Japan's traditional summer treat, kakigori (shaved ice with syrup), has been making a strong comeback over the last few years: specialist shops have been popping up all over town, regularly attracting queues that border on the ridiculous. The trend shows absolutely no signs of slowing down in 2017 – on the contrary, several new openings have been met with massive hype, including Taiwanese newcomers MeetFresh who landed up in Akabane in spring. As kakigori is also becoming a year-round treat – though we're still having trouble wrapping our heads around why anyone would choose to pay for ice in winter – this guide points the way to Tokyo's very best shaved ice shops, many of them open throughout the four seasons.
Tokyo’s ice champions
Opened in 2015 near Rikkyo University in Ikebukuro, Hachiku quickly became an obligatory stop on the Tokyo kakigori trail. Their signature shaved ice is made with natural ice shipped from Nikko and topped with a selection of seasonal fruit. Try out the crisp Sumomo Milk, a subtly sour mixture of Japanese plum and sweet condensed milk, but remember to check their Twitter feed for the day's hours before heading over. Hachiku's popularity has brought with it a ticket system that effectively prevents queues but also means you might have to wait hours before actually getting a seat.
The Kagoshima-born Shirokuma has to be one of Japan's best-known kakigori varieties – it's sold at convenience stores across the country in bar form. Getting the real thing without making a trip to Kyushu can be a challenge though, so we're grateful to the Ichiniisan restaurant, found inside the Kagoshima 'antenna shop' in Yurakucho, for bringing the 'white bear' to Tokyo. Get ready for an impressive mountain of milky ice, topped with ample oranges, pineapple and cherries, plus three kinds of sweet beans. If the regular size looks a little challenging, try going for the miniature version, known as Koguma ('small bear').
When just any old shaved ice won't do, make way for this eight-seat, counter-only Kichijoji café where the menu changes almost daily. Seasonal offerings are legion, while the regular varieties range from orthodox milk and strawberries to quirky creations like sake kakigori and kakigori combined with fruit jelly. If decision-making isn't your forte, go for the Peace Triple Recommendation, a combo of three cups filled with the day's flavours. The Ajisai Strawberry Jelly and Rare Cheese (pictured, ¥1,200) is a limited-edition treat, so you'll have to hurry up if you want to get a taste of this rainy season-only creation.
Kagawa-style sanuki udon and shaved ice desserts make for an excellent match at this homely Iidabashi joint. The kakigori is of the style pioneered by Shimokita favourite Chaen Oyama, but that's not to say you're forced to order a tea-flavoured mountain of ice – our choice was the excellent Citrus Milk variety (¥800), flavoured with oranges, red and white grapefruit and lemon in puré, jam, peel and cream forms. The full sizes are rather voluminous, so you might want to consider downgrading to a mini size (¥150 discount), especially if you're also having a bowl of noodles.
You'll really have to time your visit right at this kakigori counter, housed inside Sasazuka restaurant Per La Vita: they only serve the good stuff for three and a half hours every day. Making the trip is still worth it, as Sciroppo is probably the only place in the city offering shaved ice versions of treats like tiramisu and strawberry pannacotta, made with natural ice from Mount Fuji. Other flavours include blood orange, caffè latte, pistachio, caprese and balsamico cherry (pictured).
Operated by Yushima kappo restaurant Kurogi, this eponymous wagashi specialist is hidden away on Tokyo University's Hongo campus. The uber-stylish interior matches nicely with the sparse but innovative kakigori selection, which combines playfulness and finesse in seasonal creations like the Hachimitsu-Yakko (¥1,700, ¥2,500 with coffee). This marriage of tofu cream, honey and honey-flavoured ume plums is a masterpiece in itself, but paired with a cup of Sarutahiko coffee, it reaches almost divine heights. Alternatively, you could go for the regular Kuromitsu Kinako (black sugar and soy bean flour) kakigori (pictured).
Originally a summer-only dessert at the soba shop upstairs, the kakigori at this Sakura-Shinmachi joint proved so popular that the owners decided to rent an extra space just for the purpose of serving deluxe shaved ice. Their innovative flavour combinations include the popular Salt Caramel Granola and the mighty Watermelon, but first-timers will want to try the curious Summer Pumpkin Caramel, a sweet and voluminous creation perfect for big eaters. The space turns into a seafood izakaya at night, but kakigori stays on the menu throughout.
Combine your ice with a brew at this fun watering hole that serves up domestic craft beer from top breweries like Fujizakura Heights, Kisoji and Ise Kadoya. Some visitors seem to seek out the place exclusively in search of the excellent kakigori, made with natural ice and topped with a well-balanced, lightly sweet fruit mixture. Do note, however, that the bar requires one order before the dessert becomes available.
This taiyaki speciality shop offers a shaved ice treat called Asayake, which depicts the sunrise atop Mt Fuji. The sweet and sour syrup is made from fresh strawberries, unsweetened milk and homemade sweet bean paste, which is cooked for eight hours for the taiyaki. These three ingredients create a wonderful balance of flavours when combined with the soft ice. The Kinako kakigori, which combines kinako (roasted soybean flour) and brown sugar syrup, is also very popular.
Shaved ice meets cream cake at this restaurant that’s created their very own version of kakigori, which they call ‘dolce shaved ice’. Watching the owner expertly assemble his original Mango Shortcake kakigori is fascinating – layers of ice, mango syrup, whipped cream and mango pieces come together to form what looks exactly like a real cake. Best thing is that you can have your cake and eat it without worrying too much about the calorie count – it’s just ice inside!
It isn't the easiest place to find, but those passing through the area between Shinagawa and Oimachi will do well do opt for a tea and kakigori break at this traditional kissaten-style sweets shop, named after the impressive ginkgo tree outside. Choose freely from a wide variety of toppings and styles, including cake and pie formats, or go straight for the orthodox Uji Shiratama mixture, made with green tea- and milk-flavoured ice plus a hearty helping of anko bean paste and fresh shiratama rice dumplings. The wa is strong with this one.
This Setagaya shop charms with natural ice sourced from Tochigi's Nikko and flavours that veer toward the traditional: think anko-flavoured choices and basics like strawberry and other fruity mixes. We, however, like the Rich Yam and Milk Sauce kakigori, a light and refreshing option topped with a sweet purple yam sauce. Trust us – it tastes way better than it looks.
Minatoya, a takoyaki shop along one of Sasazuka's shopping arcades, sells Amazake Shaved Ice, a nutrient-rich kakigori (it has been called 'the drinkable IV') with syrup made from fermented rice – it's naturally sweet, which means no sugar is added – and ginger slices on top. If you order any of their kakigori with fruit or vegetable-based toppings, you'll be pleased to know that all ingredients are blended up fresh as you order.
This traditional sweet maker, not far from Mejiro Station, is one of Tokyo's most enduringly popular spots for kakigori – and deservedly so: doused in syrup laden with real fruit (an all-too-rare sight), their strawberry treats look good and taste even better. Extra milk can be added for ¥108, while the standard ice can be swapped for natural ice from Yatsugatake for another 108. However, said option is popular enough for the finer freeze to run out long before closing time on most days.
Found up in Jujo, Darumaya is a classic Japanese sweets shop that just happens to also serve brilliant kakigori. Their signature dessert is Ujikintoki, made with matcha that's whisked up fresh for every order. Its subtle bitterness is offset by a topping of sweet azuki bean paste. The natural ice here comes from Nikko's Shogetsu Himuro, one of the country's most celebrated purveyors.
Anyone who thinks that traditional Japanese sweet shops are a dying breed should pay a visit to this charming Yanaka eatery. Himitsudo specialises in kakigori, prepared with a traditional handle-operated machine and served with one of 132 ‘secret’ seasonal toppings (the selection changes daily). Even diehard fans might be surprised by some of the concoctions on offer here – pumpkin cream and mango-yogurt are just two of the unorthodox toppings we've come across – but nobody can deny the power of their signature strawberry kakigori, a concoction more like ice cream than just ice. Be warned that the shop is extremely popular and often sells out early.
Better known for its fruit parfaits, Asakusa's Goto also offers kakigori year-round. Their top seller has always been the Suika (watermelon), an extremely simple dessert topped with watermelon syrup and large fruit pieces. Showing off the freshness of the ingredients, are we now?
Found on the corner of a residential street about five minutes from the south exit of Nishi-Ogikubo Station, the wonderfully old-school Amaikko peddles simple, traditional kakigori topped with a combination of the new (strawberries) and the old (shiratama rice cakes and anko bean paste). If you're only planning on visiting once, go straight for the most expensive item on the menu: the Strawberry Milk Kintoki Shiratama (¥1,080), served with charmingly rough anko, sweet strawberry syrup and a splash of condensed milk. Unlike at some of the city's trendier kakigori shops, the bowls here are wide enough to accommodate the ice even after it's started melting.
The name – literally ‘ice factory’ – tells you everything you need to know about this retro shop, in a residential area about five minutes' walk from Sangenjaya. Kori Kobo Ishibashi serves nothing but kakigori, with toppings ranging from strawberry syrup to milk tea. The small tables and chairs give it the feel of eating at a festival stall, while the antique ice machine and vintage refrigerator lend the place an undeniable old-school charm.
The new kid on the block
You may have spotted them in other cities in the Asia-Pacific area, as Taiwanese sweets purveyors MeetFresh have a whopping 500-plus outlets around the region. They finally made it over to Japan in April 2017, landing in Akabane – of all places – to serve additive-free and handmade traditional sweets. Our favourite is the Imo-en, which is kakigori topped with a mix of sweet potato dumplings, taro, azuki and tapioca covered in black sugar syrup. Small eaters may want to consider getting the Japan-only M size, which is significantly smaller than the usual serving.