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Before I moved to Japan, I imagined carbonated lakes, rivers running thick with bubbling sugar, a snack-food nation governed by Willy Wonka-san. Japan really is a refreshment paradise, and I’m excited to taste whatever drinks the mad scientists are brewing up every few months.

There was the legendary Cucumber Pepsi, and a soda that tasted like Menthol. There are yogurt drinks and sodas with slimy chunks of aloe. Late-night carousers can snag a turmeric-flavored energy drink, while tee-totalers can take some nicotine juice along on that smoke-free train ride.

Drink collage

Photo source: 1, 2, 3

There are sodas, milk drinks, experimental beers, canned coffees, canned teas, canned tea-coffees, soda-beers, milk-sodas, coffee-milks and coffee-milk-sodas (but as of yet, no coffee-milk-beers).

Most drinks come and go with the seasons. Companies can (and do) throw anything they’ve got onto the shelves when product runs are limited to a few weeks. Whenever the temperature drifts up or down a few degrees, food fans scour konbini shelves for new formulas or pop-up brands before they disappear.

Summer is prime time for scoring a can of Japan’s weirder drinks: Sales of cold drinks rise, and companies race to find the most “refreshing” formula to beat the summer sweats. I popped down to my local konbini to sort out this summer’s batch.

Salty Watermelon Pepsi

I’m a totally voracious consumer of Kit-Kat and soft drink news. When I first heard rumors about this drink on the Internet, I was skeptical but intrigued.

I’ve got a peculiar fondness for flavors that sound kind of revolting. Delicious soft drinks are easy, but it takes an especially whimsical product manager to whip up something truly risky. Take the brilliant tobacco company employee who thought carbonated menthol – a terrible drink, but a beautifully ambitious one.

Salt, watermelon, and Pepsi? Yes, please. Every day I’d scour the konbini shelves. I was distracted by the gruesomely named (and somewhat flavorless) alternative, the low-calorie &lduqo;Pepsi Black Lemon.” Finally, on an ill-timed jaunt to Thailand, a friend Instagrammed a photo of my great white whale.

Salty Watermelon Pepsi

Unfortunately, Salty Watermelon Pepsi is not a mixture of salt, watermelon and Pepsi. In fact, it’s not Pepsi at all. Much like this winter’s variety, “Pepsi Pink” – a strawberry-milk flavor – the only thing “Pepsi-ish” about it was the carbonation.

Really, it’s a liquified watermelon Jolly Rancher with seltzer. Green melon soda is a fixture of fast-food chains here, so watermelon soda was a pretty tame offering.

The flavor wasn’t even salty. In Japan, and across Asia in general, people salt fruit to bring the sweetness out. It’s also suggested to help if you’re sweating a lot (and we are) – the idea is that you lose salt when you sweat. Traditionally, people here eat salty plums (ume boshi) that are sour and salty. This summer, salt is everywhere – we even have “salty chocolate” Kit-Kats.

Verdict: Too sweet. Would not drink again.

Asahi Red Eye – Tomato Beer

If you love gazpacho but hate that it’s not beer, you’d have been delighted for the six or seven days that Asahi Red Eye was available. It’s literally tomato juice and beer. It’s red. Bits of tomato float around. The slogan may as well be, “We dare you.”

This isn’t the first beer that’s taunted me into drinking it. Last February, “Red Romance” hit the market, a seductive blend of red wine and beer that sold for 100 yen per can. No Valentine’s Day is complete without a cheap, experimental mix of undrinkable wine-beer.

Red Eye is a confusing name. A Red Eye is a cup of coffee with a shot of espresso, or the last overnight flight. It seems like tomato beer is recommended for breakfast, like a Bloody Mary with beer instead of Vodka, or a tomato omelette with beer instead of eggs.

Asahi Red Eye

But I was shocked by how much I liked Red Eye. It was sweet and vinegary, a very Japanese flavor combo (I don’t see Japan’s carbonated-apple-vinegar shops taking off in America). The flavor was more tomato than beer, but the tomato had a sharp taste that cut into the beer flavor and made this beer almost dangerously easy to drink.

Tomatoes are valued for their sweetness in Japan, particularly cherry tomatoes, and have a strong summer connotation. A shop in my town was selling cherry tomatoes wrapped in chewy mochi and served cold, which were delicious.

If you come to Japan, you might be able to find a few discount cans of Asahi Red Eye around, but tomato season is waning. Even the mochi shop is switching cherry tomatoes out for grapes. Let’s hope Asahi doesn’t take that as a hint.

Verdict: Pleasantly surprised. Would drink again, if free.

Suntory Espressoda

The pun-derful “Espressoda” is, as the label says, “A twist of bold coffee and refreshing soda.” The cap twisted, excited bubbles rise to the surface, delivering the scent of fresh coffee grounds before mellowing into a light fizz.

Canned coffee is a Japanese vending machine mainstay. The coffee is universally unappealing – I can never escape the (probably imaginary) aftertaste of aluminium, and the scent of coffee residue lingers on your breath for hours.

Espressoda

I expected Espressoda to be canned coffee with bubbles. Shockingly, the coffee base for Espressoda is actually better than the coffee inside most canned coffees, probably because it’s “Espresso.” It’s in a plastic bottle, so there’s no tin-can placebo effect on my taste buds.

The result is a kind of a totally unsweetened root beer. You know how root beer tastes a bit like sarsaparilla with vanilla? Imagine sarsaparilla with coffee, and you’d have Espressoda nailed.

I got through the entire bottle, but not without second-guessing my commitment.

Verdict: Not awful, but unpleasantly confusing. Would not drink again.

Lazy Afternoon Root Beer

Root beer is an endangered animal in Japan. You can find some A&W in import stores, but I have never met a born-and-raised Japanese person (outside of Okinawa, where it’s basically everywhere) who enjoyed the taste of root beer. I’ve even heard it described as “America’s Natto.”

For what it’s worth, only North Americans and Okinawans seem to like Root Beer. It disgusts Europeans as much as it disgusts Asians. No one seems to know why, but most people think it tastes like medicine – which was precisely why I hated Menthol Soda. It was like drinking Vap-O-Rub. I couldn’t get past it.

Lazy Afternoon

Graphic from Fukuoka Now

So it was surprising to find that there’s a company making micro-batches of root beer in Kyushu. Lazy Afternoon is only lightly carbonated, but it’s a creamy brew with what I’d call “deep textures,” if I knew what that meant. And unlike the imported brands, Lazy Afternoon lacks the throat-burning sweetness of High Fructose Corn Syrup.

It also, notably, smells like a richer, deeper root beer than most canned root beers, which may be an attempt to shift it away from the medicine-ey flavors reviled by the Japanese.

Verdict: Will drink again.


For more, check out This Japanese Life!

Header photo by uzaigaijin

  • http://twitter.com/etoile Meredith

    Hey, we want root beer in Tokyo, too! (Also, there was a horrible Salt Soda this summer, it’s just salt with a bit of lime…awful like those salt candies!)

  • DAVIDPD

    Mexican Michelada is basically the same thing as that Asahi Red Eye. // These all look good to me, but I think the perennial favorites of Pocari Sweat and Barley Tea will do for me.

  • ジョサイア

    Hmm, All we need is wonka-san and the black bean factory. :D

    I’ve had that water melon soda before…It’s defiantly interesting!

  • linguarum

    It seems many Japanese medicines are flavored with an herb in the anise family, which makes Japanese medicine taste something like root beer or black licorice.

    If you grow up on that stuff, naturally you will associate anise flavor with medicine.

    On the other side of the coin, when I (an American) first tried the Japanese “jikinin” powder cold remedy, I thought, “hmm, this would taste great on chicken.”

    I wonder how Espressoda sells? Strange that Espressoda tastes like unsweetened root beer, although nobody over there likes root beer.

  • Lychalis

    one of my friends described root beer as tasting like mouthwash. I can’t argue with her. It’s drinkable, but tastes plain weird :/

  • Tora.Silver

    I love root beer. I was literally swallowing some when I read “America’s Natto”. I almost did a spit take.

  • Claudia

    Root beer is definatly American natto ^^ First try: disgusting, second: interesting, after a few cans/packs: addicted.
    Interstingly I get both natto and root beer from asiashops… It’s A&W, but with some Arabci/Hebrew/embellish writing… So aparently not the whole world hates root beer :)

  • kincaid42

    I’ve always wanted to taste a salty soda

  • maybee

    Well I’m 100% asian and I love root beer. I know a lot of people who do too so it’s really shocking to know that people consider it American Natto. But I’ve never tasted natto so maybe I like that too. XD

  • Akaifish

    You can get Budweiser clamato in th States. Yes. Budweiser, clam juice, and tomato. No, I haven’t tried it.

  • vivianlostinseoul

    Great post!! I loved it! I always like trying the weird drinks, even though most of them are not something I’d have more than a few sips…. The Salty Watermelon was not as bad as I thought.
    http://vivianlostinseoul.blogspot.jp/

  • http://www.myjapanesegreentea.com/ Ricardo Caicedo

    I like the cow piss water. No wait, I mean the calpis water. =)

  • http://twitter.com/shollum Shollum

    Most root beer in the US tastes like really bubbly corn-syrup, but when you find those smaller brands, you get a whole new experience. I once had a root beer that a head and tasted much better than anything I’ve had before or since. It also had more of an aroma than most root beers (I’m attributing this to the head mentioned previously).

    Anyway, my point is that I’d definitely try the root beer you were talking about.

    Other than that, are you just guest writing this once or will we see you again? I really liked the article.

  • http://twitter.com/owls_mcgee Owls

    Thanks! You might see me here again. :)

  • Smitenheimer

    A tomato/beer combo is widely available in America already, but it’s one step more disgusting. Bud light is mixed with Clamato, which is tomato and clam juice. I’ve seen it in gas stations, liquor, and grocery stores. Never dared to try it though…

  • Amy

    From Australia — my fiance loves root beer. Quite popular here — maybe it helps that corn-syrup isn’t used here :P

  • http://www.ihspanishinmadrid.com/ Sandy Allain

    This is cool! I got the chance to taste such kind of stuff also why I was in a study tour. Though at first, you would think some of their drinks were weird – like ginger drink…

  • Axel

    what about pancake in a can?

  • http://www.vietamins.com Viet

    I’ve had this.. It’s aight. Wouldn’t go out of my way to buy and drink it. Very popular drink among certain ethnic groups…

  • http://twitter.com/owls_mcgee Owls

    Oh that’s a classic winter mainstay! Served hot from the vending machines.

  • Erick Reilly

    Actually, I’ve heard that South American medicine is root beer flavored.

  • Sindini

    I am not only a huge fan of beverages, but I work as a beverage developer in the United States. I really love the bold and adventurous styles Japanese beverage companies try out! I also love that there are always new seasonal flavors coming out! I have had beverages from all around the world and I think Japanese beverages are some of the best!

    Remember though~ behind many great beverages are the talents of flavor chemists! Without the awesome work of the flavor chemists you could not have the interesting and sometimes very accurate flavors!

  • Jared

    The aluminum aftertaste from canned coffee is definitely imaginary; those cans are steel! The vending machines use induction to keep the cans warm, and induction only works on magnetic metals. The coffee is still terrible, though.

  • Mark

    I’m a European, so I’ve never had “root beer”. What does it taste like?

  • Mark

    Oh and also, I don’t get what all the fuss was with natto, I had it and neither liked nor particularly disliked it

  • http://www.tofugu.com/ Hashi

    It’s a lot like sarsaparilla, if you’ve ever had that. I’m not sure how I’d describe the taste, though — it’s a lot of roots and herbs and stuff. Very unique. There’s a bit of anise in it but it’s just part of the flavor.

  • CelestialSushi

    “America’s Natto”, huh? XD Wow, didn’t realize it was so unpopular. Still, Lazy Afternoon sounds so… “gourmet” :D I’d like to try that.

  • http://twitter.com/SactoMan81 Raymond Chuang

    Calpis is not bad, but I do like the flavored versions better, though.

  • Sumobob

    WIth the Pepsi annual strange and interesting flavors it’s important to note that they aren’t meant to be “cola” flavored at all. They are made by Pepsi Co. Japan, and are “pepsi” in name only. I’ve tried them all ever since Ice Cucumber came out and have enjoyed most of them, especially the cucumber and shiso flavors.

  • http://www.twitter.com/christaran Chris Taran

    What in the world is sarsaparilla? I love how you say that like most Americans would have any idea what it is or tastes like.

  • Anii

    Well Asahi Red-Eye is far better than the so call “Clamato Budweiser” because you just have Tomato Juice and a good tasting beer vs. crap and crap. I found Espressoda to be delightful and not as sweet as the French cola blak (which is pretty much the same). Havent tried the root beer nor the salty watermelon pepsi yet.

  • http://www.facebook.com/people/Ina-Plassa-travis/100000989743025 Ina Plassa-travis

    Sarsaparilla is a weedy, woody vine, and the soft drink takes like cream soda, licorice, and shoe polish. Sassafras is small tree, and the root and inner bark used to flavor Root Beer, until it was banned as dangerous. Birch Beer is the third member of the of the Native American Tree drinks, and it comes from, originally, from the sap of the Birch tree, and was sweetened with maple sap, and lightly fermented.