By Christina and Pete Sawka
Everyone remembers the first time that they found a marble on the beach. In my case, it was a shiny marble, not at all “cooked” but still my first. I was thrilled. Bucket list item checked.
I would soon add to my bucket list the bottle where that marble came from—the famous Japanese ramune glass bottle. Although I have now found plastic versions of the ramune bottle on the beach (with marbles intact and quickly rescued!), the joy of finding my first ramune glass bottle on the beach is still to come. Growing up in the Philippines and Australia, I had never heard of ramune. But my husband, Pete, who has lived in Japan most of his life, has many experiences growing up with the fascinating drink. Here is Pete’s story:
Some of my earliest memories contain this blue glass bottle of intrigue. I can still recall the weight and joy of such a strange item that only seemed to appear on summer nights at festival. I remember the dim orange glow of the night lights, the smell of mosquito-killing incense, and the crowded streets. We wore yukata, the summer kimono made of thin cotton—white with blue dye for boys, white with pink or yellow dye for girls. We had eyes for the water balloon yo-yos, anime and robot masks, along with the cotton candy and candied apples.
But, of course, the drink was always ramune, fished from a plastic pool of ice water beside the goldfish-scooping scam of a game. As soon as I got my hands on one, the problems began. I didn’t possess the strength to press the marble down to open the bottle, so I’d have to ask for the help of my older brother or a nearby adult. When the bottle finally opened, it would inevitably explode everywhere, so everyone around me would yell at me to cover it with my mouth. I was often too late—the sticky soda would get all over my face and arms. Then when I’d finally take my first real sip, bottoms up, the marble would get stuck again. And so, I’d press it down with my thumb or tongue, or maybe shake it again, and that of course meant more spilling.
But it tasted amazing. With all the hassle and trouble, it still would always outrank the other drinks. It was the king of soda. It inevitably brought a hazardous yet exciting show, a delightful taste, and then after it all, a glass bottle souvenir to take home. Even as children, we treated the bottles as collectibles, things to be cherished and saved for bookends to our comic books.
As the years passed, the glass bottles disappeared, replaced by sad plastic bottles, weak echoes of their former glory. Sure, now it was easier to get the marble out, and there wasn’t as much smashing or spilling, but wasn’t the imperfect pairing of the bottle and marble what made ramune so wonderful? These newer plastic bottles were worthless in our eyes.
It was only later as an adult that I learned more about this mesmerizing drink, and all the questions I had started to be answered one-by-one.
Firstly, where did the name “ramune” come from? Was it indigenously Japanese? No one had heard of it overseas. But it was a soda drink. As kids we had an amazing skill to tell what products were common, i.e., Japanese imports, i.e., foreign. But ramune bottles felt so foreign yet Japanese at the same time. It turns out that when the U.S. Navy sent Commodore Matthew Perry to the shores of feudal Japan to forcibly open Japanese ports to U.S. whalers, he presented the Samurai with bottles of what were said to be ramune. However, the marbled bottles called Codd-neck bottles were patented in the 1870s. Perry arrived in Japan in 1854. So it seems that Perry’s soft drink bottles would have been capped via cork, glass or some sort of metal. There is a fascinating amount of history available at The Society for Historical Archaeology1 for further reading, as well as The Codd Neck Bottle article from Volume 4 of Beachcombing magazine.
Nonetheless, it was a great surprise that I learned that ramune was actually a corruption of the word “lemonade.” Lemonade, lemon-aye, remon-ay, ramonay, ramo-ne, ramune? And the reason it was called lemonade seems to be because the first soft drinks produced (in contrast to the alcoholic “hard drinks” so popular at the time) were a mixer of water (soda water) and lemon juice sweetened with honey. They appeared in 1676 and were sold by Companies De Limonadiers in Paris under a granted monopoly. The carbonation came later in an attempt to imitate the water that came from famous European springs.
The famous Codd-bottle design fell out of favor because the glass marbles were difficult to produce. They had a quality-control problem in trying to make perfect marbles. Instead, the crowned bottle cap quickly became the favored closure type for soda bottles. A Japanese manufacturer in Nagasaki first started making ramune (lemonade) in 1872 at a small scale. However, it was the Scottish pharmacist, Alexander Sim, who popularized ramune through production of his “Mabu Soda” (short for marble soda) beginning in 1884. It also helped that a major publication at the time claimed that it would help prevent cholera.
And so, time passed, and for some reason in 1904 Japanese sellers decided it would be a great idea for all sodas sold in the marble topped bottle to be named ramune and all others with the crowned top bottles to be named “saida,” as in “cider.”
The drink was immensely popular until the 1950s, but its popularity was gradually surpassed by yet another American import. This time, it was Coca-Cola that would rise as the dominant soft drink of Japan. Therefore, in 1978, a law was passed to protect the interests of small and medium-sized businesses. This law prohibited major companies from selling ramune or any other drink that uses a marble as a sealer. Hence, you never see ramune in vending machines and hardly ever in major grocery stores, which explains why as a child, I would only see the ramune being sold during summer festivals by small vendors.
Through research we learned that only one manufacturer remained that uses all glass bottles for their ramune. So we contacted the company, Shibamata Ramune. Sadly, they told us they sold out of them last year and all they have now are glass bottles with plastic caps. Hence all ramune produced in Japan now have glass marbles with plastic bottles, or glass bottles with plastic caps (screw-on or hammer-on caps). However, the Banta drink from India seems to still be available in all-glass bottles.
Some of the questions and mysteries remain. But one thing is for certain: ramune must rank as one of the stranger sodas known to the world and one of the best drinks to come from Japan.
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This article appeared in the Beachcombing Magazine May/June 2022 issue.