The country may not be especially well known for its confection and frozen treats, but you’d better believe that Japan loves its ice cream. Whatever the season, there are hundreds of varieties to choose from, and chain stores like Baskin Robbins and Ben & Jerry’s attract enormous lines on a daily basis, constantly whipping up new flavours to appeal to the Japanese palate.
Today, we’d like to take you on a tour of the konbini aisu, or convenience store-bought ice cream, of Japan. They may not be quite as sophisticated as your top-of-the-range Häagen-Dazs offerings, but boy are they tasty, and since they’re available for just a couple of hundred yen each you can afford to treat yourself pretty much every day this summer. We hope you’re hungry!
- #1. Little chocolatey drops of heaven!
Pinooooooo! Available all year around, Pino are little dollops of ice cream lovingly encased in a crisp milk chocolate shell. Although they also come in a variety of flavours such as almond cream and chocolate, you’re most likely to find classic vanilla in your local convenience store or super market.
Often considered the stuff of urban legend, the existence of rare, star-shaped Pino has been proved on numerous occasions by fortunate netizens who uploaded snaps of their discoveries to Twitter and blogs, with some people even claiming to have found two or more in the same pack. Be sure to thank the ice cream angels right away if you happen to stumble upon one yourself!
▼ Ordinarily, my Pino would never come anywhere near to a plate, but in the interests of investigative journalism, here’s one I dissected earlier.
- #2 Break me off a bottle, it’s Papico
A favourite with both kids and grown-ups, Papico is available in Chocolate Coffee and Vanilla Shake flavours year round, but you’ll find seasonal and limited-edition flavours in shops every so often. The strangest thing about this ice cream is that each pack contains two small plastic ‘bottles’ that must be broken apart and then twisted open.
Papico is perfect for sharing, though their small size makes them easy to polish off solo. Just don’t cut your gums up trying to suck the last remnants from the containers.
- #3 Another win for science: Suika Baa
Literally translating as ‘watermelon bar’, Suika Baa is one of our absolute favourites. For those who enjoy the thirst-quenching properties of a popsicle or ice lolly in summer, but still occasionally crave something a little richer, this is a must-buy. And once you see how it looks out of the packet we’re sure you’ll agree that this is one immensely cool summer treat.
Squint and you could swear someone had stuck a popsicle stick into a wedge of frosted watermelon! But perhaps even better than the real thing, Suika Baa does away with those pesky watermelon seeds and replaces them with tiny nuggets of milk chocolate! Your move, nature.
- #4 Ice cream for manly men with hairy chests: Jumbo
If imitation fruit and fiddly plastic bottles are simply too much hassle for you, how about a classic ice cream sandwich? Japan’s Jumbo doesn’t mess around when it comes to taste or design: with a soft wafer shell, a layer of crisp milk chocolate, vanilla ice cream, and yet another slab of chocolate at its centre, Jumbo satisfies where other ice cream simply cannot, and over the years has became this writer’s go-to snack after a night of drinking during the hotter months. Thanks to its design, Jumbo can, technically, be broken into chunks and shared. But who would want to do that when you can just power into it like a wild beast?
▼ Raaaaaaar! Get in my mouth, you delicious *******.
- #5 Refreshment from down south: Shiro Kuma
This one’s a little different, but nevertheless undeniably tasty. Originating from Kyushu, the southernmost of Japan’s four main islands, the consistency of Marunaga’s Shiro Kuma (lit. White Bear) is perhaps closer to kakigoori shaved ice than traditional ice cream, but still has a smooth, creamy aftertaste. Kyushu being a little hotter than mainland Honshu, it’s little surprise that Shiro Kuma is so light and refreshing, but it’s the inclusion of pieces of real fruit like cherries and mikan orange that, coupled with soft azuki beans, manage to entertain your tastebuds right down to the bottom of the tub. It might not be to everyone’s taste, but this ice cream is great for when you’re in the mood for something a little different.
- #6 Something for the oldies: Azuki Baa
One for the grown-ups, Azuki Bar is a milky ice cream bar packed full of sweet azuki bean flavour. Admittedly, it isn’t the best looking ice cream bar in the world, but it’s strangely moreish and is a great example of what can happen when East meets West. Thanks to all those beans, it’s also surprisingly filling, so you’d be right to listen to your mother and wait until after dinner before ripping one of these classics open.
If you’re buying ice cream for the kind old lady who lives next door or trying to impress native Japanese with your sophisticated palate, Azuki Bar is the one for you.
- #7 Refreshment defined: Ice Box
Now for a relatively obscure frozen treat. Morinaga’s Ice Box is often overlooked when placed alongside its creamy brethren in the convenience store ice cream freezer, but on a hot summer’s day there really are few desserts that can satisfy like it.
Essentially just small chunks of flavoured ice, Ice Box is sweet and tangy without being overbearing, with each chunk of ice solid enough to require a little sucking on before they melt away. The only downside is that they tend to go absolutely everywhere and can be a bit troublesome to balance on a spoon, so unless you’re taking snaps to show your own beloved readers, we recommend simply opening your mouth wide, tilting your head back and pouring them directly into the pit of Sarlacc.
- #8 Old faithful: Giant Cone
It won’t win any awards for originality, but that’s partly why Giant ice cream cones are winners in our book. A solid wafer with thick, rich ice cream and soft crumbled cookies, you really can’t go wrong with one of these. The only gripe we have about them is their name – there really is nothing giant about these things whatsoever, unless humankind has evolved since the ice cream’s original conception and they now appear normal-sized in our monster hands. Even so, retailing for around 126 yen ($1.25) each, you’d be hard pushed to find a better value classic ice cream cone in Japan, and you’re sure to find a favourite among the Cookies & Chocolate, Cookies & Vanilla and Choco Nuts varieties on sale all year round.
▼ They certainly don’t scrimp on toppings either.
#9 Best friend to the parent, it’s Coolish
We don’t know who first had the idea of putting soft-serve ice cream in small, squeezeable pouches, but they’re an absolute genius. Despite its slightly silly name, Coolish is an absolute must for anyone who hates getting their hands sticky or who struggles to get through an entire ice cream before it turns to a mass of milky water and sugar. For those with children who manage to make a mess no matter how attentive you are with the pocket tissues, Coolish will also make ice cream time much less of a nightmare. And if you’re out and about you can even screw the top back on to shove it in your bag when your train or bus arrives.
Sweeter than many ice creams in Japan, Coolish comes in vanilla and Belgian chocolate flavours, and is dangerously moreish, so now we come to think of it you might not need that cap after all…
- #10 Back to basics. Garigari-kun
Named after the sound of someone chomping through hard food, Garigari-kun is, as we’ve mentioned before, a Japanese classic. Sure, it’s so simple that you start to wonder whether you should just make a batch yourself, but this popsicle is a great thirst quencher and, costing as little as 60 yen (US$0.60) each, everyone from school kids to salarymen with a bit of change left in their pocked can afford to buy one. Better yet, find a winning popsicle stick and you get a second bar free. What’s not to love!?
Of course, this list is but a fraction of the myriad ice creams available here in Japan, but we hope we’ve at least introduced you to a few new frosty gems along the way. We had hoped to bring you shots of us devouring dozens of another of our absolute favourites, Yukimi Daifuku mochi-style ice cream, but due to their consistency they’re rarely sold during the summer months and every store we visited had long-since been cleaned out. Perhaps we’ll have to run a winter ice cream special…
Stay tuned for more delicious ice cream-related features soon!
All photos: RocketNews24