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Kakigōri (shaved ice) has come a long way from its aristocratic origins. Once the sole preserve of the Heian nobility, it trickled down to the masses in the late 1800s with the advent of industrialization. Today, no summer festival is complete without refreshing cups of shaved ice liberally doused with lurid-colored syrups.

Contemporary kakigōri is an art form in its own right, one of the most accessible, affordable summer extravagances. But not all kakigōri are created equal. Is the ice pure and delicious unadorned? How fine and fluffy are the ice crystals? Does it keep its shape as you dig in, or collapse at the slightest touch from a spoon? Is the ice tightly packed, or kept loose and airy? Is the ratio of flavoring to ice generous enough without compromising structural integrity?

The shops below represent some of the best kakigōri specialists in Tokyo. With these shops there’s no need to limit yourself to summer, they are worth braving the elements all year round.

Mamatoko

The title “Kakigōri Queen” is not given lightly, and Mamatoko owner Asako Harada’s shaved ice is testament to the gravitas of her moniker. Finished with dramatic, painterly flourishes of ice flakes, her distinctive creations resemble craggy mountains of freshly fallen snow, generous striations of creams and syrups lurking within.

Lush, boozy sake lees cream is a year-round favorite, especially when paired with shoyu — an unbeatable sweet-salty combination — or amazake. The unorthodox flavors on the seasonal menu promise delight: peanut milk and passionfruit? Persimmon-yuzu and miso cream? Sakura honey? A recent example from the daily “secret” menu available on Instagram was American cherry and garari (Amami Oshima plums), each mouthful of sweet-tart ice a lightning bolt zipping down your throat.

Don’t expect fawning customer service at this tiny, two-staff shop; first-timers would do well to review the shop rules before visiting. In short: One person, one kakigōri order, and it’s best to come in groups of fewer than three.

Yayoicho 3-7-9, Nakano-ku 164-0013; takeout not available

The milk-cocoa kakigōri at Momijiya is an adult treat with a nostalgic vibe. The whipped cream is an extra add-on, but don’t skip it. | ALEX FISHER
The milk-cocoa kakigōri at Momijiya is an adult treat with a nostalgic vibe. The whipped cream is an extra add-on, but don’t skip it. | ALEX FISHER

Momijiya

Who would trek out to Adachi Ward on a summer afternoon, braving mosquitoes for an hour or two under scorching sun? Kakigōri aficionados, who know the shaved ice at Momijiya is worth the sweat and sunburn. There are few better remedies for the heat than its seasonal pineapple and yogurt kakigōri, a vibrant, sunlit mound of ice and fruit that’ll have you dreaming of Okinawan beaches for days after.

Non-fruitarians, consider the milk-cocoa kakigōri. Topped with a dusting of bitter cocoa, you should opt for the added lush dollop of whipped cream — it costs extra but is integral, so don’t skip it. It’s delicious and oddly nostalgia-inducing, a childhood sweet reimagined as an icy adult dessert.

Umeda 3-19-15, Adachi-ku 123-0851; 080-5543-0273; takeout not available; momijiya.tokyo

Kuriya Otona Kurog’s adzuki bean paste-studded kinako kuromitsu (roasted soy flour and black sugar syrup) kakigōri is a sure winner. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Kuriya Otona Kurogi’s adzuki bean paste-studded kinako kuromitsu (roasted soy flour and black sugar syrup) kakigōri is a sure winner. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Kuriya Otona Kurogi

Kakigōri at the Ueno outpost of the Hongo-based traditional sweets maker Kuriya Kashiya Kurogi is for those with a boundless appetite for ice. Even by contemporary kakigōri standards, Kuriya Otona Kurogi’s beautifully sculpted ices overwhelm with their sheer size — pyramids of granular, velvety ice that conceal seams of cream and other fillings.

Each creation begins with a single fruit or vegetable, transformed into multiple components as though building upon a theme. A past summer special, for example, was a kabocha pumpkin symphony: white bean paste and simmered kabocha inside kabocha-infused milk-drenched ice, blanketed with cream cheese and kabocha sauces and then topped with kabocha seeds and fried kabocha.

From its regular menu, the adzuki bean paste-studded kinako kuromitsu (roasted soy flour and black sugar syrup) kakigōri is a sure winner — the voluptuous, almost caramel-like kinako cream will make an instant fan of anyone.

Parco_ya 1F, Ueno 3-24-6, Taito-ku 110-0005; 03-6284-2796; takeout available; bit.ly/otonakurogi-ig

Zingy citrus-milk kakigōri from Neiroya in Ogikubo. | ALEX FISHER
Zingy citrus-milk kakigōri from Neiroya in Ogikubo. | ALEX FISHER

Neiroya

Piping-hot soup chased by spoons of sweet ice — ramen and kakigōri are unlikely bedfellows, but this Ogikubo shop serves up delicious renditions of both dishes. Flavor-wise, nothing is especially adventurous, but simplicity works in Neiroya’s favor. Whether it’s sumomo (Nagano plums), zingy lemon and milk, or ripe peaches, every bowl of kakigōri is a joy to eat. Check the shop’s Twitter, @neiroya, for updates to its seasonal menu.

The pistachio and strawberry kakigōri — available on the regular menu — is one of the most intensely flavored renditions I’ve ever had. Pistachio lovers need seek no other version after this.

Amanuma 3-6-24, Suginami-ku 167-0032; 03-6915-1314; ramen takeout available; bit.ly/neiroya-tw

Yukiusagi makes this Top 5 list on the sheer strength of its luscious, flavorful mango kakigōri. | ALEX FISHER
Yukiusagi makes this Top 5 list on the sheer strength of its luscious, flavorful mango kakigōri. | ALEX FISHER

Yukiusagi

Most of Yukiusagi’s kakigōri are prettily made, but more insipid than advertised and, as a consequence, less memorable. The strawberry is more sugar than fruit, the salted caramel granola sadly lacking in punch after the initial cap of rich cream sauce and granola is gone.

Yukiusagi makes this list on the sheer strength of its exceptional mango kakigōri, which does exactly what it says on the tin and then some: a shapely heap of ice layered with fresh mango sauce, mango chunks at the bottom, a lavish blanket of chunky mango puree, and a jug of yogurt to pour atop. It is singularly unphotogenic, but you’ll be too busy in icy tropical dreamland to even care.

Komazawa 3-18-2, Setagaya-ku 154-0012; 03-3410-7007; takeout not available; bit.ly/yukiusagi-tw

Minatoya’s summer-exclusive akaniku melon kakigōri tastes like fruit straight from the vine. | FLORENTYNA LEOW
Minatoya’s summer-exclusive akaniku melon kakigōri tastes like fruit straight from the vine. | FLORENTYNA LEOW

Honorable mentions

Despite its name, Haimuru Coffee in Koyama is not a caffeine stop — this tiny shop dishes out ramen and stellar kakigōri, the latter often featuring a well-loved signature “sparkling espuma” foam. The aptly named Peach Fest (momo-matsuri) tastes like a fruity frozen champagne cocktail. While other delicious kakigōri abound, this cloud-like summer sweet tops the chart for delightful, fun-to-eat desserts.

A favorite with kakigōri cognoscenti, Sebastian in Tomigaya sees queues a-plenty for its striking, voluminous creations. Though the execution doesn’t always live up to the promise of the intriguing flavor combinations (like pistachio and cherry), go for its brulee kakigōri of the day, a freshly blowtorched, crackling caramel crust on fine, fluffy ice.

One of traditional Mejiro sweet-maker Shimura Confectionery’s most popular (and photogenic) creations is its strawberry kakigōri, a dramatic blood-red waterfall of syrup cascading down a sheer ice cliff into a pool of strawberry chunks. Like most of its ices, it suffers from a one-note sweetness and lack of complexity; still, it’s a refreshing introduction to the art of shaved ice. Reservations are highly recommended to beat the queues.

Located along a shopping arcade in Sasazuka, the tiny blink-and-you’ll-miss-it takoyaki shop Minatoya turns out modestly sized ice mounds drenched in homemade milk and fresh fruit syrups. Flavors tend toward the mild — the pistachio-milk is more milk than nut, for instance — but the highly slurpable summer-exclusive melon akaniku embodies the less-is-more approach, tasting like ripe fruit frozen straight from the vine. It’s not worth queuing for, but it’s good for a cooling pitstop if you’re in the area.

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