Kakigori topped with strawberry syrup and condensed milk (left); and served with matcha syrup, shiratama dango glutinous rice dumplings and sweetened azuki red beans.
Kakigori shaved ice is a cold, refreshing dessert most evocative of hot Japanese summers, but nowadays it is a year-round treat, enjoyed even in the chill of winter. Kakigori in Japan is traditionally made using a manual ice-shaving apparatus, but automatic machines are also used. Kakigori textures range from coarse to fluffy-soft, depending on the pressure of the blades—but arguably the most sought-after shaved ice is fine and feathery, served in a bowl or cup and topped with flavored syrups like strawberry, melon or lemon.
As far back as the eighth century, icehouses called himuro were used to store ice that was cut in the winter for use in summer; in fact, summer ice was so precious, it was presented to the emperor. An essay written some thousand years ago includes a description of sweet amazura syrup, made from Japanese ivy, poured over shaved ice. Ice was a rare commodity in Japan until the late nineteenth century, when ice-making technology became more widespread. Today shaved-ice desserts are not only a common sight at summer festival stalls, they are found in cafés, restaurants, convenience stores and in kakigori specialty shops.
Nowadays kakigori is a year-round treat
Two kinds of ice are used for kakigori: pure and natural. The former is made by freezing water artificially, while the latter is made by drawing high quality mountain or spring water into artificial ponds and allowing it to freeze naturally. Of the two types, natural ice melts more slowly because of its higher density, the result of being frozen slowly and naturally. Natural ice is transparent with a clean, pure taste.
There are several natural ice-makers in Japan today; some of the most famous kakigori specialty shops serve only natural ice. In such shops, in addition to serving shaved ice with traditional favorites like matcha syrup and sweetened azuki red beans or strawberry syrup with condensed milk, novel syrup flavors like tiramisu, coffee or tomato are also constantly introduced.
Other articles in this series
Explore food forum
The Japanese Table presents a variety of themes regarding traditional Japanese food culture. In each volume, a specific topic such as history, customs and food groups, is explored from several different angles.
Close-up Japan zooms in on current trends in food culture and popular food topics in Japan.
Japanese Style provides a brief introduction of Japanese food customs, etiquette and culinary techniques.
Tasty Travel takes you on delectable journeys. Each issue focuses on a specific regional dish.
Each volume introduces a total of eight attractive fusion-style and traditional recipes.
Special Report takes a look at people who are introducing Japanese cuisine around the world.