Japanese drinks for beginners

This is an excerpt from the food and drinks chapter of Lonely Planet's Tokyo guide.

Unlike the Western world, soft drinks (sodas) and other sweetened beverages rarely appear on the menu (with the exception, of course, being Western-style fast-food restaurants).

Needless to say, the beverage of choice in Japan is o-cha (お茶; green tea), which is served hot or cold depending on the time of year. You can also expect to find subtle variations on this traditional brew.

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Although the canned coffee you get from vending machines does resemble the watereddown brews you find in the US, European style cafes serving the good stuff are found on virtually every corner in Tokyo. In addition to the standard cup of kōhii (コーヒー; coffee), you can also expect to find esupuresso (エスプレッソ; espresso), kapuchīno (カプ チーノ; cappuccino) and even matcha-ratte (抹茶ラッテ; green-tea-flavoured latte).

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When it comes to alcohol, the Japanese are avid consumers of birru (ビール; beer), which tend to be light and easy-drinking lagers. Wain (ワイン; wine) and uisukī (ウ イスキー; whiskey) are also fairly common tipples, though their high status means that they’re significantly more expensive than in the West.

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Sake, aka Nihonshū (酒 or 日本酒; rice wine), is Japan’s national beverage, and the variety of grades, flavours and regions of origin can be astounding. Although many visitors to Japan arrive assuming that sake should be drunk hot (and indeed this can be quite satisfying on a cold Tokyo night), purists would never dream of drinking a higher grade sake (such as dai-ginjō) any way but chilled. The website www.sake-world.com has a concise yet comprehensive guide to different types of sake.

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Interestingly, sake is falling out of favour with the younger generation, while the potent shōchū (焼酎; liquor distilled from grains or sweet potato, for example) is becoming ever more popular. Taste testing shōchū onzarokku (on the rocks) is a great way to sample the different flavours.

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