It’s common knowledge even among many people who have never been to Japan that Vending machines here are Serious Business. While people often post photos of some of the weirder things that are occasionally discovered in them, drinks are still by far and away the most common type of product; a dizzying array of fruit juices, both hot and cold teas and coffees, soups, flavoured waters, vitamin drinks, and regular or limited edition soft drinks are perfectly normal fare, and these products are usually fairly easy for foreign visitors to work out. Sometimes however, there’s no handy picture or other hint to convey exactly what type of drink or flavour is being advertised, making it essentially impossible for to identify what it might taste like simply by looking.
As something of a companion piece to a previous Otaku Lounge article about alcohol in Japan, I’ve decided to list a few relatively common, non-alcoholic vending machine drinks in Japan that thirsty foreigners might be curious about. Because hey, you never know when such a thing might prove useful, right?
This non-carbonated beverage was first launched in 1980 and marketed primarily as an “ion supply” sports drink, whose latter part of the name was coined in reference to replacing all the nutrients and electrolytes lost when sweating. (The first part of the name doesn’t have any particular meaning, in case you were wondering – it was simply chosen for its sound, which was considered light and bright.) Made up of water, sugar, and various chemicals, Pocari Sweat has a flavour that is both mildly sweet and acidic thanks to its light grapefruity aftertaste. Widely available in vending machines, convenience stores, and supermarkets, Pocari Sweat is also sold in its powder form so as to be later mixed with water. Also available is Pocari Sweat Ion Water, a further artificially sweetened version of the original. Aquarius, a mineral sports drink manufactured by Coca-Cola, was introduced in 1983 in direct competition with Pocari Sweat, and unsurprisingly tastes very similar.
This one gets a fair amount of ribbing from foreigners for sounding a little too much like “cow piss” in pronunciation, but let me assure readers that it looks (and presumably tastes) nothing like bovine urine. Contrary to its milky-white colour, calpis is slightly acidic but is also fairly light and inoffensive in flavour – a little like a mild juice – and is primarily made up of water, dry milk, and lactic acid. Believe it or not, the beverage actually has its beginnings in Inner Mongolia, where the original founder of Calpis encountered the traditional cultured milk product called airag, whose main ingredient is also lactic acid. The name is simply a portmanteau of ‘calcium’ and ‘sarpis’, the latter of which is Sanskrit for ‘butter flavour’. Calpis was first marketed in Japan in 1919 and quickly became a popular drink thanks to it keeping well without refrigeration. It’s still widely sold today as a concentrate, which is mixed with either water or milk just before drinking, and is also available in pre-diluted form (Calpis Water), carbonated form (Calpis Soda), and is sometimes used as a mixer in cocktails.
Named after the Scandinavian ‘skål’, roughly meaning ‘good health’, Skal is a skim milk soda that’s been sold in Japan since the 1970s. It might sound strange, but could perhaps almost be thought of as a different kind of cream soda, and isn’t dissimilar in taste to Calpis Soda. It’s a carbonated drink but is only lightly fizzy, and closer to a weaker version of 7UP in flavour than it is to a more milky or yogurty drink. While the original mixture is still available, vending machines have begun selling variations of the drink in recent years, such as Skal Melon, Skal Premium Mango, and Skal Blue (bubblegum flavour).
A pro-biotic diary beverage made up of skimmed fermented milk and a specific strain of bacteria, Yakult began being sold in 1935 as a healthy drink said to regulate bowel movements, help stave off some gastrointestinal infections, and modulate the immune system. Its name is supposedly derived from ‘jaĥurto’, an Esperanto word for ‘yogurt’. Like yogurt, Yakult has a lightly sweet but also tart taste, perhaps with a hint of vanilla-like flavour – it’s not at all chocolatey or caramelly, which the look of the bottle might indicate. Because of its high sugar content, Yakult is sold in much smaller bottles than the likes of Calpis and Pocari Sweat, and it’s not recommended that you have a lot in one sitting… many people complain that drinking too much at once results in diarrhea. Bikkle, a yogurt-based drink from Suntory that tastes very similar to Yakult, has proven more popular among foreigners, albeit possibly only due to its interesting-sounding name.
A carbonated soft drink with a fruity taste, Match was introduced in 1996 and is advertised as being choc-full of vitamins (“Let’s Vitamin!”), and is very syrupy-sweet in taste. While quite popular among tourists, perhaps for its eye-popping neon yellow label with bold blue writing, it’s actually not all that popular in Japan – or at least, not compared to most of the other beverages featured on this list – and is not readily available in many supermarkets or convenience stores, but rather sold primarily in vending machines only. Match Pink, a pink grapefruit-flavoured version of the beverage, began advertisement in early 2014 and claims to have a “non-sugary” and “clean” aftertaste for those who dislike overly sweet carbonated drinks.
Question of the post: Have you ever tried any of these drinks (some of which now have an overseas market), and if so, what are your thoughts?