Text and photo by Grigoris A. Miliaresis
Like last year and the one before it, this summer the magazines reporting on (and guiding) the new trends in Tokyo, devoted pages upon pages to the shops featuring new interpretations of kakigori (かき氷) the most classic summer dessert. Seeing the pictures and reading the descriptions, it’s hard not to be impressed: kakigori with whole pieces of mango, tiramisu-flavored kakigori, cakes with a kakigori filling , kakigori topped with pumpkin cream or yogurt of different flavors or honey or fresh matcha tea and red bean atzuki paste or caramelized strawberries or ice-creams of all kinds and colors or exotic fruits’ -or carrot- sorbet. Sometimes the impressive part isn’t even the topping: some shops offer kakigori made with snow from Fuji or with water brought in from some of the best and most famous springs from all over the country. It wouldn’t be exaggeration to say that kakigori is not one thing any more -it’s a new school of confectionery.
It wouldn’t even be original: despite of what many would believe, kakigori is not a recent development -its great popularity is and it is owed (as usual) to the Meiji period, when the spirit of industrialization made some people to come up with (or copy -no one knows for sure) machines that shaved ice. Since then, a very special culinary item for very refined palates, as witnessed by a reference to it in one of Japan’s oldest literary works, the “Makura no Soshi” (枕草子) by the court lady Sei Shonagon (清少納言) written in the Heian period, i.e. 1000 years ago, reached all the Japanese and the crushed ice served with syrup (for color and taste) became synonymous with summer. Even to a relative newcomer to Japan like this writer, it is somewhat unnatural to not see, already from the first weeks of the season, the characteristic banners with the character for “ice” (氷) red over a stylized blue sea appear in all kinds of shops and food stalls in fairs and festivals.
In the face of my colleagues and their anxious efforts to discover new tastes, I will stick to the kakigori of the festivals and the few remaining old-fashion seasonal stores; to each their own (mythology) and for me the real kakigori remains a thing of shitamachi. I don’t care if the ice was not meticulously collected from the snow-capped tops of the Southern Alps, or if it is served in a cheap paper cup with a straw with its end flattened so it can also work as a spoon. I don’t even care if the syrup is too sweet, it sticks and it becomes one with the melted ice a little after the half-mark -you must eat it slowly because the temperature makes your head freeze. For some reason I can’t see small children pressingly ask their parents for the ingenious inventions of Western Tokyo pastry chefs the way they do for the classic flavors and colors -strawberry, melon or “Blue Hawaii”- and if kakigori survived all these years, it was because it is simple enough to appeal to the children. The children that someday will grow up, become parents and teach their own children that a summer without kakigori, just ain’t summer.
Grigoris A. Miliaresis is a journalist and translator. He has worked for many newspapers, magazines and publishing houses and specializes on the Internet, the martial arts and Japan where he has been living for the last few years.