With the hot weather already here but public pools not officially open ’til July 1st, everyone’s going to need a way to cool down that’s more accessible than a dip in the sea. Thank goodness for ice cream! Japan offers a great variety of this chilled favorite, from classic European flavors to the wabi-sabi Japanese originals. Any way you lick it, it’s delicious!
One of the earliest mentions of ice cream in Japanese history is from nearly 1,000 years ago in the novel Makura no Soshi, where upper class citizens of the Heian period ate finely chipped ice with sweet red bean sauce. Ice cream as we know it is said to have first appeared in Japan in Yokohama in the 1800s, costing the equivalent of 8,000 yen a pop and served only to VIP guests at important functions. It wasn’t until after World War II, when a machine was developed that enabled the inexpensive mass production of ice cream, that popularity with the general public really began to take off. Nowadays, ice cream is one of the most popular desserts in Japan. According to the Japanese Ice Cream Association, the public voted ice cream to be the dessert that makes you the most happy and the best dessert to eat in summer. But even seasons can’t faze die-hard fans: ice cream was also voted the best dessert to eat in a warm room in winter. Is there any category this superfood can’t win?
Wafu aisukurimu, or Japanese ice cream, is a culinary delight that visitors to Japan must try. They might sound surprising at first, but don’t knock it til you try it, right? Remember your first sushi experience?
- Kurogoma – Black Sesame: Made with black sesame seeds, this ice cream has a delicious, full-bodied, nutty flavor. Don’t be fooled by its appearance – you’ll soon learn to love this grey-colored ice cream!
- Azuki – Sweet Red Bean: No dessert can escape that ubiquitous Japanese sweet ingredient, the ‘anko’ or sweet red bean. It may not be as sweet as expected to non-Japanese palates, but it’s still a tasty ice.
- Maccha – Green Tea: The quintessentially Japanese flavor, maccha ice cream is made from powdered green tea and has a slightly bitter taste. It appeals to more refined palates, or those who like less sweet desserts.
- Kinako – Powdered Soy Bean: The soy bean is versatile, and in its sweetened form makes for a great ice cream flavor. Some think it gives a peanut-buttery taste, and fans call it “refreshing” and “different.”
- Tofu – Bean Curd: Thanks to the recent health craze, this flavor has enjoyed popularity abroad too, especially in America and Europe. Flavors can vary greatly according to recipe and technique, so keep tasting until you find one that suits you!
- Mochi: Made from sticky rice, you’ll find it added to any of the previously mentioned ice cream flavors, lending its glutinous texture to create a truly unique ice cream experience, or also in the delicious form of a soft and chewy rice wrapper filled with ice cream.
Ice Cream Trends
Japan’s older generations can remember a time from their childhoods when frozen ices sold for just a few yen. Nowadays, a peek into one of today’s convenience store freezers will show you everything from frozen fruit juice to luxury Belgian chocolate ice cream, and with prices to match. Ice cream is no longer just dessert – it’s big business. Limited edition flavors with seasonal fruit and faux-European names adorn these extravagent treats.
Japan’s population has been aging since the 1970s, with the baby boom over and the economy calming down. Ice cream flavors have reflected this change, becoming more sophisticated and catering to a more mature audience. That’s why you’ll find green tea, champagne and soy bean flavors vying for space with fun, chunky, youthful varieties. In fact, some of these flavors have eclipsed even chocolate in popularity, losing out only to vanilla, which still remains the most popular flavor not only in Japan, but around the world.
Research by the Japan Ice Cream Association reveals that around 40% of women buy ice cream on a daily basis, compared to only approximately 20% of men. Women also tend to buy the more expensive varieties, while men stick to cheaper, sandwich-style ice cream bars. As a result, companies are focusing on women as the big buyers.
The craze for modern healthy foods and activities in Japan has affected the ice cream market too, with flavors such as tofu, green tea and soybean enjoying popularity. But it’s not just the flavors dictating popularity, it’s the whole package. The rising popularity of Starbucks’ frappacinos and the like means that ice cream has a new competitor. Sales of frozen drinks in coffee houses since the early 90s have directly affected ice cream sales across Japan.
Ice cream consumption is also seasonal of course, with the highest sales in summer. Sales also happen to correspond directly to temperatures, with hotter summers bringing in even higher profits. So for everyone’s benefit, consumers and producers alike, here’s hoping for a hot one!
If You Dare…
This is just a small selection of the amazing and unique ice creams that can be found, if you look hard enough, all over Japan. If you get a chance, try one! You might be pleasantly surprised.
By Shingo Village Co., Aomori Prefecture
Produced near a site where a wacky local legend has it, Jesus is buried, “Dracula The Premium” ice cream actually has a large chunk of garlic embedded inside, which gives it its unique flavor. Keeps the vampires away, too!
By Restaurant Haruna, Aichi Prefecture
Produced in Aichi Prefecture, from a famous cactus growing region, home to 80% of Japan’s cacti. Similar in texture to Aloe, but more bitter, it makes for a lightly textured and very unique ice cream.
By Fugetsudo, Miyagi Prefecture
A truly unique dessert, containing small pieces of ox tongue. What started out as a one-off custom order has bloomed into a popular range. Apparently, the pieces look like chocolate chips…
By Food Park Nattoya, Fukuoka Prefecture
Natto – love it or hate it, there’s no denying its enormous health benefits. Manufactured by a Fukuoka restaurant that specializes in natto dishes, this ice cream is one of its best-selling creations, sold all over Japan.
The Cold, Hard Facts
Top 3 Ice Cream Producing Countries (kiloliters/year)
- U.S.A. 6,116,140 KL
- China 2,191,103 KL
- Japan 818,000K
The country that brought “Super Size” fast foods to the world is also the largest producer of ice cream. No surprise there, but looks who’s number two – another Super Power, China. Japan is just behind them in third place.
Top 3 Ice Cream Consuming Cities (money spent per person/year)
- Kanazawa 8,789yen
- Nagano 8,497 yen
- Kawasaki 8,338 yen
Kanazawa, with a strong history of sweets production (and sweet tooths?) ranks first.Contrary to what you might think, cities in the north consistently consume more ice cream than the cities in the warmer south. Naha, Okinawa, for example, comes in dead last! Fukuoka, by the way, ranks a very respectable 7th.
The total amount of ice cream produced in Japan annually is approximately 818,000,000 liters. Divided into 130ml cups, that’s 6,300,000,000 cups consumed per year – a staggering 49.5 cups per person!
Hot Weather and Ice Cream
Ice cream sales are directly affected by the weather. The hottest summer on record, 1994, also garnered the most ice cream sales. Consumers spent an incredible 600,000,000,000 yen. For reference, that’s just over US$5 billion.
The three most popular flavors in Japan nowadays are vanilla, chocolate and maccha (green tea). Green tea has recently displaced strawberry in the top three – another consequence of Japan’s aging population?
Remember the old days? Skipping off to the combini with your 100 yen coin in hand, heading straight for the ice cream freezer? Well, actually, probably not, but the Japanese do! Here’s some of the ice creams the locals enjoyed in their childhoods…
Black Mont Blanc
By Takeshita Seika
This has been a very popular ice cream for Kyushu residents for many years. Its popularity comes from its simplicity – light vanilla ice cream and a crispy chocolate shell. You can even win a prize with the stick!
Marunaga tells us they believe this curiously-shaped classic began in the 60’s, but they started making it in the 80s. It’s melon sorbet encased in a melon-shaped container with a super sweet flavor that kids love. The container is a popular toy for playing with after eating, too.
As you can see in the photo, this ice cream looks just like a sweet potato. It tastes like it too – probably a good way to get Japanese kids to eat their vegetables.
Home Run Bar
This was the first real ice cream “bar” sold to the public, way back in 1962. Kids love it because of its great taste, and the fact that if your stick reveals a ‘home run’ after eating, you win another bar!
Ice Cream Bonanza!
We’ve got an awesome present to give away to five lucky readers! A Marunaga sampler pack, delivered straight to your door, with 10 sumptuous ice creams for you to devour! Access www.kyushu-now.com/presents for details.
Marunaga is a Fukuoka-based company that has been supplying some of Kyushu’s yummiest ice creams for over 70 years. See them at www.muranaga.com