Don’t know if I was Japanese in another life or just always meant to visit, but Japan is truly heaven for ice cream lovers like me. It’s literally everywhere.
Soft serve cones are available at practically every turn, from street food vendors to coffee shops. It’s highly likely ice cream or some other fabulous sweet is going to appear at the end of your meal at a restaurant, whether it’s on the menu or not. Even convenience stores sell grab-and-go soft serve twists that put Drumsticks to shame.
To top it off, there are even ice cream vending machines – albeit not as ubiquitous as the beverage vending machines that populate practically every street corner, but darn close.
In other words, if you have a hankering for the sweet stuff, you won’t have to look far to find it here. However, there are some cultural differences in how you enjoy it that are worth noting.
First is in the delivery. Unless it’s part of the show, you often don’t get to observe the act of scooping or assembling your treat. Instead, you will likely follow these steps:
- Make your selection based on a picture in a menu (which means no sampling);
- Pay; and
- Patiently (and somewhat awkwardly) wait while someone retrieves your order from some hidden location out back or upstairs.
Then there’s the consumption of it. You won’t see anyone wandering down the street gobbling down a scoop. Even when served in a cone, your ice cream is to be consumed with a spoon while resting in a discrete seating area, where you will sit and enjoy it before moving on. If there is no seating available, you should go find one.
Instagram Ice Cream Moments
There are, of course, always exceptions to the rule. While walking and eating wasn’t terribly acceptable, if the shop intends for you to show off your highly photogenic purchase they will choreograph the perfect backdrop for staging your Instagram moment.
Take this showy ice cream pop-up in a department store near Shibuya Station in Tokyo for Seventeen Ice Cream Choco Mint Pops.
Seventeen Ice Cream vending machines are ubiquitous across Tokyo and Kyoto. This pretty pop-up scene convinced me to give them a go. Verdict: they’re not the greatest ice cream you’ll ever have, but they’ll do the trick in an “ice cream emergency,” much like a McDonald’s soft serve.
My favorite ice cream Instagram moment, though, was at the Rilakkuma Honey Stand in Kyoto. If you don’t just melt looking at those adorable little honey bear ice creams, you simply aren’t human.
There were kimono-clad honey bear statuettes strategically placed in front of the shop where you could stop and pose with your freshly created treat.
Or follow the path of golden honey bears embedded in the floor to the back of the shop where visitors can sit in the serenely sweet honey bear shrine to enjoy (and pose with) their treats.
I melt all over again just thinking about it!
So Much Matcha
Matcha is everywhere here. Matcha hot tea, matcha iced tea, matcha bubble tea, matcha cakes, matcha mochis…and, of course, matcha ice cream. In fact, if you had to gamble on what ice cream flavors might be available at any given location, you would be wise to place your bet on matcha being at least one of them (the other being vanilla).
One of my favorite treats of the whole trip was this matcha-vanilla twist I picked up at a little shop in the Gion district of Kyoto, where they sprinkle a little matcha powder on top for good measure.
A Sweet Take On Sake
Obviously, given I was touring Japan, I spent a good amount of time sampling sake. We even took a sake class in Kyoto, where I not only learned all about the sake brewing process but also how to read sake labels and what foods best partner with sake. Turns out vanilla ice cream with a pour-over of sake is the perfect paring!
I also sampled some sake ice cream in the Fukumitsuya Sake Shop in Tokyo, which appeared among a range of other sake-spiked products ranging from food products to hand cream.
While creamy and rich, the sake gave it a strange bitter flavor. If I had to choose between the two, I would pick the pour-over version versus the churned sake scoop. But, as they say, when in Rome…
Speaking of Rome, you might think Italy is where you need to go when planning your world travels based on great ice cream. But I would argue Japan gives them a really run for their money!