Summer in Japan is notoriously hot. For many days in a row, temperatures can reach over 30 degrees Celsius. To beat the heat, shaved ice with flavored syrups and toppings called kakigōri かき氷 is enjoyed by many people throughout the summer season.
Imagine a hot summer night. You and your friends get dressed up in your most colorful summer kimono (yukata) and go to the riverbank to watch the local fireworks festival. You can feel the humidity sticking to your arms and you want to eat something cold to refresh you. What could possibly be better than a bowl of sweet shaved ice?
Kakigōri has a very long history in Japan. It dates back as far as the eleventh century. In Heian Period Japan, large blocks of ice would be saved in winter and then shaved in summer to be served to nobility and aristocracy as a special seasonal treat.
Nowadays, it is most common to find shaved ice in tourist spots or at local festivals. However, there are still many shops around Japan that specialize in shaved ice, using it as a method of highlighting seasonal fruits in the height of their season or other local specialties like matcha.
Matcha flavored kakigōri is often topped with sweet red beans, sweetened condensed milk, and small dumplings made from rice flour called shiratama dango. This style of shaved ice feels very decadent. The simpler variety involves freshly shaved ice and a fruit flavored syrup. Popular flavors are strawberry, lemon, melon, and blue Hawaiian punch.
Some regions of Japan have even developed their own unique style of kakigōri. For example, on the southern tip of Kyushu, a style of kakigōri called Shirokuma (or “polar bear”) is famous in Kagoshima Prefecture. The shaved ice is topped with a variety of colorful fruits and drizzled with sweetened condensed milk. Two raisins are added for eyes, completing the face of the bear. Many people specifically include an outing to eat this dessert when they visit Kagoshima. The name of this variety of shaved ice is derived from the original brand of sweetened condensed milk used to make it. However, more recently the name has become closely associated with how people stylize the presentation of the shaved ice.
You can find a variety of flavors of kakigōri all over Japan. If you have a chance, please try to find your favorite flavor and introduce it to your friends!