It’s 9 o’clock in the morning and the narrow streets that fringe Inokashira Park are largely empty. This part of Kichijoji, a lively neighborhood in west Tokyo, has yet to wake up. Storefront shutters are yet to be lifted; staff inside cafés can be glimpsed preparing for the day.
Yet, on one corner, a couple of girls duck into an enclosed alleyway and reappear five minutes later. Next, a solo lady strides inside, emerging after a minute or two. People drift in and out, marking an unusual pattern of activity.
This is the entrance to Kooriya Peace, a renowned kakigori (shaved ice) store that’s so popular customers secure their dessert hours in advance – although for early birds it might become their breakfast. Every morning, a reservation list is placed on the wall with slots timed to the minute throughout the day.
“We’re busiest in spring and summer. But slots do fill up all year round, especially on weekends,” says Ryuhei Yamada, who now manages the store, after joining as a part-timer during his high school years.
For many Japanese, kakigori is the taste of their childhood, a sweet treat bought from a festival stall. In recent years, it has experienced a boom, with an emphasis on returning to all-natural ingredients, and toppings and designs becoming ever more decadent and intricate.
Kooriya Peace (literally “Ice-shop Peace”) definitely belongs to this wave. Its founder, Tokyo-born Hideo Kobayashi, frequented a ramen store that was unusual in serving kakigori as well, and it was here that his eyes were first opened to its deliciousness. When the store announced it was to shut, Kobayashi decided it was time to launch his own kakigori spot.
The menu has been steadily evolving to offer increasingly spectacular creations, and it changes every week to reflect the seasonal ingredients and the imagination of the staff. In fact, the store operates a remarkably democratic policy. All members of staff try a new recipe and give feedback, and from then its inventor will be in charge of preparing it for customers. From searching Instagram for inspiration to brainstorming together, the team at Kooriya Peace come up with never-seen-before concoctions, taking kakigori to a whole new level – almost literally given the towering servings of ice.
The store’s surge in popularity can be attributed to its appearance in “Kantaro: The Sweet Tooth Salaryman,” a Netflix series released in 2017. The protagonist outwardly appears to be a salesman overly dedicated to his job, but in fact slacks off to eat sweets across Tokyo. The lighthearted series tunnels into the surreal world of his imagination as he devours sugar with near fetishistic delight. Part of the humor is based on a genderization of food in Japan: sweets such as kakigori are predominantly enjoyed by young women, making a suited businessman who enjoys them seem comically out of place. Indeed, Yamada estimates that 80 percent of customers at the store are female.
Kantaro visits Kooriya Peace as his back-up option after a nearby popular café is too crowded. Ironically, this episode assured that Kooriya reached a similar level of fame: in summer, reservations are often full before the store even opens its doors.
Perhaps it wouldn’t be an overstatement to call kakigori the modern zenith of Japanese cuisine.
That detail aside, the store looks unchanged from its screen version. A narrow entrance reveals just eight seats along the counter, behind which sit two ice-shaving machines and a whole apothecary of homemade natural sauces and toppings. Adorning the top of the counter are miniature replicas of popular flavors, rendered in painstaking detail by Kobayashi’s wife.
The menu is so simultaneously tantalizing and fascinating that, like Kantaro, we struggle to choose, emulating his indecisive panic. It’s just before Halloween, and themed specials peer out of the menu: a spooky pumpkin face, a deep-green Frankenstein and a ghost. A grown-up rum raisin is surely named to seduce, but transfixingly beautiful is “apple rare cheesecake” with slices of apple – colored red – rearranged in an apple shape on top of a snowy mound like a work of Cubist art.
We select a limited edition of peanuts, milk and black sugar kanten (a kind of jelly made from seaweed) and watch the staff set to work, which is all part of the fun. First a block of ice is hoisted into the machine that shreds it into elegant flakes. These are softly patted into a smooth yet fluffy mountain, which is then coated in sauce, drizzled with aching precision.
Before long, a dazzling sculpture is placed on the counter in front of us. The peanuts, sourced from Chiba Prefecture, a major producer, are ground into a light creamy sauce that forms a pale layer, topped with larger peanuts for extra bite. The dish is enhanced by black sugar syrup, which adds a mellow richness, transforming the flavor. Digging deeper through the crystals reveals mild black sugar kanten that melts in the mouth to create one harmonious spoonful.
Despite ice being the predominant ingredient, the dessert is never bland or watery. It’s as if the ice is a large canvas that enhances each individual flavor. Looking at the sculpted mound, perhaps it wouldn’t be an overstatement to call kakigori the modern zenith of Japanese cuisine. The very essence of the ingredient is presented but not overwhelmed, allowing its natural state to speak for itself, and the attention to aesthetics is self-evident.
Yet, along the counter, beautiful kakigori is melting everywhere. Women are tackling icy mountains with puddles forming around their trays. Only an experienced lady to our left has managed to devour hers without spilling a single drop; perhaps this is how staff can pick out regular customers from the steady stream of visitors?
“I always try to come on rainy days,” she says, in between deft spoonfuls. “That way I can definitely get a seat. And, I always order two.”
Plotlines need not be pure works of fiction: just like our good friend Kantaro, and inspired by our neighbor, we order a second – a chestnut- and coffee-flavored concoction. The sauce is thicker than the peanut version and exudes an earthiness that works in harmony with the sweetness. Coffee jelly emerges in the center, adding an extra dimension to the final few mouthfuls.
Through the cozy atmosphere, the natural flavors and a mild sugar buzz, we leave feeling at peace. Perhaps this is the concept behind the store’s name? Not quite. As it turns out, “Peace” is the name of Kobayashi’s beloved pet dog. But it’s a nice thought anyway.
Editor’s note: For a deeper dive into the Kichijoji neighborhood, join our Tokyo culinary walk.
This article was originally published on November 23, 2018.
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