December 2, 2022
TOKYO – Winter may be coming, but the number of stores specializing in kakigori shaved ice has continued to increase.
Shaved ice evokes an image of summer, but more businesses are offering it throughout the year with distinctive toppings made of fruit, salted caramel and other ingredients. Some shops offer seasonal flavors for autumn and winter, bringing customers back again and again. The popularity of shaved ice has also grown among young people eager to capture photogenic images for social media.
Yuki Usagi, a shaved ice specialty shop in Setagaya Ward, Tokyo, has remained open all year since opening its doors in 2014.
“It doesn’t give me a headache, and I can enjoy it like other sweets regardless of the season, not just summer,” said a 25-year-old stylist who lives in the ward.
“Pure ice” used at the shop is made after impurities such as chlorine have been removed from the water and frozen slowly at a factory for at least two days. Its ice crystals are firm and do not thaw easily, so it is easy to shave into thin slices. As thin slices of the ice melt quickly on the tongue, they are less likely to cause the so-called “ice cream headache,” which occurs when a cold sensation irritates the back of the throat.
During wintertime, the shop prepares warm tea, lap blankets and heat packs for customers.
“Our shop used to serve mainly local residents, but recently we’ve seen customers, especially young women, come from far away,” an employee of the shop said.
Power shortage triggers boom
When commercial shaved ice machines went on sale in Japan around 1950, cafes and sweet shops began adding shaved ice to their menus. At that time, the standard shaved ice was called “frappe” and had a rough texture created by shaving ice cubes made instore. It was usually offered as a summer-only menu item.
According to the Tokyo-based Japan Kakigoori Association, a power shortage in the summer of 2011 caused by the Great East Japan Earthquake in March of that year drew people’s attention to shaved ice as a way to feel cool while saving electricity. Furthermore, when Taiwan’s version of shaved ice topped with mango, tapioca and other ingredients was introduced to Japan, its distinctive appearance caused a boom among young people posting photos on social media.
In response to this wave of popularity, shops specializing in shaved ice opened one after another across the nation. More and more varieties of shaved ice appeared with the use of thick fruit sauces made from whole fruits and techniques such as espuma, in which ingredients are processed into a foamy consistency. As ingredients became more lavish, prices also rose, and it is not unusual now for some to cost nearly ¥2,000.
According to an estimate by the association, there were about 200 shaved ice specialty stores nationwide in 2019 before the coronavirus pandemic, but the figure has now doubled to about 400.
“The pace of new store openings in urban areas has slowed, but the trend has continued in rural areas,” said Ryusuke Koike, 50, the representative of the association’s board of members. “We expect the number to continue to rise for the time being.”
Seasonal features key
The boom has continued for years partly due to competition among shops to develop new varieties to keep attracting customers. Items used include a whole melon, Japanese-style shiratama mochi, and syrups flavored by black tea and roasted green tea.
“There is a wide range of ingredients in both Japanese and Western style flavors, and the flavors change greatly depending on spices and herbs used,” said Alice Saito, a 34-year-old fashion model who likes visiting shaved ice shops.
Sekka, another specialty shop in Toshima Ward, Tokyo, focuses on offering seasonal menu items using ingredients from each of the four seasons. In autumn, two types of syrup made from chestnut and its astringent peel are used, while in winter, shaved ice with rich flavors using cheese and zunda mashed green soybeans are offered.
“A sense of seasonality is becoming more important for shaved ice,” said Yuki Honda, the 39-year-old manager of the shop.
Tomoko Ogura, a food consultant, said: “Shaved ice has established its position as a slightly luxurious sweet. It has evolved into a year-round menu item that is not limited to summer.”