As the temperatures climb and the air grows more humid, there is one sure-fire way to beat the summer heat in Tokyo: kakigori.
What is it? Japanese shaved ice, of course.
Before coming to Japan, my experiences with shaved ice consisted of technicolor sno cones sold at sports games when I was a kid in California, so I didn’t see what all the fuss was about. Little did I know that kakigori is a huge ー not to mention delicious ー category of Japanese summer treats. Come with me as I explore some of the best kakigori that Tokyo has to offer.
A Brief History of a National Treat
While kakigori is now a common sight, originally this dish was only enjoyed by the aristocracy. As early as the Heian period (794-1185), big blocks of ice were shaved using a knife and sweetened with syrup.
When ice became more widely available to the public, so did kakigori, with the first kakigori shops opening in the mid-19th century. Nowadays, it seems that kakigori can be found everywhere. All you have to do is look for banners with the Japanese character for ice (氷) and a picture of blue waves.
Traditionally, kakigori is made with frozen mineral water and shaved by July 25th is kakigori day! Because of this, it is sometimes called “angel snow,” as it resembles freshly-fallen snow.
Ways to Enjoy Kakigori
The most simple kakigori is the kind sold at summer festivals, a mound of ice in a paper cup and flavored with colorful, sweet syrups in flavors such as strawberry, cherry, melon, and “Hawaiian blue.” But at specialty shops, this simple confection can easily become elaborate, a mountain of fluffy ice piled with toppings. These toppings can range from traditional Japanese flavors such as matcha green tea and red adzuki beans to more exotic flavors like mango and avocado.
Some unique Japanese varieties of shaved ice include ujikintoki kakigori and shirokuma kakigori.
Ujikintoki originated from Kyoto, and is topped with matcha syrup, adzuki beans, and balls of soft mochi (rice cakes). It’s name is a combination of Uji, a town in Kyoto prefecture famous for green tea, and Sakata Kintoki, a folk hero famous for his red face.
Shirokuma is from Kagoshima, and includes condensed milk, fruit, and red bean paste. Shirokuma literally translates to “white bear,” and the name is thought to have come from the polar bear logo printed on cans of condensed milk.
Top Shaved Ice Spots in Tokyo
For an elegant treat with traditional Japanese flavors, try Kurogi, located in PARCO_ya in Ueno. They offer a few differ flavors that vary with the seasons, but it is the kinako kakigori that has put this place on the map.
Kinako is roasted soybean flour, which might not sound delicious, but it has a deep, nutty flavor that is reminiscent of peanut butter. Accompanying the kinako is azuki red bean, condensed milk, and a sweet soybean syrup, and these toppings have been layered throughout the dessert so that each mouthful contains some of these goodies, and the fluffy ice.
The cafe itself is quite classy and upscale; paper screens hide booths with moody low-light, classic jazz plays in the background, and the ceramics used are glazed in traditional designs. The prices are luxe to match, with the kinako kakigori priced at ¥1,800. However, the portions are huge and the quality of the ingredients is high, making this special treat worth every yen.
To get to Kurogi, take the Ginza line to Ueno-Hirokoji Station and walk three minutes to PARCO_ya.
In the hip neighborhood of Kichijoji is Kooriya Peace, an equally hip kakigori shop tucked on a small side street near the station. The interior, with it’s wooden counter and eight seats, might look humble. But this cafe is often packed, ever since it was featured in the 2017 Netflix show Kantaro: The Sweet-Tooth Salaryman.
Weekends can get particularly crowded, however the staff have devised a good system to manage the lines. Each day, a detailed reservation list is posted, and guests can put down their name for a time slot and come back later.
Kooriya Peace is a creative establishment, with a constantly changing menu as the staff come up with new seasonal pairings. Choose from among the Instax photos tacked on the board outside, and expect to pay ¥1,000 to ¥1,800 JPY ($9 to 16 USD) for flavors that range from simple to premium, such as the seasonal melon kakigori.
I visited on a particularly muggy day, and tried the recommended peach kakigori (¥1,400). It was light and refreshing, an enormous pile of ice shavings drizzled with a peach syrup and topped with fresh peach slices, with more syrup, fruit, and jelly hidden inside.
To get to Kooriya Peace, take the Keio Inokashira line to Kichijoji Station, and walk for about four minutes towards Inokashira Park.
For a unique take on shaved ice, head to Sebastian in Shibuya. This dessert shop has a quaint, European flair to it. And in addition to serving more traditional kakigori, the confection masters here have created kakigori that resembles shortcake and creme brulee! I wasn’t sure how this was possible, and ordered the strawberry creme brulee kakigori (¥1,400) to give it a try.
These desserts are composed a little differently, without the mountains of snow-like ice piled high in a shallow bowl. Instead, shaved ice is layered in a ramekin along with condensed milk and sliced strawberries, then sprinkled with a generous layer of sugar and evenly torched with a blowtorch.
The result is a dessert that looks just like creme brulee, even if it is mostly ice! I’ve never had real creme brulee with strawberries, but they complemented the dish perfectly, and gave a refreshing fruitiness that balanced out all the sugar quite well.
Sebastian is about a 12 minute walk from Shibuya Station, just south of Yoyogi Park.
Coming Soon: Kakigori Day
Hungry for kakigori yet? I’ve got good news for you: July 25th is kakigori day! Since the name of this date sounds like “summer ice” in Japanese, this unofficial holiday caught on.
So go on and choose one of our recommended spots, stay cool, and enjoy!
Author: Mo Stone