A kakigori shop sign flows in the wind in front of the shop

Kakigori: Is It Better Than American Shaved Ice?

If you’ve ever been to Japan in summer or watched a Japanese anime, you’ve probably seen people eating up a fluffy, cooling treat of Japanese shaved ice, or kakigori in Japanese. But what are these sweet piles of edible snow?

As the name suggests, kakigori is made by scraping ice into tiny pieces like snowflakes. Unlike ice cream, this treat is made from water, no cream included, then flavored syrup is drizzled on. It’s popular in summertime with people of all ages, since cold treats are essential for surviving Japan’s sweltering summers.

But is it really better than American shaved ice? Well, many people who’ve tried both say it is. This is because kakigori has a uniquely soft texture like feathery snow. Read on to discover the history of Japanese shaved ice, the best flavors, and how to make it at home! Then you can decide which is the superior summer treat for yourself.

History of Kakigori

A stylish kakigori with a tiramisu flavor with caramel and chocolate blocks as toppings
 Japanese shaved ice has evolved to have more style and flair, but let's see how it even got started in Japan. Image via Instagram

To uncover the origin of kakigori, we’ll have to go back more than a thousand years to the Heian period. During this relatively peaceful time, Japan was ruled by aristocrats living the high life in the best luxury they could afford. In winter, they would have water frozen into massive blocks of ice and stored in himuro, cold storage rooms, until summer.

When the heat began to take its toll, the aristocrats would have the ice hauled out and scraped into bowls. Thus, kakigori was born.

For a long time, ice remained something only the very rich could eat in summer. This changed in the 19th century, however, when trains allowed ice to be brought quickly and cheaply from the freezing island of Hokkaido down to Tokyo in summertime.

Enterprising merchants took advantage of this new opportunity and began to sell shaved ice to the middle and lower classes so they could have a taste of chilled luxury for themselves.

Then, when refrigeration became cheap, suddenly you didn’t need to be a merchant to have access to ice. Ice shaving machines were purchased by many households so that they could make sweet shaved ice for themselves. Today many Japanese families has an ice shaving machine ready to be put to work on hot summer days.

Of course, they need more than just ice to make the perfect kakigori. For that, flavored syrup and a variety of toppings are essential.

What Makes It So Special?

A pumpkin caramel Japanese shaved ice with a pumpkin cream on top and in the middle
One of the best things about Kakigori is that you can pile it on top of other things because of how light and fluffy it is. Image via Instagram

What separates Japanese shaved ice from other shaved ice is how it was made and continues to be made! The difference is mostly in the fineness of the ice shavings. Kakigori started originally with merchants meticulously hand-shaving these ice blocks. However, as technology advanced, many started using a crank device that allowed for a block of ice to be shaved with a shaving blade. That being said, there are plenty of shops that still use hand-shaving in the summer.

Plus, Japanese shaved ice tends to use mineral water or natural spring water that is frozen in an ice block. This, combined with the shaving fineness leads to a much fluffier experience. Where American shaved ice tends to be coarse, Japanese shaved ice is often compared to fresh, powdery snow in its texture.

Flavors of Kakigori

Japanese shaved ice is an incredibly versatile treat. There are hundreds of different flavors of syrup so you can make your kakigori just the way you like it. Let’s check out a bunch!

Blue Hawaii

Ranked as the most popular kakigori syrup online, Blue Hawaii is something of a mysterious flavor. No one is quite sure what it’s made of, but it sure is delicious! With notes of ramune candy, soda, peach, and other tropical fruits, you can’t go wrong with Blue Hawaii.

Strawberry

A popular choice with children, strawberry syrup is a summer favorite. For the ultimate treat, strawberry shaved ice is often topped with fresh Japanese strawberries and sprinkled with white sugar.

A strawberry kakigori decorated with strawberry slices, strawberry syrup and a cute polar bear topper
Part of the Japanese shaved ice experience is enjoying the amazing and meticulous presentation! Image via Instagram

Matcha

The quintessential Japanese ingredient, matcha green tea makes its way into every food in Japan, and kakigori is no exception. Its bitterness perfectly balances the sweetness of the syrup, and it’s a must try for the matcha fanatics out there.

Lemon

If you want some refreshing sourness with your ice, lemon is the way to go. A perfect refreshing treat for particularly hot days, this flavor of shaved ice is especially great when served with thin slices of fresh lemon on top.

Caramel

Fruit flavors aren’t the only kakigori syrups worth trying. The sweet notes of caramel also go great with shaved ice, and you could try sprinkling a little salt on top, though you’ll have to eat it quickly before the ice melts!

Unique Regional Kakigori

It would be a mistake to assume that kakigori is the same wherever you go in Japan. While it’s true that most shaved ice is eaten plain with just syrup and maybe one or two simple toppings, there are plenty of more elaborate variations to try.

Shirokuma

A colorful kakigori with plenty of fruit and fruit jelly and a face made with red beans and a cherry
Shirokuma is what happens when shaved ice cosplays as a polar bear. Image via Instagram

Shirokuma literally means ‘polar bear’, and this incredibly sweet style of shaved ice is named so because it looks just like one (if you squint hard enough). Hailing from Kagoshima Prefecture, this kakigori is white from the condensed milk that’s drizzled over it and is decorated with small chunks of mochi rice cake and sweet red azuki beans which are arranged to look like a bear’s face.

Ujikintoki

This variety of shaved ice comes from the city of Uji in Kyoto prefecture, famous for its temples, shrines, and green tea. The shaved ice is drizzled with matcha syrup, then topped with a large quantity of sweet red azuki beans. Mochi and green tea ice cream are placed around it.

The name is a combination of Uji city and the legendary hero Kintoki, whose face was said to be red like the azuki beans that make this kakigori variation so delicious.

A pile of ujikintoki, a Japanese shaved ice, with green syrup on top and red beans and mochi on the side

This particular style shows off Kyoto's more traditional side while still being sweet and tasty. Image via Instagram

Yelo Tiramisu

Tokyo has many fashionable clothing shops, clubs, bars and eateries, but did you know it also has fashionable kakigori stores? One of the most famous of these is Yelo, located in the glamorous Roppongi district. Their specialty kakigori is tiramisu flavored and topped with luxurious mascarpone cheese.

How to Make Kakigori at Home

Don’t have a Japanese shaved ice machine handy? Well, neither did we, so we’ve come up with a few suggestions on how you can make delicious Japanese shaved ice without having to fly to Japan to buy a specialized machine.

Method One: Food Processer

This is the easiest method we have for you. Simply take some ice cubes, put them into your blender and press the on-switch. You’ll want to blend them quite thoroughly to get that snowy texture. Just make sure your blender is a sturdy one – cheaper models might not be able to handle the strain.

One the ice is blended, scoop it into a bowl, drizzle with your syrup of choice (corn syrup works great if you don’t have any authentic kakigori syrup), and enjoy.

Method Two: Rolling Pin

If you’re worried about damaging your blender, this method might work for you. Simply put some ice cubes into a zip-lock bag, pick up your rolling pin, and start smashing! If you don’t have a rolling pin, pretty much any heavy object will do. Once you’re done, scoop the ice into a bowl, drizzle on syrup, and tuck in.

Method Three: Chef’s Knife

Although the first two methods are certainly effective and tasty, they don’t quite get the exact fluffy, snow-like texture that authentically Japanese shaved ice is known for. For that, you’ll need to use this third method.

To make kakigori this way, first you’ll have to freeze a large block of ice. Take a medium sized square container, fill it with water and place it in the freezer for a few days.

Take out the ice and place it on a clean chopping board, then scrape your sharp knife (or katana if you’re feeling adventurous) gently along the top. Once you have enough soft flakes, brush them carefully from the chopping board into a bowl.

You might as well make this kakigori into one of the more elaborate variations. Apply matcha syrup and put on some sweet bean paste to make Kyoto’s famous Ujikintoki. And if you’re feeling particularly rich, put on some gold leaf to make your dessert into Kyoto’s famous golden pavilion!

The Superior Shaved Ice: Kakigori

A spoon holding a scoop of a grape kakigori that is purple with condensed milk drizzled on top
The texture of the shaved ice combined with syrup and/or condensed milk creates a uniquely lovely texture. Image via Instagram

So, is it true that Japanese shaved ice is better than its American counterpart? We think it has more interesting flavors, a more fascinating history, and above all, a far superior texture. You just can’t beat the amazing fluffiness of this authentic Japanese treat.

What do you think? Which do you prefer? Try it out and let us know in the comments!

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