Japanese soft drinks that keep me sane
My mom likes to tell me that I have a problem because I actually cannot leave the house and not end up making a stop somewhere to pick up a drink. Usually a tea of some sort, though I can sometimes be persuaded to branch out and do a juice (but never coffee). At home, this need to always have a drink in hand translates to a constant rotation of boba or Starbucks or whatever fancy glass bottle catches my eye at Whole Foods. And although I'm hardpressed to find any of that out here, thankfully Japan does not lack in the soft drink department.
So here's a little round-up of my supermarket favorites, which can generally be found in any grocery or convenience store around the country.
Let's start with the basic of the basic. One of the reasons I fell in love with Japan was because tea is more common than water here. A lot of restaurants will serve hot or iced tea instead of water, and all of the convenience store chains and most grocery store chains also have their own generic brands as well, making buying bottled tea a lot cheaper than buying bottled water. While the convenience store generics run about 100 yen per bottle, at the grocery store I've seen them as low as 38 yen. They always come in plain green and oolong varieties, and sometimes jasmine and barley tea as well. These tend to be a bit more watered down than their branded counterparts, but if you just want something to drink, these are hard to beat.
Moving on to the branded stuff, there are a few main companies that basically produce the same kinds of products: green teas in a number of different qualities and varieties + seasonal specials. The two that compete against each other the most are Ito-en and Iyemon. And while I will admit that Iyemon's quality does seem to be a little higher, I'm partial to Ito-en's teas. Maybe it's because I actually like them better, or maybe it's just because of the sense of nostalgia I attatch to them (Ito-en was my go-to lunchtime beverage back in my Ala Moana Shirokiya mall rat days. If you know, you know). Ito-en also tends to do more flavored and seasonal varieties compared to Iyemon, which is more ~traditional~.
Other than just straight up green tea, I also really like the mixed herb-type teas as well. I like to compare the flavor of this variety to the teas that are more common in Korea - kind of corn/grain/bean-y. Anyways, these are less acidic than green tea and normally caffiene free.
Taking a little detour here to mention mugicha, barley tea. You can get it in a bottle, but most people just drink it at home since it's sold in very cheap, cold water steepable tea bags. Considered a hot weather staple, I'd guess that at least 2/3 of all households have a pitcher of mugicha in their fridge at any given time during the summer months. It's caffeine free, which makes it okay for children of all ages as well.
Next on the list are some of my OG faves that I no longer really drink because I don't do dairy anymore. There are a surprising number of dairy-inclusive drinks available here despite the fact that basically the whole country should lack the lactase gene. But considering how tasty they all are, I can sort of imagine that it might be worth powering through. If you're American, I suggest you also try to get your hands on some plain milk while you're here too. On top of being lactose intolerant, I've never liked the taste of milk back at home, but here it's actually really good, and I'm almost sad that I can't drink it (for the flavor, anyways. There are a host of other reasons why I avoid dairy as well).
But honestly, I don't even miss the dairy'd up drinks because Jesus Christ, do you see this spread of flavored soy milks??? In the picture below, there are plain, melon, matcha, milk tea, coffee, fruit, banana, kinako, prune, and honey nut flavors. And that's not all of them either. This particular company also produces seasonal flavors such as yuzu in the winter and sakura in the spring. And of all of the flavors that I have tried (I refuse to try the cola one, can you blame me), there hasn't been a single one that I haven't liked.
In sum, this is how this soft drink addict stays sane when the nearest Starbucks is an hour and a half away, decent boba just plain doesn't exist, and a 6-ounce cup of hot water with a tea bag in it can cost upwards of 400 yen at a cafe.
I'd just like to add that I recognize that I have a pretty narrow range of drinks that I enjoy and that it doesn't include coffee at all. That being said, there are a ton of different types of canned, cartoned, and bottled coffee drinks, but from what I hear from my coffee snob friends, none of it is any good anyways, so basically, you should just stick to tea.