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How to drink in Japan like a local

Japanese Matcha Tea Nature Ritual

Wondering what to drink in Japan or what is the national drink of Japan? From sake, through beer, to matcha, the Japanese culture of drinking is just as renowned as their culinary habits. Rather different than the West, in Japan, there isn't a culture of going out for a drink, but rather of having drinks accompanied by Japanese food or snacks (such as edamame, rice crackers or shredded squid). The most common drink in Japan is the mighty tea. Usually offered free of charge alongside any dish I ordered, the Japanese mainly drink green tea, with matcha being amongst the nation's favourite. Matcha refers to finely ground green tea leaves, used during the Japanese Tea Ceremony. In fact, the Japanese are so obsessed with matcha, that it became a cultural phenomenon: matcha flavoured cakes, desserts, cookies and even savoury items, all throughout Japan.

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National drink in Japan

So what do the Japanese drink then? The national drink of Japan is sake, which is essentially rice wine. To obtain sake, the rice must be washed and steamed, mixed with yeast and koji, then leave to ferment. There are various grades of sake quality with the most expensive and famed being the Dassai 23. A new extraordinary type of sake called Dassai Beyond has been recently crafted in order to suppress the mighty Dassai 23. Critics have referred to the Dassai Beyond as being "the perfect sake".

Did you know: For the best experience, drink cheap sake hot and enjoy fine sake cold.

Japanese sake luxurious drink

Drink in Japan: Beer

Despite sake being Japan's national drink, the Japanese still prefer beer over the locally brewed rice wine. The most loved beer is larger (beer-ru in Japanese), although you can find cheaper brands which sell happoshu (malt flavoured beverage). Most tourists tend to fall into this trap, ordering the cheaper "beers" not knowing they are actually drinking a low malt beverage.
In Japan, there are several establishments offering not just all you can eat food, but also all you can drink deals! When in Japan just search for the word nomihodai (drink all you like). The best place to find a great nomihodai is at a karaoke bar which offers private rooms with all you can sing rates (utaihodai), as well as all you can drink deals. There are plenty of them around in Shinjuku, although be vigilant, as some bars in the area are run by the Yakuza.

Japanese beer barrels glass

Drink in Japan: Whiskey

If neither sake nor beer rock your boat, then the Japanese have yet another card up their sleeve: Japanese whiskey. Usually drank neat and incredibly popular amongst Japanese businessmen, scotch is rather sought after in Japan. Jim Murray (famed writer especially for his observation on whiskey) named a single malt from the Yamazaki distillery the “best in the world.” I'm not too sure what the Scottish whiskey producers have to say for themselves, but one thing is certain: when you visit Japan, you must at least try it, form your own opinion then come back and tell me what you think.

Drink in Japan: Tea

Alcohol aside, I would be tempted to name the green tea as Japan's national drink. Having been drinking more tea in Japan than even in Britain (and let me tell you, I drink at least a couple liters of tea a day!), it's hard to imagine why anyone would suggest sake is Japan's kings of drinks. Sure its unique to the country and rather special, but isn't the national drink supposed to be the people's drink? Even at the beginning, when tea was just about introduced to Japan, during the Tang dynasty, people created a culture, a ceremony around it. In the 12th to 15th centuries in Japan, it was the philosophy of zen and tea drinking as medicine which restored the Japanese people to health. Ever since, the tea ceremony has been perfected and incorporated into the religious - esthetic way of life.

Japanese Tea Ceremony Matcha Master

Nowadays, the tea ceremony continues to fascinate and many come to Japan in pursuit of "the way of tea". Partaking in a tea ceremony remains an honour throughout Japan. Sado, or the Japanese Tea Ceremony is still taught in schools nowadays and many continue to practice it as a hobby.

Weather it's sake, beer or matcha, the Japanese are obsessed not just with preserving ancient traditions, but also embracing the newest trends. Japan has more vending machines per capita than any other country in the world. Anywhere you go in Japan, you are bound to come across a vending machine selling hot and cold beverages (amongst other bizarre products). Essentially, you can never go thirsty in Japan.

Japanese Matcha Tea cup latte

As the desire for new products increases (hatsubai), companies continue to release new fresh beverages every year. Weather is a new type of matcha late, a Dassai sake or a funky craft beer, Japan remains a nation of drinkers, adhering to a unique daily ritual. As the philosophy of Zen teaches us: "Drink it in that spirit, and health, happiness, and eternal life will follow".

What drink in Japan did you enjoy the most? Did you drink lots of sake with your sushi, had a beer in Golden Gai or found your zen by drinking lots of matcha tea? Let me know all about your experiences in the comments section below.

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Nice article! I was in Japan a couple of years ago and definitely drank some green tea, but ended up missing some of the alcoholic beverages. I'll have to keep these in mind for the next time I go back (I definitely want to!).

Cory Varga
Cory Varga - You Could Travel

I'm glad you liked it. I love Japan so much and I really can't wait to go back either!