An Ode to Kakigori
Kakigori. It’s just shaved ice, right? The simplest thing ever? As with almost everything in Japan, there is a lot more to it than meets the eye.
The history of ice desserts, at least that we currently know of, goes back to the 1st Century AD. The Romans were sending slaves to fetch ice from the mountains to bring back to their villas and eating it with toppings such as honey and fruit. It is none other than the Emperor Nero, who reigned from 37- 68 AD, who is credited with inventing the delicacy. He may well have been munching on some to cool down while Rome burned in 64AD. (Yes, we know that there is a lot of doubt as to whether he watched the World’s Greatest Metropolis of the era burn. Some historians believe he actually organised relief efforts and initiated plans to contain the fire. In either case, none of the records talk about shaved ice!).
The first recorded… err… record… of kakigori in Japan is in Chapter 42 of the world-famous Pillow Book, Makura no Soshi. It was written by Sei Shonagon, who was one of the court ladies of Empress Consort Teishi, a royal consort of Emperor Ichijo. Begun in the 990s and completed in 1002, it is a collection of observations, ponderings, poems, lists and essays about Heian-era court life. In it, she describes a dessert made by scraping ice into a metal bowl and adding Kudzu, an arrowroot vine. Further records from the era indicate that the shaved ice was also topped with hydrangeas, ivy, honey and/or crushed plums.
Ice was a rare commodity back then. Blocks made in the winter were stored in a special facility known as a Himuro (氷室). A court official had the task of looking after the bounty. With such imperial oversight, Kakigori was to remain the domain of the rich for a long time.
Fast forward now to the Meiji Era. Ice was imported from North America, so called “Boston Ice”, but the six month trip added cost and a lack of impracticality to getting your kakigori fix.
It was only until Kahe Nakagawa, the renowned food merchant, started delivering ice from Hokkaido to Yokohama that kakigori started to get most accessible for the hoi polloi. This ‘Hakodate Ice’ transformed food refrigeration and transportation, but most importantly for this tale, it allowed the first kakigori shop – a hyosuiten (ice water store) – to open in Bashamichi in Yokohama in 1872. An ice-maker was invented in the middle of the Meiji period. An ice-shaving machine finally followed in the early Showa period, ending the hand-shaving era.
Kakigori even had their own dedicated receptacles, korikoppu (氷コップ). Made of glass, and featuring textured aburidashi patterns, these were commonly used before World War II.
Nowadays around Tokyo you will see a mix of electric ice shavers and more traditional hand-cranked machines. Regardless of how it ice is shaved, it will be topped with a syrup of your choice. There are also more involved variations, such as the Shirokuma, a polar bear (it literally translates as ‘white bear’). Originating from Kagoshima, the ice is topped with condensed milk, fruit, mochi, and the interior of the ice pile contains Azuki red bean paste.
So how does Kakigori differ from the US snowcone? Those conducting an international shaved ice crawl will notice that kakigori is more finely shaved, and the hand cranked machines give it a smoother consistency. It is eaten with a spoon, which adds a level of sophistication to proceedings.
Kakigori is a staple matsuri food, alongside yakisoba, takoyaki, yakitori, kyuri, and choco banana (!). You can go low-end, with many conbini selling a fix for ¥100, or you can go high-end. And the sky has become the limit as Tokyo’s restaurants, bars, dessert shops and specialist kakigori vendors – both permanent and pop-up – compete to come up with the hottest recipes of the season. Some shops change their menus almost daily. Whiskey, Nihonshu, tofu cream, tiramisu, watermelon mascarpone, strawberry pannacotta… even cheese. All can be found on top of the mountain of ice in The World’s Greatest Metropolis.
In a throwback to the aristocratic origins of the treat, some shops differentiate by sourcing their ice from exotic locations, with blocks shipped from Mount Fuji, or Nikko. Not all ice is created equal, or prepared equally. At true gourmet establishments, the ice is shaved to different thicknesses depending on the toppings used, to better support their weight, or enhance their flavours. And, ice straight out of the freezer is not shaved immediately. They allow it to warm up from its initial temperature of -18°C to -5°C, partly to help customers avoid brain freeze.
Queues at some shops have become ridiculous. Some only open for three hours a day. Some require checking of their Twitter feed to check that day’s opening hours. Getting your kakigori fix can be quite an ordeal… the sort of ordeal which really makes you crave a kakigori. How meta!
Don’t worry, Maction Planet can help! Kakigori is an essential experience on our summer Tokyo Food Tours, and with some shops starting to sell it year round, those guests not here during the summer need not miss out. If you are a guest on one of our Tokyo Hiking Tours, you can enjoy one of our very favourite kakigori, simple but extremely effective after a few hours of hiking – the mega shaved iced!
Wherever you are wandering, look for the flags marked ‘氷’. It’s your gateway to refreshment, in Tokyo, and beyond.
Maction Planet runs Tokyo Food Tours, where kakigori forms part of the delicious itinerary. We guarantee that no other tour groups are going to the unique, local areas we are exploring. We are redefining the “off-the-beaten-track” experience in The World’s Greatest Metropolis. Join us! Email firstname.lastname@example.org to arrange yours!