Sunday, July 18, 2021

Beating the Heat With Japanese Summer Treats

 -- Susan, every other Sunday

Two weeks ago, I took you to dinner in Iwate Prefecture (in northern Honshu's lovely Tohoku region). And since every good dinner needs a dessert, today, I thought I'd share a few of the sweeter treats we use to beat the sweltering heat of a Japanese summer. 

In July, Tokyo temperatures soar into the 30s (or 90s, depending how you measure your degrees) and the humidity rises to a point that will make you sweat in places you didn't even think had pores. By August, we've reached what a friend of mine refers to as the "drinkable air portion of the summer"--and although things cool off almost overnight (and the much of the humidity dissipates) in the first or second week of September, frozen desserts take center stage during the "mushi-atsui" (humid and hot) weeks of summer.

No frozen dessert list is complete without ice cream, and though it's popular in Japan year-round, it's a particular favorite in the summertime.

Matcha (green tea) ice cream at WITHOUT BORDERS digital art exhibition, Tokyo/Odaiba

Ice cream isn't just for dishes, though. You can also find it in creative floats, like this "Winter Fuji" delight available only in the city of Fujinomiya, near the base of Mt. Fuji, in Shizuoka Prefecture. "Winter Fuji" is ramune (soda) flavored--and not nearly as sweet as the color makes it look. The restaurant also offers a melon-flavored, bright green "summer Fuji" for those who want dessert to match the current season.

Winter Fuji ramune soda float

If you want to get your "summer blues" on without the ice cream, the Izu Peninsula has you covered with this very strange concoction called "Blue Hawaii Popping Ice Rocks." Yes, it tastes like a non-alcoholic version of a Blue Hawaii. Yes, the cubes are ice. And yes, it has somehow been infused with something that makes it fizz and pop in your mouth. I won't lie...this one was weird.

Popping Ice Rocks. Verdict: Really, really weird.

For those who prefer desserts in a color that isn't blue, may I present the Owakudani Volcano Coffee Float--served with pride in the restaurant that sits at the top of the Hakone Ropeway, with a view of the smoking volcanic crater of Owakudani. As promised, it's a delicious cup of ice-cold iced coffee topped with vanilla bean ice cream and garnished with a ruby chocolate heart.

Coffee. Ice Cream. What's not to love?

Moving on--but still within the coffee family--may I present the beloved "honey coffee jelly," a slightly sweet (but mostly cool and bitter) cup of coffee jelly, topped with unsweetened whipped cream and a drizzle of Japanese honey. The jelly has the consistency of very solid Jell-o, but is made with agar (a tasteless, vegetarian gelling agent derived from algae) rather than gelatin. This is one of my personal favorites, and coffee jelly (sometimes with, and often without the honey) can be found at many, many places in Japan. You can get this year-round, but it's particularly refreshing in the summertime.

Coffee jelly....mmmmmmm

All of the desserts above are popular ways to beat the heat of summer in Japan, but if you ask most Japanese people to name the most summery dessert of all, the nearly universal answer will be kakigori.

Traditional kakigori with a view

"Kakigori" (かき氷) is finely-shaved ice topped with natural or artificially flavored syrup and fruit or other toppings. Sometimes, it's also finished with a drizzle of condensed milk. Fruit flavors are popular, and most places that serve house-made fruit syrups (as opposed to the carnivalesque pre-packaged syrups, which come in a variety of neon colors) also top the shaved ice with actual fruit, to let you know that you're eating "genuine" syrup too.

"mixed berry" kakigori

Traditional Japanese toppings like Azuki beans and Matcha (powdered green tea) are popular, as are mixtures, like the fresh strawberry and powdered matcha kakigori shown below:
Strawberry-matcha Kakigori at KAI Nikko Resort

One of my favorite places to get kakigori is a little specialty coffee shop near my house in Meguro, which only sells shaved ice desserts in the summer (usually from July 1 until September 10). My son likes the tiramisu shaved ice, but I always go for the fresh strawberry - which features an enormous mound of fluffy shaved ice, fresh strawberry coulis, rich strawberry syrup, and condensed milk--all served on the side, so you can doctor your ice mound any way you please.


And after

And while we're on the subject of "heaping mounds of ice"--allow me to introduce the bingsu--a Korean form of shaved ice that is gaining popularity in Japan. 

While Japanese shaved ice is typically made from pure, frozen water (yes, I know, that's how most of us make ice), bingsu is often made from blocks of frozen juice, which are shaved and piled high in a way that looks disturbingly like a murdered muppet. (Though also a delicious muppet, to be certain.)

Mt. Homibing...

Most bingsu come with a variety of toppings or sides, like the blueberry bingsu shown above and below (from Homibing, in Tokyo's Omote-sando neighborhood). This one comes with panna cotta, cheesecake, and a massive helping of fresh blueberries, as well as some almonds scattered across the top. 

The far side of Homibing Mountain

And there you have it...a few of the most popular ways to beat the Japanese summer heat! 

How do you manage the rising temperatures in your part of the world?


  1. Kakigori looks and tastes like Greek granita - just perfect in hot weather!

  2. Dearest, it has been mushi-atsui here since early June. Lately, it has been also gloomy and stormy, as well as steamy. I feel like I am in New York in the monsoon season. As usual I am attracted to anything I Hakone! I’ll have a coffee float please. Oh how I wish I were in Hakone with you.

  3. I found mango kakigori in Hirosake! Enormous. Delicious! At the Fujita Memorial Gardens, which are gorgrous. My own post coming on this. That was my first Kakigori Encounter of this summer!


    And I thank you for giving me so many ideas on ways to satisfy it. :)