Beyond the Pocky: Toasting the Japanese Drink
One can never have too many Ramune bottles lying around. This month, we explore the benefits and dangers of breaking into Japanese drinks.
In America, there seems to be only two choices when it comes to soda. Coke and Pepsi have been duking it out forever, and it seems that whenever one of them does something, the other does it the next day. Hence we have cherry flavored, grape flavored, no carb, lemon/lime (in the form of Sprite and 7up), and on and on. While a connoisseur might be able to tell you what makes each different, the truth is we're usually stuck with two versions of the exact same thing.
So what better place to look for a new fizzy concoction than a supermarket that tailors to a different clientele? The most prominent alternative to Coke in a Japanese supermarket seems to be Ramune. This drink, with its ingenious little bottle and rainbow of flavors, has already seemed to have broken into the western fandom, but most only know about the original, blue Ramune, which tastes a little like blueberry, although the official flavor is lychee. There is also kiwi, orange, peach and strawberry Ramune, but they all taste like nothing more than slightly altered versions of the original.
But what if fizz isn't your thing? Health nuts might also find a few interesting drinks in a Japanese food store, but the search is a little more dangerous. It's very important to read labels very carefully when looking for drinks, because the most foreign things that I've ever seen in the supermarket have been in liquid form.
Take for example, jelly juice. I was at a store one day when I found a row of drinks that looked like Capri Sun packets with what was obviously a imitation of Heero Yui from Gundam Wing, complete with his signature scowl, giving me a thumbs up from the package. Right next to him was a picture of an apple, and since most of the package was in Japanese, I assumed I was looking at apple juice and didn't read any farther. Intrigued by this fake Heero, I bought a drink and brought it home.
The opening was a little nozzle the size of my pinky finger, and after trying to peak inside with no luck, I took a sip. Expecting nothing special, I almost spat all over the person across from me when I ended up with a gooey, Jell-O like blob on my tongue. The first thing I thought was that the Gundam Juice I had bought was a billion years old, and I had inadvertently sucked up one of the alien life forms that had taken up residence inside it, just like when that lobster in Cowboy Bebop escapes from the fridge and terrorizes the ship. It was, however, nothing so romantic. When I double checked the package said right on it that this wasn't apple juice, this was a ‘jelly drink’. It was supposed to taste like Jell-O that had been out in the sun a few hours too long.
There is a lesson to be learned here. Even if it seems as if you can't read a thing on a drink label, look for something recognizable anyway. It will save you from the embarrassment of calling 911 for a stomach pump over a false alarm. If you live with other people, it's also a good idea to label things you buy that will be around for a while. I bought an excellent noodle sauce once only to have my mom throw it out, thinking that it was a month old drink. Liquids are confusing in that way, so when shopping, make sure that you're in the drink aisle and not browsing for sauces.
There are also some drinks that don't have any western equivalent. Peanut Soup is one of them. There are many brands, with many versions, but all of them are basically made of water, sugar and soaked peanuts. The resulting concoction is put in a can with a spoon, making for a very filling drink/snack when you're on the go. Peanut Soup may be the exception when it comes to strange drinks that are also tasty. Yogurt soda and kiwi sorbet tea tend to be the norm. One drink even looks like frog eggs in honey. While I love Japanese snacks, I have to admit that its drinks make me a little uneasy.
A lot of the very strange stuff is modern. Things like traditional canned green tea are very common as well, and they can be rather refreshing. Although I’d still like to check out the fine selection that the famous vending machines of Japan provide, supermarket drinks are the next best thing for sampling the flavors of Japan.