Celebrating its 100th Anniversary this year, Calpis is one of the most popular Japanese drinks out there and also one with a surprisingly interesting history that includes cross-cultural exchange and even an anime connection. Available in several base forms and also found in a variety of sweets and mixed drinks, this unique beverage with a yogurt-like flavor is the focus of this installment of Vending Ventures, where we explore Japanese culture and history through popular drinks and snacks! Go, go Calpico~!
The word Calpis itself is a portmanteau of calcium and the sanskrit word sarpis which is the second of the Five Flavors referred to in Buddhism. Calpis was originally planned to be sold as Calpil (from salpilmanda, another sanskrit word relating to the Five Flavors) but was changed to Calpis to be easier to pronounce. In some regions, like North America, Calpis is similarly sold as Calpico to sound more euphonious in English.
As we alluded to in the introduction, Calpis also has an interesting cultural legacy. In 1902, Calpis’ founder Kaiun Mishima had embarked from Japan on a journey of self-discovery throughout mainland China and eventually found himself in the grasslands of Mongolia. While there, he had the opportunity to try some of the specially fermented milk regularly drunk by the nomads called airag (also known as kumis in other parts of central Asia) and was surprised by its delicious flavor and invigorative quality that refreshed his mind and improved his weakened digestion.
Returning to Japan in 1915, Mishima was inspired by this encounter in Mongolia to pursue creating a similar drink using cultured milk that could be produced commercially in his home country. This lead to the development of Calpis, the world’s first lactobacilli drink, which was first marketed on July 7th, 1919. This coincided with Tanabata, the popular Star Festival celebrated throughout Japan, and was reflected in Calpis’ original Milky Way theming which included a white-on-blue polka-dot wrapping paper suggestive of the stars. In modern times, the polka dot motif has remained but is now reversed.
After merging with food and chemical company Ajinomoto Co. in 1991, Calpis became a subsidy of beer and soft drink giant Asahi in 2012 in a major $1.5 billion acquisition.
Calpis Taste & Varieties
Like its inspiration airag, Calpis’ unique flavor comes from the fermentation process which produces lactic acid and gives it a bit of a yogurt-like taste that is mild and refreshing. Sugar is also added to give it a bit of sweetness. Calpis is most commonly found in three different types: a concentrated form that you can mix with water or milk, a premade form that is called Calpis Water, and a carbonated version called Calpis Soda. There are many other varieties as well like orange and grape and some health-focused types like Calpis Fiber. Calpis is also sometimes used in making kakigori (shaved ice) desserts and even alcoholic mixed drinks and chuhai.
Calpis in Anime
As part of its 100 year anniversary celebrations, Calpis actually commissioned a 5-part anime ONA called Tanabata no Oto (Sound of Tanabata) that tells the story of a girl moving to a new city who feels sad about not being able to see the stars anymore and works together with friends at her school to create a new ‘Milky Way’ for Tanabata. Each episode features an animated music video along with some cute character interactions. While still commercials, they have a lot of genuine charm and creativity put into them and the way it ties into Calpis’ history with Tanabata is a nice touch.
Tanabata no Oto (Sound of Tanabata) Episode 1
Many special manga/anime style bottles of Calpis depicting idealized summer adventures and festivals were also available throughout Japan as part of the larger Calpis Peaceful Days campaign. This makes a little more sense in Japanese where the end of Calpis is pronounced pisu (ピス) which sounds very similar to the Japanese pronunciation of peace (ピース).
Calpis was also the original sponsor of the famous long-running anime series World Masterpiece Theater which went by Calpis Comic Theater, Calpis Children's Theater, and then Calpis Family Theater from 1969 until 1978. This series included Heidi, Girl of the Alps, which was one of the first anime that Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata worked on. Another notable inclusion of Calpis is in Blood+ where it is shown as main protagonist Saya Otonashi’s favorite drink.
Altogether, Calpis is a unique drink that now has over 100 years of history in Japan and throughout the world. If you haven’t tried it, look out for Calpis or Calpico in your country! True to the Vending Ventures name, it’s also incredibly common in vending machines and therefore easy to try out while in Japan. Let us know what you think in the comments section below and be sure to stick around Honey’s for more of all things awesome, 100-year-old Japanese drinks and otherwise! Until next time, stay fresh!