexpensive to the premium. Just like the huge range of wines in the world, they all taste subtly (and sometimes massively) different, and the same can be said of sake. For this reason, you need to try several types in order to get a sense of how it tastes and whether it is the drink for you. However, generally speaking, it can be described as tasting mildly sweet, with an aroma of fruit and nuts, and a slightly savoury finish. Sake is considered by many to be more complex and subtle than many other alcoholic drinks. If this sounds like the drink for you, read our Guide to Sake for more.
And one last thing, did you know there was such a thing as a sake tasting train in Japan? It’s true! Read all about The Koshino Shu*Kura is a special train operated by JR East in our special guide.
Japanese tea ceremony, a ritualistic activity that is an artform all to itself. Known as the Way of Tea and called sadō, chanoyu or chadō in Japanese, the custom is a ceremonial serving of matcha green tea within a traditional tearoom. The Way of Tea, or sadō, became an established part of Japanese tea culture in the 15th and 16th century. Two figures had a profound effect on its development, Murata Jukō and Sen no Rikyū. Juko was a Buddhist who established the philosophical principles of sado, namely harmony, respect, purity and tranquillity. Rikyū, on the other hand, promoted the idea that each meeting was unique, making it special and worth treasuring through a special ceremony. From these ideals, many schools of sado, have involved and are practised to this day.
Although tea ceremonies are often talked about in broad terms, there are actually many different types that take place. One way ceremonies can differ is their level of formality, which may come as a surprise given how traditional and formal the custom appears to outsiders. Believe it or not, the kind of tea ceremony most tourists see is actually the informal type, known as chakai. The more formal alternative, known as chaji, features a full meal, multiple teas and can last as long as four hours. The other way tea ceremonies can vary is due to the time of day or season in which they take place. This means there are subtle differences between tea ceremonies held in summer versus winter, but also morning ceremonies compared to evening ceremonies. For instance, a tea ceremony that takes place in the early-evening in summer is known as yuuzari-no-chaji and involves watching the sunset.
For tourists, there are two kinds of tea ceremony experiences that you can have. If you just want to watch a tea ceremony take place, there are venues that allow you to watch and not participate. However, there are also tea ceremony venues that let you take part, kimono and all. The most common tea experiences for tourists are centred in popular destinations like Tokyo and Kyoto. For a less touristy option, consider visiting the Uji region and its many, many teahouses. Naturally, there is a lot more to learn and etiquette to be aware of. To find out more, read our detailed guide to What It's Like to Take Part in a Japanese Tea Ceremony.
Closely related to the art of the tea ceremony in Japan is the country’s relationship with green tea, which dates back to the 9th Century. Since then, green tea has become a mainstay of Japanese cuisine, while other teas like black tea and oolong have never caught on, and it has long been the most consumed hot beverage in the country. Since green tea has been around in Japan for so long, it’s little surprise that the drink has become important to different aspects of Japanese culture. These aspects range from the religious, to health and wellbeing, and most noticeably in Japanese hospitality. For instance, when you visit restaurants in Japan it is typical for complimentary green tea to be served once the meal is over. Similarly, visitors to temples and gardens will often be served green tea as part of their experience there. Japan is home to close to 20 different types of green tea, each with their own subtle differences in flavour.
The flavour of each type is the result of a whole bunch of factors, from whether the plant is grown in shade or sunlight, to when in the harvest it’s cultivated, to how it’s processed. It’s worth noting that the plant used – Camellia sinensis – is exactly the same as that used for black and oolong tea. The type of tea also depends on what part of the Camellia sinensis plant is used. Yes, it’s not just tea leaves that are used to create green tea in Japan, but also for instance, twigs and stems like in the case of kukicha. Then there are types that use other ingredients entirely, like genmaicha, which is made with roasted brown rice in it. Arguably, the four most popular types of green tea in Japan are Sencha, Matcha, Shincha and Gyokuro. Naturally, alongside green tea there are a huge variety of other teas and flavoured teas available in Japan, including cherry blossom tea (also known as Sakura tea), brown rice tea, Royal milk tea, kelp tea, and many more!
Japan is a must-visit destination for fans of the iconic spirit, with unique distilleries and bars to rival anywhere in the world. For many, the classic scene in Sofia Coppola’s Oscar-winning film, Lost in Translation, where Bill Murray raises a glass to ‘Suntory Time’, may have been their first introduction to the world of Japanese whisky. However, for serious whisky lovers, Japan has been at the very top of the list for several decades, both for the quality of its produce and the spectacular and unique locations of its distilleries - many of which are open to the public, accessible by domestic rail, and host special tasting tours for visitors.
What makes Japanese whisky so special? And why is Japan such an incredible place to visit for whisky lovers? Experts say it is the purity of the water, which is often taken from snow melt, from Mt Fuji or the Southern Japanese Alps for example, or from spring water, combined with the clean air, mineral-rich soil, and warmer climate (as opposed to Scotland or Ireland) thanks to the country’s geographical position, all of which results in a unique flavour profile. Either way, Japanese whisky is distinct, special and has been winning global awards for its quality for decades including The Whisky Bible’s coveted Best Whisky in the World award. The premium, aged varieties also have a reputation for being increasingly hard to find, making them highly collectible, due to shortages caused by the high demand internationally since the popularity of Japanese whisky skyrocketed among knowledgeable drinkers around the world.
Of course, it is not just drinking Japanese whisky that makes it special, but where it is produced and the opportunity to easily visit these incredible locations. With several distilleries just a short train ride from Tokyo and others in eye-popping locations, such as the Mars Shinshu distillery which is 2,600ft above sea level in snow capped mountains, Japan is a must-visit country for whisky lovers. You can find out more in our guide to Japan for Whisky Lovers.
Japanese beer has always been crisp, clean and pure, with big mass produced brands from famous companies like Asahi, Kirin, Sapporo and Suntory. It also has a thriving craft beer scene. ‘Ji-biru’ or Japanese craft beer is on the rise. The craft beer industry in Japan is relatively young compared to Europe and North America at around 25 years old, but underwent a massive boom in the 1990s thanks to a change in regulations which led to a resurgence in small independent brewers, and saw Japan quickly earn a reputation for producing outstanding and unique beers. Craft beer lovers have been making regular pilgrimages to Japan for years and many have settled there to open their own breweries and bars to help support the independent scene and capitalise on its huge potential.
The last 10 years in particular have seen an explosion in the numbers of bars dedicated to craft beer. When the Japan Beer Times - a bilingual magazine dedicated to the country’s craft beer industry - launched in 2010, there were just a few dozen bars specialising in craft beer. Today, there are hundreds of bars, dedicated annual beer festivals, and more than 300 breweries to visit, where you can taste freshly brewed and lovingly made craft beers. For a much longer and more detailed history of craft beer in Japan be sure to check out Professor Mark Meli’s book, Craft Beer in Japan. Mark, a Professor of Cultural Studies at Kansai University in Osaka, tasted more than 1,700 varieties of ji-biru while researching the book. It’s a tough job, but someone has to do it! Luckily, you can follow in his footsteps by visiting Japan’s best craft beer breweries, bars and festivals using your Japan Rail Pass and the country’s excellent rail system.
On the subject of beer, a great destination for beer lovers is Sapporo Beer Museum. With a history dating back to 1876, Sapporo beer is the oldest brewery and beer brand in Japan. Dating back to the Meiji era when Japan was rapidly industrialising by taking examples from the West and inviting highly qualified individuals from around the world to help build the future of Japan. So too with Sapporo Beer, that became a marriage between local craft, inspired by German brewing tradition and American industrialism. The museum is closely located to the JR Naebo station, and can be reached on foot in about 5 minutes. JR Naebo station is just one stop away from Sapporo station and is included in the Japan Rail Pass. Sapporo - in Hokkaido, Japan’s northernmost island - is a great destination generally as a city. Read our guide to 48 Hours in Sapporo to find out why.
Japan loves coffee and it occupies an important place in their culinary culture. While Japan’s coffee masters and independent kissaten (special Japanese coffee shops) have developed some of the finest coffee in the world and created special social spaces to enjoy it, the country has also pioneered affordable, mass-produced coffee for the nation’s busy, hardworking, and frequently on-the-go populace. This includes canned coffee, which is something that Japan first introduced to the world. As such, there are lots of different types of coffee available in Japan. As well as the usual cold brews, lattes, espressos, and more to try, here are a few additional varieties to look out for - canned coffee (affordable and ideal for those on the move); iced coffee (strong coffee in tall glass with ice cubes - with or without gomme sugar syrup; coffee fresh (this is coffee with a pot of cream); and more. An interesting coffee-related custom that to be aware of when visiting Japan is called ‘morning service’ and this is where you can receive a free breakfast, including toast, eggs, and salad, when you order a coffee.
While coffee is everywhere in Japan and excellent value for the most part, the country is also leading the way in high-end coffee experiences too - essentially the ‘fine dining’ of the coffee world. You’ll find this if you visit the coffee shop known as ‘Cokuun’ in Omotesando, Tokyo. Read more about what makes this coffee shop so special in our list below. Other high-end Japanese coffee shops leading the way globally in terms of innovation, high-end coffee, and unique dining experiences include Leaves Coffee and Koffee Mameya Kakeru, both in Tokyo. In recent years, the city’s formerly industrial Kiyosumi-Shirakawa neighbourhood in the east has become one of the centres of the country’s thriving coffee culture as young, ambitious roasters moved into the area. For even more information read our guide to Coffee Culture in Japan.
6. Other drinks
Naturally, there are many other tasty beverages to enjoy in Japan. These include aojiru or ‘green juice’, which is a blend of kale and green vegetables, umeshu (plum wine), bubble tea, amazake, melon soda, chuhai, momoshu (peach wine), yuzushu, and awamori - a unique Okinawan alcoholic drink. You’ll also find famous Japanese brands such as Calpis, Ramune, and Pocari Sweat.
Naturally, the best accompaniment to the delicious drink is Japan’s fabulous food. In our blog, we’ve covered a wide range of food related topics. Here is a selection so you can pair your choice of beverage with some truly excellent Japanese food.
- Firstly, for a general introduction to Japan’s world-class cuisine try our Beginners Guide to Japanese Food and Regional Dishes.
- Naturally, we have specific guides to some of the country’s most famous foods too such as Japan for Sushi Lovers and A Beginners Guide to Ramen.
- Next, how about some etiquette tips? Our guide to Japanese Table Manners has everything you need to know.
- And for recommendations on where to eat and drink, read our article on Why You Should Visit an Izakaya in Japan and our guide to Japan’s Michelin-starred fine dining restaurants.