Ace investigator Seiya represents today with the first installment of Tokyo Teleport Station, an item that (we hope) will become a regular column here at HD. In it he’ll be covering everything from the etiquette of watching pornography in a capsule hotel to the proper way to break into Tokyo’s Gainax HQ (AT Field optional), but today he deals with a far more pressing issue: canned coffee. And you thought the NHK was a conspiracy…
For those not in the know, UCC is the Ueshima Coffee Company, the worlds original producers of “canned liquid coffee”. Not to be confused with the popular brands of canned gaseous coffee and canned plasma coffee that you’ve heard so much about, this is the good stuff. With milk. It first became famous among American otaku as part of a major cross promotion with Evangelion, wherein all Eva characters drink UCC and in exchange the good people at UCC unleashed these on the world. They can still be found on eBay from time to time, but I would have to recommend against actually drinking any of them. No, if you’re planning on using your coffee for drinking purposes it’s probably going to come in the iconic UCC can, which has become a staple of modern 2D culture. From Koko wa Greenwood to Kare Kano, it’s hard to miss the ubiquitous red and brown UCC can. Or at times a UGG can for the trademark impaired. You can imagine, then, my joy at discovering it for sale at my local asian supermarket. Right there alongside the Pocky and Hi-Chew was a whole rack of canned coffee, large as life and just like Misato used to drink. One sip and I was hooked on the stuff. I lived off of it for several of my formative otaku years. I frantically scraped together as much of it as I could, courtesy of sushi joints, noodle huts, and the occasional stray vending machine. When my friends and I were driving down to NYC for a convention, we spent close to $40 on coffee prior to leaving. After carrying 30-odd heavy ass cans of coffee through Manhattan, we ended up filling our hotel room’s bathtub with ice and setting up a communal UCC cooler. For all of us it became a de facto symbol of otaku culture in general.
More than that, UCC Coffee really is magical stuff. Aside from tasting great and keeping you awake, it has a number of remarkable properties. First, it apparently does stay good indefinitely. In times of great stress I have consumed cans that were kept lying around, unrefridgerated, and on the floor for weeks or even months on end. Not only were they still non-toxic, I genuinely couldn’t tell the difference. They even seemed to retain a slight chill after all that. Furthermore, the actual aluminum cans that UCC comes in appear to be completely indestructible. It’s no big deal to crush an ordinary empty soda can one handed; not so with a can of UCC. You may have seen anime characters crush UCC cans with their bare hands, but this is merely one of the many lies put forth by the UCC conspiracy. In reality, an average-sized otaku can stand with their full weight on an empty can and barely make a dent. Many a night’s worth of drunken conversations have put forth the idea of making UCC body armour. There’s no doubt in my mind that a single can’s worth could easily stop a bullet. Finally, and most mysteriously, there’s the UCC Effect. If you shake a full can of UCC for long enough, the liquid inside will stop moving and appear to expand to the full size of the can. That nice sloshing sound is just gone until you let the can sit undisturbed for 5+ minutes. Where does the air in the can go? No one knows. It is the mystery of the coffee.
With all this in mind, I hope you can appreciate the crushing disappointment I felt upon my arrival in Tokyo. See, everything that I had learned about canned coffee from Japanese pop culture was nothing but lies. Dirty, dirty lies. There are no vending machines that sell original UCC Coffee in the entire Tokyo area. None. They don’t exist. Moreover, out of the five convenience stores in walking distance of where I was living, none of them stocked a recognizable form of UCC. Nor did the full service supermarket or any of the restaurants I started to frequent. No one had it. It wasn’t anywhere. I was expecting it to be as common as the vending machines themselves (and believe me, there are areas in Tokyo where you cannot extend your arms in any direction without touching a vending machine) but try as I might, I simply couldn’t find it.
Oh, there was coffee. There was plenty of coffee, much of it even in cans. They had cans of Boss as far as the eye could see, peppered here and there with cans of Pokka or Georgia, and one vending machine actually did stock UCC Black but the original, the grandfather of them all, the one and only patron saint of canned coffee UCC Original seemed to have vanished completely into the realm of fiction. I’ve wandered up and down the Japanese countryside, from Sapporo to Fukuoka, and only once did I ever come across a place selling UCC Original. It was a small vending machine in the back of a train station in Hiroshima, and even then the can looked wrong.This was the most intense culture shock I experienced for my entire trip. All of 2D culture had been lying to me, and I felt shocked and betrayed. From watching Gainax shows, one might reasonably think that UCC was the Coca Cola of Japan, but all empirical evidence suggests that they sell more cans of UCC Original in the state of Massachusetts than they do in all of Japan. So why the elaborate ruse? Why spend all of this time and effort promoting and referencing a product that for all intents and purposes doesn’t exist? Well, the answer is simple.
It’s a conspiracy.
So, dear friend, don’t make the same mistakes I made. Don’t believe the lies! Fight back against the great UCC Inbou and don’t accept Boss or Pokka instead. Next time you’re in Family Mart or Lawson stand up and tell them “I want my UCC!”. But until then, let it be known amongst all gaijin otaku, if you plan on going to the other country and drinking UCC…you’re probably going to have to bring it with you.
Seiya is an anime fan from Boston, and is currently the reason that UCC’s export division is still in business; those looking for a fix can reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.