Of all the culinary arts, ice cream holds a special place in our hearts. A quick lick and our synapses click, launching us into a temporary state of ecstasy. In Japan, the sheer variety of ice cream bars and frozen treats is enough to send obesity rates through the roofs in most any other country. But one factor preventing this is the weather. The winter chill puts a damper on most people's ice cream outings. However, we take our ice cream seriously, so we've ventured further south to warmer lands where ice cream can be eaten carefree, year round. Hello Okinawa, take us to ice cream heaven!
photo by Qu Chen
First, some pre-departure preparations. Before we start it's important to note the breakdown of ice cream in the region.
There are three varieties.
Regular ice cream: this is the same creamy wonderful substance stuffed into mouths throughout the west. High milk fat content (8-20%)
Milk ice: An icier version of its creamy companion, milk ice's texture is flaky and crunchy. Lower milk fat content around 3%.
Lactose ice: Closer in consistency to a popsicle than ice cream, lactose ice has very low fat content.
Now that we've got that out of the way, let's start the journey! Ice cream is a staple of the convenience store, and that's where we will venture first. Since Okinawa's ice cream supply chain moves on a different track than the northern islands, an entirely unique line of products have developed here! Let's have a taste!
Exploring the frozen food aisle
The soul food of the frozen food in Okinawa, the Anpanman Stick is the simple, basic, ice cream bar. Jolly red-cheeked super hero Anpanman makes a joyful endorsement of this treat. Milk outside with chocolate sauce filled inside, it's typical fare, but gets the job done.
Hirami Lemon Stick (Shikuasa Stick)The hirami lemon:
Okinawa boasts plenty of these citrus fruits, and now they've been popsicalized. Though at only 3% total juice content, you may have to supplement your Vitamin C intake somewhere else. Nonetheless, we find ourselves recommending it. A little sour, a little sweet, it's a refreshing way to cool down from Okinawa's midday heat. The packaging is covered in quaint Okinawa slang too, so you know you're getting the real thing.
The Purple Sweet Potato Ice Tart & Chinsuko Ice Cream
Ice cream is good enough as it is, so what happens when you add two of Okinawa's more famous eatable exports? Well, we're about to tell you.
Purple Sweet Potato Ice Tart(left)
You can't argue with the sweet potato. Never having realized its full potential in the West, Japan has long been aware of the delicious applications of this multi-colored tuber. You can eat it plain, with butter, fried, steamed, caramelized, and more. The sweet potato trumps all. Sweets manufacturer Okashigoten knows this, and so they made an ice cream with it. Not only that, they added custard and cookie too, so one bite yields two distinct flavors, each complimenting the other in a creamy, rich, blend of flavorful satisfaction.
Niigaki Chinsuko Ice Cream(right)
Salty vanilla ice cream sprinkled with chunks of Chinsuko (famous regional short bread) make this the cookies and cream of Okinawa. If only it didn't melt so quickly, we'd be shipping these to our friends and family back home.
While the mellow sweet flavor of the adzuki bean is less known in the west, it's a common feature in sweets throughout East Asia, and this icy treat is a best seller for Okinawa Meiji Dairy.
Remember the three varieties of ice we studied earlier in the article? This is lactose ice, more akin to a milk popsicle than creamy ice cream. Japan's had a knack for this fare for generations. The Meiji White is a throwback to these older eras, when the creamy high fat content of Haagen Dazs had yet to make its mark on Japanese culinary sensibilities.
The popsicle and soda pop join forces to create a sweet and surprising palette of sugary joy. In typical Okinawan whimsical fashion, there are 3 pops per pack. It's like they're daring us not to eat them all. Newly introduced flavor Super Grape is a must try too!
Soybean Mochi Ice Cream
Outside soybean chocolate coating, with a layer of ice inside and a "mochi sauce" center. Mochi sauce? Well, when it's frozen it tastes like regular mochi, so we aren't too concerned about the conspicuous name. And the outside packaging is too adorable!
Once your food has America in the name, you know it's going to be an especially indulgent treat. This one is daring because of the generous dose of crumbly crunchy goodness peppered on the external contours of the chocolate coated crust.
Meiji Yanbarukuina (Okinawa rail bird)
After a lengthy period of hibernation, popular ice cream Meiji Yanbarukuina has been reintroduced to the market. Named after the similarly rare Okinawan rail (an endangered bird native to the island), we cross our fingers that this ice cream doesn't outlast its namesake. That would just be awkward.
Meiji Erimaku Tokage
Oh, we miss this treat from the 1980s! But it never left Okinawa. Erimaki Tokage is a simple lactose ice bar with exterior white chocolate coating. As it's only sold in a big family-size pack, the careless eater should be prepared for extended sessions of glutinous bliss.
The Chocolate Cave Man from Chocolate Island [Chokore Shima no Choko Genjin]
Another lactose ice bar, like the Erimaku Tokage only offered in a family-size pack. Once again, a nostalgic childhood treat for adults everywhere, and a new culinary experience for the kids.
A quick random fact about the ice cream industry!
What is M & B Ltd.?
The two biggest ice cream producers in Okinawa, Meiji (a national brand) and Blue Seal (a local company) share the same factory on the island. At one time, Meiji branded all their Okinawan-produced ice cream under the M & B Ltd., name. If the M referred to Meiji, can you guess what the B referred to? If you answered Blue Seal, you're right!
Suppai Man (Sour Man) Ice Candy
While Sour Man may not be the best name for a super hero (what does he do, shoot ubemoshi at his opponents?), he's found a good niche in the frozen food aisle. From Uema Candy Shop, this little guy is one of the best selling souvenir's from Okinawa. And indeed, as you might guess, he's umeboshi (sour plum) flavored.
Exploring the ice cream shop
Wrapping up our adventures through super markets and convenience stores, let's move onto the ice cream shop! Okinawa is a small island, and many travelers neglect to get out of the islands main city, Naha. But for the ice cream lover, we suggest a quick trip to Urasoe City. Running alongside Route 58, expect to encounter a handful of quaint and delicious ice cream shops. Here are our favorites.
Not only does Snow Lagoon offer 40 flavors, they've somehow managed to offer every flavor in each variation of ice: ice cream, ice milk and lactose ice. Talk about dedication, they also employ a -25 degree Celsius freezer.
Blue Seal (Makiminato Main Store)
Info : blueseal.co.jp
Alongside Route 58 in Urasoe City, you will find Blue Seal ice cream's first ever shop. Built in 1963, the Makiminato store is preserved with a classic 1960s American diner feel. All of Blue Seal's standard flavor are available, and additional store-only creations like the Kireto Lemon Ice Bar and the Poorapera Ice Cream Sandwich make the trip here a worthy journey.
We've been to the convenience store, super market and ice cream shop, so it's time to wrap up our journey. While there is no dearth in ice cream varieties on Japan's main islands, we will reflect nostalgically on the special, old-school treats still celebrated throughout Okinawa. If you're a first-time traveler there, let this article be your guide on a caloric binge of creamy gratification. Safe travels!