Shaved Ice: A Treat Worth Waiting in Line For!

Bowls of shaved ice
(Photo courtesy of fukiage no mori.)

   If there's one food you can't go without during the hot and steamy Japanese summer, it's kakigori — Japanese shaved ice. Blocks of ice are shaved into fine flakes using special machines, then topped with flavorings like strawberry or melon syrup, sweet matcha (strong green tea) sauce, sweetened beans, or condensed milk. A bowl of shaved ice in the sweltering summer sun is a treat loved by everyone, from kids to adults, so it's no wonder there are long lines for shaved ice stands at summer events like fireworks displays, and more and more eateries are adding it to their menu during summertime. Meanwhile, some people prefer to make shaved ice at home with their own ice shavers and syrups.

Shaved ice is incredibly popular at summer events. You can make it home too, if you like.

Cool for More Than a Thousand Years

   Shaved ice has been enjoyed in Japan for a very long time. In fact, a famous old book called The Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi), which was written around the year 1000, describes shaved ice with a sweet syrup derived from a plant, served in a shiny new metal bowl. The book's author, Sei Shonagon, described its appearance as "refined and elegant." At the time, ice was still a rare sight during the summer months, so only people of high status could indulge in such a luxury.

This is a recreation of the shaved ice described in The Pillow Book (Makura no Soshi). (model)(Photo courtesy of TORAYA Confectionery Co. Ltd.)

   Ice only became available to ordinary people in the 1860s. Natural ice from the north was transported south, where it was shaved with a hand tool called a plane (usually used for shaping wood) and served floating in a simple bowl of water. After that, special ice shavers were invented and shaved ice as we know it was born. It became more widespread with the creation of machines that could make ice, which made ice a lot easier to come by.

   Shaved ice may be closely associated with the summer, but since the 2000s, the emergence of specialist shaved ice stores has turned it into a popular treat enjoyed all year round, no matter the weather.

Natural Ice Melts Like Snow in the Mouth

   Even though ice can be made by machines these days, some of the most popular shaved ice stores still prefer to use natural ice. This ice originates from natural spring water, which bubbles up from the surfaces of mountains and is diverted into stone reservoirs where it freezes naturally in the cold winter air. Because it takes a long time for blocks of ice to form, the resulting ice contains fewer impurities like air bubbles. Compared to ice frozen quickly in a freezer, natural ice can be shaved more finely, producing softer, lighter shavings that melt instantly in the mouth like delicate snowflakes.

Natural ice has no air bubbles, which makes it very transparent. It melts into smooth, mellow water.

   Although we call it "natural" ice, it doesn't just form on its own. The water needs to be stirred daily until the temperature is sufficiently cold, and if the ice doesn't form properly, it needs to be broken up. Fallen leaves or waste need to be removed, and snow needs to be swept away from the surface. If rain falls or the ice starts to melt before it has fully frozen, the ice harvesters have to start the process all over again. It takes about two weeks for 15 centimeters of ice to form. Once it does, the ice is cut into even blocks and kept in a special storage building called an ice house.
   Natural ice can only be obtained in areas with low temperatures and pure water sources, and it takes time and effort to form properly, so there are only a few places producing it today.

Snow is warmer than ice, so it needs to be removed from the surface to prevent ice from melting. (Photo courtesy of shogetsuhimuro.)

When the ice is 15 centimeters thick, it's cut into blocks with an electric ice cutter. (Photo courtesy of shogetsuhimuro.)

The blocks of ice are carried to a storage building called an ice house. (Photo courtesy of shogetsuhimuro.)

   Popular shaved ice stores aren't just particular about the quality of the ice, though. There are lots of other factors to consider when pursuing the perfect shaved ice, like luxury sauces made with seasonal fruits and high-quality teas, or generous toppings of delicious fresh fruit.

Some stores are taking shaved ice to the next level with syrups made from carefully selected ingredients, seasonal fruit toppings, and more. (Photo courtesy of Shangri-La Tokyo, AKOMEYA TOKYO.)

   Let's take a look at how one specialty store in Tokyo makes its popular strawberry shaved ice.
   Firstly, the store only uses natural ice from spring water formed on the surface of Mount Fuji. Even the same block of natural ice can vary in hardness depending on where you shave it, so they purposely use a manual ice shaver — this lets them adjust the movement of the blades while shaving, to achieve an even consistency.
   The store starts by adding condensed milk at the bottom of the bowl, so that you don't end up with flavorless ice at the end. Then they shave off even flakes of ice while rotating the bowl underneath. Next, they add alternating layers of condensed milk and fluffy shaved ice, hiding large chunks of strawberry in the center. The shaved ice is served with a strawberry sauce made from nothing but strawberries and sugar, so you can enjoy the natural flavor of the fruit.

Shaved Ice Recipe

A traditional ice shaver. You can crank the handle at different speeds depending on the hardness of the ice. ( Photo in cooperation with Atelier Sekka.)

Condensed milk is added at the bottom of the bowl, then the bowl is rotated while adding shaved ice.

Strawberries are placed in the middle, and topped with more condensed milk.

Another layer of shaved ice is added, with another topping of condensed milk.

Each layer of ice is thick.

The shaved ice is gently patted into the desired shape.

A single strawberry is placed on top.

Just pour the strawberry sauce over the shaved ice and dig in! It's like eating a sweet and sour strawberry-milk snowball that melts on the tip of your tongue. (Photo in cooperation with Atelier Sekka.)

A World of Limitless Possibilities

   In recent years, shaved ice has had an unprecedented surge in popularity. Popular stores attract long lines of customers, who sometimes wait in line for hours. In fact, some die-hard shaved ice fans like to wander from place to place trying various different stores in one day. Heatwaves and exposure on social media have been major factors behind the trend, which shows no sign of slowing down.

   There are lots of new types and flavors popping up, as well. How about savory shaved ice made with vegetables like corn and pumpkin, or Japanese seasonings like miso (fermented soybean paste) and soy sauce? Believe it or not, they really exist. Or if you want something more visually unique, you could try a cake-shaped shaved ice that totally ditches the traditional look. Creative people are freely exploring the limitless possibilities of shaved ice, and it's fun to see their inventive ideas take shape.

This shaved ice is coated in a corn sauce and seasoned with salt and pepper. It tastes a bit like corn soup.

These are made by a soy sauce supplier, with fermented ingredients like soy sauce and miso. The syrup is sweet and salty. (Photo courtesy of Hakko Cafe Marukame.)

A chef who trained in French restaurant created this cake-shaped spin on shaved ice. (Photo courtesy of Sebastian.)