Food & Drink

Kakigōri: Once a child’s treat, now a luxury dessert

by Erica Yokoyama and William Meerwarth

Contributing Writers

Tucked away on a quiet backstreet near Nippori Station, Himitsudo is famous for its traditional kakigōri (shaved ice).

Inside the shop, a crystal-clear block of ice from the mountains of Nikko, Tochigi Prefecture, is loaded into a hand-powered ice shaver. As the machine’s crank is turned, blades begin to spin around the block of ice. Fluffy pillows of snow-white flakes begin to fall into a waiting bowl, piling into a small mound. Before the ice has time to melt, a sweet, bright-red syrup is ladled over the top along with some condensed milk. This is how Himitsudo makes its most popular flavor of kakigōri, Himitsu no Ichigo Miruku (secret strawberry milk).

Koji Morinishi, a 48-year-old former kabuki actor and the owner of Himitsudo, has good reason for doing things by hand. “Motorized kakigōri and hand-shaved kakigōri are very different,” he says. “The speed and rotation frequency is not adjustable with a motorized machine. When we make it by hand, the taste changes depending on the person shaving the ice. This creates a story within the bowl, it keeps people from becoming bored.”

One of Morinishi’s goals is to create kakigōri that will surprise and delight his customers and hand-shaving the ice is what allows him to do so. He wants kakigōri to be recognized as a traditional part of Japanese food culture, on par with sushi.

Other shops put less focus on tradition and instead aim to create more modern variations of kakigōri. Omotesando Hills’ Adult Kakigōri Festival is running until Aug. 31 and includes 11 shops offering their unique takes on the dessert, creating dishes that show little resemblance to the kakigōri served at Himitsudo. Bar a Vin Partager, a casual French restaurant in Omotesando Hills uses a special machine called a Pacojet to create a cherry puree-infused ice that is then topped with a pink foam and finished with a jelly made of champagne and fresh berries.

Another shop taking part in the festival is Spatzle Cafe & Wine, who are serving a three-part kakigōri that consists of Black Forest gateau, roasted meringue and ice made from Scheurebe, a white wine produced in Germany. An elegant creation served on an iridescent gold plate, the final product is about as far as you can imagine from a traditional kakigōri.

Kuriya Kashi Kurogi, a shop that focuses on traditional Japanese wagashi (Japanese sweets) blends tradition with modernity. Located on the edge of University of Tokyo’s campus, inside a building designed by renowned architect Kengo Kuma, its most famous kakigōri is the Kuromitsu Kinako, which includes ingredients typically used in wagashi, such as adzuki beans and kinako (soy powder). Other ingredients include fresh cream and a concoction of soy sauce mixed with brown sugar syrup to form a salty-sweet topping. Within the cream is another surprise, big chunks of crunchy walnut that complement the nutty flavor of the soy powder.

Kakigōri is riding a wave of popularity across Japan and is evolving from a simple summer treat for children into a sophisticated dessert enjoyed by all. Its a transformation that is being capitalized on by all those involved in creating the dessert, from the “adult kakigōri” innovators at Omotesando Hills to the more traditional artisans such as Himitsudo’s Morinishi.

“I want to constantly increase the variety of kakigōri menu and surprise customers,” Morinishi says. “As I used to be in the pretty conservative world of kabuki, I want to look for innovative ideas. I hope to attract younger generations with sweets made in a traditional way.”