Summers in Japan are brutal: 100-degree heatwaves coupled with 99 percent humidity. Luckily, kakigori or delicate shaved ice topped with fruit purees, espuma foam and other delights offers a reprieve, if only for a few melting moments. The Japan Kakigori Association designates July 25 as Kakigori Day because 7-2-5, which can creatively be pronounced as "na-tsu-go," sounds like "natsu-gori" or summer ice, so there isn't a better day to enjoy this frozen treat.
The humble rainbow cone we grew up eating in Hawaii, although good, is a distant cousin to what you'll find on a trendy rise in Japan. Tiny cafes have popped up with menus that change frequently to feature seasonal fruit and other specialties. Lines form all day, some shops require reservations and others distribute tickets in advance of opening. A hashtag search of #kakigori or #かき氷 on Instagram will return tens of thousands of posts, many from bloggers and ethusiasts who eat hundreds of kakigori a year.
I set out to discover the art of kakigori in Osaka, Kyoto and Nara and fell in love with the craft and care that go into these mountains of snow painstakingly layered with toppings and textures. I risked missing my flight home to eat kakigori at a popular cafe in Osaka (I waited two hours in line) and am considering buying my own kakigori machine (it's about $100 and comes from Japan). It's easy to say I'm obsessed, but you wouldn't understand unless you've had one yourself.
Here's a snapshot of icy heaven in Kansai, with an additional famed shop in Tokyo and thankfully, one right here in Waikiki.
Cafe Twelve (カフェトゥエルブ)
Tucked away in a twisty nest of a neighborhood, a five-minute walk from Fukushima Station (one stop west of Osaka Station), Cafe Twelve is a small coffee shop known equally for its unbaked cheesecakes and kakigori desserts. To say it has a rustic charm would be a severe understatement. There are hanging plants, chalkboard menus and murals of kakigori to weathered acacia wooden dishware. The owner will converse with you easily in English or Japanese as he lovingly prepares your shave ice. My choice is rum raisin with rare (unbaked) cheese topping (¥1200 or $10.75). The classic Italian pairing is boozy with notes of molasses, plum and spice which bring out the tang of the cheese topping. Marinated raisins are layered between the light-as-fallen-snow ice as well as placed carefully on its crown. Other flavors include a seasonal mango rare cheese, sea salt caramel pumpkin, tiramisu and sweet potato.
2 Chome-3-１２ Fukushima, Fukushima-ku, Ōsaka-shi, Ōsaka-fu 553-0003 ● @cube.cafetwelve
Perhaps the most elusive of all the kakigori shops I visit, Cocoo Cafe is worth the effort. Having spent my last afternoon getting lost around Osaka, I make it to the cafe an hour after I expected and am greeted with a line about seven people deep. No worries, this should move by quickly – it shouldn't take long to eat kakigori, right? Two hours later and 30 minutes after I was supposed to catch a train to the airport, I finally nab a seat overlooking the trees of Utsubo Park. Knowing that the owner closes shop on any whim and that Cocoo Cafe draws lines even on cold and rainy days, I am prepared to sacrifice a safe arrival time before my flight for a shot at the raspberry milk kakigori (¥600 or $5.25). It turns out to be a good gamble: The fruit puree bursts with tart raspberry flavor, its crunchy pulp texture confirming I am eating something with real fruit. Japanese condensed milk laced over top tames the tartness with a mellow sweetness. With each bite I sink deeper into my seat. The shop is most famous for its brulee-topped kakigori. Owner Motoki Ueda will torch the whipped top of your kakigori before your eyes.
I seriously contemplate staying the rest of the evening and missing my flight. In the end I order and eat my kakigori in under 10 minutes and catch a cab back to Namba station to make my flight.
2 Chome−2−23 4th floor, Utsubohonmachi, Nishi-ku, Osaka-shi, Osaka-fu, 550-0004 ● @cocoocafe
Shimizu Ippoen Tea Salon
I take a day trip to Kyoto and hike up to Kiyomizudera with the goal of visiting Shimizu Ippoen, a tea supplier with a matcha salon, for their ethereal green-capped mountains of snow. The quality of the water in Kyoto is the key to why this kakigori is next-level good. The shave, achieved by an extremely sharp blade, creates sheets of ice that melt in your mouth instantly. The delicate, airy texture reveals the ice has been barely handled; it lets the slightly bitter matcha foam float on top. On the side, shiratama mochi balls, sweet azuki and condensed milk suggest that you create your own luxurious Uji kintoki (green tea shaved ice). I devour it all with a pot of oolong tea and set out to continue exploring with a bit more pip in my step – doesn't the sight of this just make you happy?
House Kibaco (Kakigori ほうせき箱)
Deer and temples are not the only attractions in Nara. House Kibaco, an eight-minute walk from Kintetsu Nara Station (direct service to Osaka Nipponbashi), is another artisanal kakigori shop with a cult following. In its new location near the center of the city in a shopping arcade, the marble-and-glass facade leads you to believe this isn't an ordinary shave ice shop. You'd be right. There are so many moth orchids out front, I mistake it for a flower shop and walk right past. House Kibaco is so popular it has a system of distributing tickets from 8:30 a.m. – gambatte snagging one because they often "sell out" hours before the shop opens at 11 a.m. It turns out the shop's owner, Hirai-san, has been a catalyst for Nara becoming a kakigori haven. People from across Japan line up for bowls of the stuff at a days-long kakigori festival in February.
The unusually blue butterfly pea and citrus kakigori catches my attention, I spring for the limited seasonal flavor, kiwi and bitter citrus kakigori topped with yogurt espuma foam (¥1200 or $10.75). The ice that's delivered daily in transparent cubes has been frozen for 72 hours. The result is an incredibly fine dusting of fresh snow. Sitting at the counter affords you a front-row view of the ice artists in action and a pleasant Japanglish conversation. They are surprised I came from Hawaii to eat shave ice in 40 degree weather. I tell them I might not leave, a half-lie I contemplate making come true.
〒630-8222 Nara-ken, Nara-shi, Mochiidonochō, 餅飯殿町４７ ● @housekibaco
I have two days in Tokyo, I have been binge-watching Netflix's "Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman" and there is no way I am not eating the icy creation that sent Kantaro into cross-eyed reverie. It's easy to miss Kooriya Peace, the eight-seat shave ice counter he visited in Kichijoji, because it's in the middle of a building. At 2:30 in the afternoon there are only two people in line, but one look at the clipboard next to the door shows why: The reservation sheet is nearly full. I'm trying to figure out how to add my name when an employee appears and pencils me in at 2:50. Score!
The new flavor of the season is passionfruit with kiwi-cucumber. It's new as of today, which is why I order it, though a customer who has eaten every single shave ice on the menu recommends the pumpkin and black sesame combo with bulging eyes and vigorous nods. A man at the shave ice machine uses feathery motions to craft orbs as big as a child's head, adding in periodic layers of cream cheese shave ice. My creation is loaded with fresh lilikoi pulp and seeds on one side and tart-sweet kiwi with a cucumber finish on the other. Underneath the fruity, cheesy ice are melty lobes of fresh grape jellies. Improbably, the massive orb disappears under my spoon and I seriously consider ordering the pumpkin-black sesame. In the end I don't. I have a plane to catch. I still regret that decision. ー Mari Taketa
〒180-0003 Tokyo, Musashino, Kichijoji Minamicho, 1 Chome−9−9 吉祥寺じぞうビル
Nana's Green Tea in Waikiki Yokocho
You thought I was gonna lead you down a rabbit hole of unattainable shops, right? Come, on I can't do you like that! You made it this far so I'll reward you with intel on something you can have right now. To my knowledge, Nana's Green Tea in Waikiki Yokocho is the only shop that serves shave ice in true kakigori fashion. I've had at least 15 kakigoris from Nana's in the past three months and can attest that they make it as good as those I've had in Japan. The microns of ice form a fluffy texture that other places don't even come close to achieving. The balance of syrup (your choice of strawberry, matcha or hojicha) and condensed milk is unrivaled, as they're served on the side in tiny pots for pouring over yourself. Layered with sweet azuki, bouncy shiratama and jiggly warabimochi, this $9.20 kakigori is what I crave when I need a taste of Japan.
Now until September 30, Nana's is running a summer special mango puree flavor. Although it's tough to tell if it's local mango, it sure is as sweet as summer. Up until the mango appeared, my go-to flavor was roasted hojicha, which I carefully drizzle with sweet condensed milk. You'll find me here from time to time, taking a break from the heat with big ball of orange-hued ice – just note, I'm not sharing.
2250 Kalakaua Ave, Honolulu, HI 96815 ● @nanasgreenteahonolulu