Ice-cream businesses fight the winter chill

by Angela Erika Kubo

Special To The Japan Times

With temperatures this year that peaked in the mid-30s, made only worse by Tokyo’s hair plastering humidity, there were two major topics that were featured prominently on television: how hot it was and what could be done to beat the heat. Cameras showed long lines of people wearing sandals and cooling themselves down with paper fans as they waited to get their hands on cold treats. In particular, kakigōri — large bowls full of paper-thin slivers of ice with sticky syrup and fresh fruit, the perfect antidote for the summer heat — were a big hit this year.

But as the large parasols and short-sleeved blouses left the streets, so did the long television features on Tokyo’s trendiest ice cream or gelato shops.

Although these shops have disappeared from people’s minds — at least until next year’s unbearably hot summer — they still remain, struggling to find creative ways to bring in at least a fraction of the numbers they saw this summer while consumers forego cold treats in favor of something that will chase away the chill.

“The number of customers we have goes down. In January and February we have one-third of the customers we have in August,” says Yosuke Nakai of Gelateria Sincerita in Asagaya.

Other cold-dessert shops are also feeling the pinch. Gelateria la Napoli in Kojimachi and kakigōri specialty shop Café Papins on the fringes of Daikanyama, both popular air-conditioned refuges this summer, are completely deserted on a cold December’s day.

Despite the slow traffic, many shops that offer cold sweets try to remain proactive by thinking of ways to lure a crowd. One way to tempt customers to stop by is to offer a limited-edition flavor reflective of the winter and autumn seasons. Café Papins has four new flavors that can only be enjoyed in these cold winter months, such as shaved ice drizzled with hot kabocha squash sauce, adzuki beans and caramel — all homemade — with a scoop of vanilla Häagen-Dazs on the side. Other autumn variations that you can find — and enjoy while you listen to the K-pop music playing in the background and ogle the cute Korean boys working at the counter — are persimmon, sweet potato and mandarin orange.

Other shops try to appeal to customers by offering a completely different item. For example, last month Gelateria la Napoli began serving warm, fluffy pancakes that come with a small bowl of soft serve. The pancakes come in two flavors, berry and buttermilk, and the soft serve is as smooth and creamy as the shop’s gelato. For an extra ¥150, you can also get a cup of coffee. As a way to warm up customers who were brave enough to dare a large scoop of gelato, the shop offers free hot tea.

Himitsudo in Nippori takes a completely different approach to attract hungry customers. In addition to its usual kakigōri, it offers a special winter menu from November to April that includes cream stew that is simmered on the stove for at least two hours, gratin that will be served in the store from January and French toast on weekdays. You can finish off your meal and shaved ice with a glass of hot wine.

At Mario Gelateria in Ginza, you can warm up with a cup of hot chocolate, ginger milk tea or consommé soup before you order a scoop of ice cream.

Despite the lull in customer numbers, businesses such as Gelateria Sincerita attempt to look at the bright side.

“During the cold months, we have more time compared with summer, so we’re able to make time-consuming gelato flavors,” says Nakai.

December flavors at Gelateria Sincerita include Hayadzumi Ichigo (early-harvested strawberry from Izawa Strawberry Farm), Unshu Mikan (organic mandarin from Chosei Orange Orchard) and tiramisu. The shop also uses the extra time to bake sweets and homemade bread.

Even if it’s cold out, ice cream can still be an enjoyable treat, insists Nazumi Vommaro Kubota, manager at Gelateria il Brigante in Kamakura. Although the tiny gelato shop doesn’t offer any autumn or winter specials, Vommaro Kubota believes that there is no wrong time of year to eat ice cream.

“Our regular customers always keep coming back for the good quality of our gelato,” she says. “In particular, they can savor the gelato without worrying about it melting.”

Gelateria Sincerita: 03-5364-9430; www.sincerita.jp Gelateria la Napoli: 03-3357-3160; www.napoli.jp Café Papins: 03-3464-3870; www.facebook.com/papins.daikanyama Himitsudo: 03-3824-4132; www.himitsudo.com Mario Gelateria: 03-3562-2381; www.mariogelateria.com Gelateria il Brigante: 0467-55-5085; www.ilbrigantejapan.co.jp

Some like it hot

Even big ice-cream companies need to be innovative to maintain sales during the cold months. This winter a new seasonal flavor joined the Garigari-kun popsicle lineup, creating just as much buzz as its popular corn potage flavor. The new cream stew bar includes chunks of sugar-infused potato; it can be eaten cold, but heated up with a dash of pepper it becomes an actual bowl of stew — albeit one that tastes as if someone went a little too far with the sugar.