For a country so steeped in a clean aesthetic and natural materials, Japan’s profusion of vending machines is remarkable. Even the most elegant, traditional-looking street is liable to be marked by one (or six, or 10) vending machines.
This may be the first thing a foreigner notices about the country, and one could be forgiven for thinking that the Japanese might be the thirstiest people on the planet. There are, by one industry count, more than 50 million vending machines in the country – just less than one for every two people.
Fortunately, to balance the intrusiveness of these ugly, bulky machines, they have a benefit: Japanese vending machines carry far more than the Western world’s usual Coke/Sprite/Dr.Pepper/Fanta/water combinations. A Japanese vending machine contains a remarkable variety of cold (and often, hot) bottled and canned beverages, available 24 hours a day, virtually everywhere.
Juusu is the Japanese word for “juice,” but it can mean anything like a canned or bottled tea or even soda. Costs are anywhere from 80 to 160 yen per bottle, which is not cheap, but Japan makes it easy for you: You can even use your transit card to buy a drink.
While many juusu are sold cold, and most often enjoyed in the hot summer months, these machines also dispense hot drinks – be sure you push the red button to get the hot version – which can be a wonderful way to keep your hands warm during the cold Japanese winter.
One thing to keep in mind when you get drinks from a vending machine: You won’t see Japanese walking around and drinking. Because of that, you’ll find that as soon as you’ve walked away from a vending machine, you’ve also walked away from the only waste bin around. Japan doesn’t DO public trash cans. So slow down, enjoy your beverage while stationary, then put the empty bottle in the recycling bin and move on.
As far as the flavors go, they lean towards various tea flavors, coffees, and fruit flavors – even bubblegum! With their often-humorous names and eye-catching packaging, Japanese juusu can be utterly irresistible, especially on a hot day.
Pocari Sweat is a weird name, and not particularly appetizing – but it is memorable, as is the drink. A highly-diluted, artificial grapefruit flavor, Pocari Sweat is lightly sweetened, and has a slightly salty aftertaste, which means it lives up to the name. It is also one of the most popular Japanese drinks worldwide, seen in Asian 7 Elevens as far away as Cambodia and Laos.
Calpis Water is another inadvertently unappetizing moniker, but is not meant to be quite as hot weather-worthy as Pocari Sweat, given that it is a diluted, milky drink that is slightly sweet-sour, with a vaguely liquid yogurt quality. Nevertheless, it is quite tasty, one of the country’s best sellers, and
While many vending machine drinks, especially sodas, are anything but healthy, some try hard. One is Yamazaki Blizzard, a tasty “storm of Vitamin C” that also contains hard-to-get B vitamins 1, 2, 6 and even 12, and has a pleasant sour flavor, presumably from that blizzard of Vitamin C.
Melon flavored drinks are popular in Japan and bottled variations on the popular melon soda – melon juice with a dollop of ice cream – are particularly popular. Zeitaku Melon Milk and Natchan! are two versions of this favorite concoction, and if you’ve got a sweet tooth, you’ve got to try them.
Lychee fruit is a popular flavor all over Asia, and Japan has one of the best drinks in Kirin Salty Litchi, a lightly salted drink with about 10% juice. Note that very few vending machine juusu are anywhere near 100% juice. Few are more than 30% juice, both for freshness and to cater to the Japanese taste for light flavors.
No Japanese meal, or vending machine, would be complete without a cup, glass, bottle or can of green tea. One of the favorites is Ooi Ocha, which translates as “Hey Tea” and is as light and refreshing as green tea can be.
Gogo no Kocha is, as its name (Afternoon Tea) suggests, an English style black tea, complete with milk and sugar. If green tea is not to your liking, then this is a tea to try. (Note that there are also dozens of milk coffee drinks, including those made by Coca-Cola, but these are now common all over the world.)
Hiyashi Ame is a sweet, malty drink flavored with ginger and cinnamon, which gives it a slightly earthy and more exotic, almost Middle Eastern, flavor.