A journey through Japanese ice cream

Christina Frangu 17 August 2021

Japan is known for its savoury culinary delights, but it's time to explore its sweet offerings too—let us take you on a journey through Japanese "soft cream" 

If you ask Lynn Ng which flavor of soft ice cream is her favorite, she’ll probably say scallop. “It’s actually really delicious despite seeming like such an incompatible mix,” she says.

Four years ago, Lynn and I worked together as assistant language teachers at a technical high school in Hokkaido. Hokkaido is Japan’s northernmost prefecture, an island comprising some 20 percent of the nation’s landmass but less than five percent of the population.

For many, Hokkaido is synonymous with road trips and inaka: the countryside. This meant Lynn and I spent weekends on the local roads in her blue Toyota Passo.

One of our first trips brought us to Wakkanai, the northernmost city in the country. From Cape Soya, we waved at Sakhalin Island, which belongs to Russia. Ng was the only one licensed to drive, so we punctuated our trip with stops at michi-no-ekis, or roadside service areas.

At a stop in Sarufutsu, we ordered cones of soft ice cream (referred to in Japan as “soft cream”). It wasn’t vanilla or chocolate. It was blue honeysuckle.

"At a stop in Sarufutsu, we ordered cones of soft ice cream. It wasn’t vanilla or chocolate. It was blue honeysuckle"

Creamy and thick, Japan’s soft ice cream is popular throughout Hokkaido, and Japan as a whole, and many towns showcase their local identity through unique flavors. The flavor of the city where we lived, Takikawa, was apple, an homage to the orchards in one of the farming districts. The city of Furano and the small town of Biei offer lavender and rose, like the flowers they are famous for. And in the small city of Yubari its melon soft ice cream is cheaper than its famous King melons, a pair of which has sold at auction for more than 5 million yen ($46,000).

Ice Cream in Japan

The flavours of “Rainbow Ice Cream” from Otaru include green tea, Yubari melon, Hokkaido milk, chocolate, and lavender

While flavors like these honor Hokkaido’s gardens and orchards, which can be buried under snow most of the year, in the rest of Japan the flavors can get more inventive. Ishii Miso Brewery in Matsumoto, a mountain city in Nagano prefecture on Japan’s main island of Honshu, makes soft ice cream with their miso (a fermented soybean paste). In Japan’s former capital city, Kyoto, you can find yuba ice cream, flavored like the skin that forms over boiled soy milk. And the city of Hakodate, which sits on Hokkaido’s southern tentacle, slaps visitors with black squid-ink ice cream.

Ocean brine and ice cream might seem unlikely partners, yet these flavors of soft ice cream celebrate Japan’s regional identity. The country is long: to drive from Wakkanai at the north end of Hokkaido to Kagoshima on the southern tip of Kyushu island would take 38 hours nonstop and cover some 2,700 kilometers. Japan also extends through varied landscapes and climates. Thus, it’s well-suited to road trips through the countryside.

"Ocean brine and ice cream might seem unlikely partners, yet these flavors of soft ice cream celebrate Japan’s regional identity"

The michi-no-ekis where these unique soft ice creams can be purchased are key aspects of the nation’s plan to revitalize its regional communities, particularly those in rural areas. The Ministry of Land, Infrastructure, Transport, and Tourism oversees these roadside stations and uses them as a venue to showcase local specialties.

Ice cream sign

An ice-cream  and beverage menu in the city of Otaru, Hokkaido prefecture

Rural revitalization is a potential solution to a problem perplexing Japan: an ageing population and declining birth rates. Though this demographic quandary puzzles the entire nation, the pressure pinches rural areas more acutely. As young people have re-located to cities, “ghost houses” stand as a testament to the contraction of towns and villages. Shigeru Ishiba, former minister of regional revitalization, has listed “establishing corporations in rural areas to promote and sell local goods and tourism” among efforts to stimulate the countryside’s economy.

My friend Lynn Ng now researches rural revitalization and tourism at Tokyo’s Waseda University. One approach that stands out to her is Fukushima’s. Following the 2011 earthquake and consequent nuclear disaster there, the region experienced a major outflux of people, which prompted officials to get creative.

“Some local governments loan out temporary rent-free houses to visitors so that they have a free place to stay in the region while job-hunting and apartment-hunting,” says Ng. “It’s extremely helpful for anyone hoping to relocate without connections or having already secured jobs in the rural regions.”

Traditionally dressed women enjoy cooling treats in Japan’s former imperial capital, Kyoto

In addition to drawing new residents to rural areas, Japanese officials promote movement and exchange among urban, suburban, and rural locales.

To entice people to the countryside, the Ministry of Agriculture, Forestry, and Fisheries (MAFF) has come up with a plan to make it more attractive, and food plays a role. Its “Savor Japan” effort spotlights regional flavors, highlighting produce in many of the country’s prefectures.

Why food? Perhaps it has something to do with the power of the Japan Agricultural Cooperatives, known as the JA Group, which lobbies for the country’s agricultural interests. Or perhaps it’s a bit more sentimental.

"When people go travelling, they’re expected to bring back a gift, typically a single-serving, individually wrapped edible novelty that represents the place they visited"

“Food especially stands in a rather emotional domain compared to other products like pottery or clothes,” says Ng. “And since tourism draws on a tourist’s emotions and imaginations, a tourist might more easily remember some soft ice cream they ate on a trip than the displays in a castle.”

Touting local specialties and boasting hometown pride have deep roots in Japanese culture. Every town, no matter how small, is famous for something. For many, those famed products will be extracted and swirled into soft serve. Also tapping into this is the concept of omiyage: when people go travelling, they’re expected to bring back a gift, typically a single-serving, individually wrapped edible novelty that represents the place they visited.

Melon ice cream is the flavour of Yubari

“I think what really ties in with soft ice cream flavors and rural revitalization is this concept of meibutsu [famous items and foods] and the omiyage culture,” Ng says. “Because of these things, people are rather obsessed with figuring out what is ‘famous’ about a place.”

Soft ice cream is not the only example of this tourism strategy. Michi-no-ekis sell commemorative books so visitors can prove they’ve visited a city with a locally branded stamp, and Japanese cities and prefectures organize travel experiences around these stamp rallies. On a local level, Ng gives the example of Tsuetate Onsen, a historic hot-springs town on the island of Kyushu: it attempted to become a hub for custard by encouraging visitors to earn stamps with the purchase of the sweet treat at 10 local shops and restaurants, which they could then redeem for a souvenir.

This Hokkaido farm’s lavender is used to flavour local ice cream

But while stamp rallies tend to focus on regional areas, soft ice cream is national: Road trippers and tourists can sample unique flavors all over Japan. Dairy is also a valued industry in Japan: last summer, MAFF reportedly asked people to eat ice cream every day as part of its Plus One campaign to boost dwindling dairy-product sales due to Covid-19.

“I think soft ice cream works especially well because the Japanese—or anyone, really—tend to have this soft spot for ice cream in general,” says Ng. “That makes it quite an easy product to sell.” Given people’s positive associations, soft ice cream is a potent promotional tool.

So while novel flavors such as black squid ink and sunflower stand out for visitors, the goal is to represent a region faithfully—something that locals can appreciate just as much. That’s why, if you press her, Ng will admit that her real favorite flavor is apple: the flavor of Takikawa, where we lived as language teachers. “It is 10 percent delicious,” she says, “and 90 percent imbued with all my affective attachments to Takikawa.”

Gastro Obscura (September 20, 2020), Copyright 
© 2020 by Michael Colbert, atlasobscura.com

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