Ice Ice Baby... Kakigori Dessert Craze

Summer in Japan. The days and nights are super hot and humid. When mind over matter and chilly air conditioning is not enough -- do like the locals do and cool down with a classic Japanese frozen dessert, kakigori (かき氷). Essentially, this light summer concoction is shaved ice with flavored syrups and sometimes other add-ons, most commonly azuki red bean and condensed milk.

 Simple and refreshing, mango kakigori from an Onjuku beach house -- Photo by Lauren Shannon

Watch for the Signs

One of the most ubiquitous symbols of summertime, the blue, white and red "shaved ice" banners flutter in the slightest breeze and entice adults and kids alike to chill out with this sweet and refreshing seasonal favorite.

 Classic kakigori sign in Japan -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
The signs themselves are almost as beloved as the actual dessert. No matter the brand, shop or festival stall, the main symbol of Kakigori remains the same. This "dessert logo" can be seen on summer greeting cards and t-shirts, and a few years ago Nike even made a special sneaker supposedly inspired by the iconic shaved ice sign.

 Nike even made a special Kakigori inspired sneaker -- Photo from Ebay Seller Kicksaholic

Kakigori Then and Now

Kakigori has a long history. The dessert is mentioned in famous literature as far back as the 11th century. In the Heian period (794-1185) shaved ice was a luxury. Made from pure natural-formed ice collected in the winter time and kept in special ice houses, the dessert was only enjoyed by the nobility. Originally, the ice was shaved with a knife into chilled metal bowls and flavored with exotic plant and flower extracts.

Kakigori Ice Shaver -- Photo by Norio Nakayama at Airoplane
Finally, in 19th century Meiji-era Japan, Kakigori became more affordable, though still hard to come by as the ice was shipped from cold climates to Tokyo and other busy areas. In the 1930's with the invention of ice-making machines and mechanized ice shavers with hand cranks, the frozen dessert was available to even more people.

 Classic hidden gem, Himitsudo in Yanaka is a local favorite for kakigori -- Photo by Nathan Hosken

Staff at Himitsudo making shaved ice for long lines of fans -- Photo by Nathan Hosken
Today kakigori is easily the most common and popular summer snack for people of all ages in Japan. You will find kakigori served in restaurants, specialty shops, festival stalls and snack stands at shrines and temples, and served from counters in Japan's famous umi no ie (beach houses).

Colorful beach house counter selling shaved ice -- Photo by Lauren Shannon
In the last few years trendy upscale year-round specialty shops serving only kakigori are springing up in Tokyo and Osaka.

Yelo's first trendy Tokyo location from 2014 in Roppongi -- Photo by Lauren Shannon 

Cute cups and delicious variations at Ice Monster in Harajuku -- Photo from Ice Monster/Transit
Famous newcomers Ice Monster, originally from Korea, and Yelo are operating bright and modern kakigori shops in upscale and entertainment neighborhoods. These shops are innovating in all kinds of ways, unusual flavors and toppings, menu formats, and service styles. Yelo is expanding even more in 2016 and just opened a new spot in trendy Nakameguro, Tokyo. At these and other stylish kakigori cafes, you can try new innovative tastes and toppings, which are highly Instagram-able!

Shirokuma, a Famous Variation

If the simple style of Kakigori starts to get boring, why not try the famous Kagoshima variation, the White Bear, or "shirokuma".

Kagoshima-style shirokuma kakigori -- Photo by Norio Nakayama at Airoplane
Starting with a base of regular shaved ice, this parfait-hybrid includes colorful mochi (rice balls), condensed milk, frozen fruits and sweet red beans. The specific origins of this dessert are in dispute with several versions of the story put forward as fact. The most accepted story is that Mujyake, a coffee shop in Kagoshima City, started serving kakigori with red beans and fruit in a pattern that looked like a polar bear if seen from above -- and so the name "shirokuma" was born. You can still go to Mujyake today and try this iconic local dessert. These days you can also enjoy shirokuma almost everywhere in Kagoshima -- but also in restaurants and department stores in far-flung Tokyo. Packaged versions are even available in convenience stores across Japan.

Try It, You'll Like It

Kakigori by the seaside -- Photo by Lauren Shannon
Go old-school or new modern, simple or with loads of toppings -- but one thing is for sure: if you visit Japan in summer, trying Japanese shaved ice desserts should be on your "must-do" list! Keep a look out for the kakigori sign. Take a break from sightseeing, order up your favorite flavor and beat the heat with this age-old sweet summer refresher.

Finally, Bring Home a Japanese Summer Memory

 Unique souvenir: bring home your own kakigori machine -- Advertisement from WhiteRabbit
For a unique souvenir, you can even bring back your own kakigori machine, available at many shops during the summer season. To use, you will just need fruit or other flavored syrups sold in many grocery stores and, of course, ice. You can share a bowl of kakigori with your friends while you tell them all about your Japanese summer journey!

Tokyo has great spots to try kakigori -- check out my trip below, chillout and enjoy!

Lauren Shannon