Tucked away in a narrow side neighborhood in Gion, lies a traditional wooden merchant house, home to Kyo-Kinana ice cream. After parting a blue noren, a fabric doorway divider, visitors are greeted with a “Irasshaimase! Welcome!” yelled by a hostess. There are no signs outside on the street, nor on the building other than the store’s name written in tiny Japanese on the noren. There are not even windows for passer-byes to look in. Nothing hints that some of Japan’s most sought after ice cream is produced and consumed within these unpretentious walls. And yet, so many locals flock to the counter, as if its advertisements are ubiquitous across the country.
Once inside, you have two options: Stand at the bar while eating the flavor of the day. Or, you can choose to wait in line for seated dinning upstairs. Besides the lack of a chair, the difference between the two options lies in the menu. Guests who choose to eat at the bar, are limited to one flavor of ice cream, but it’s made fresh that same day. When I went, the featured flavor was soybean. Although, there is no variety, this is the best option if you want the smoothest texture of ice cream.
However, if you have been walking around Kyoto all day and need a rest, then I recommend waiting in line for a table up stairs. While in line, you can peruse the menu.
On the menu, there are six choices of ice cream and three different varieties of parfaits. Flavors include maccha (green tea), azuki (sweet red bean), kurogoma (black sesame), kuromitsu (brown sugar syrup), yomogi (mugwort) and kinako (soybean). The parfait include a warabi mochi themed flavor called, Kinana Hapon, a yogurt and frozen berry delight, named Berry Berry Kinana, and a tiramisu option called Kinana Italian. If you’re here for flavors like Phish Food or Chubby Hubby, then you’re out of luck. Only traditional Japanese flavors are served under chef Omotosan’s roof. He even travels to specific regions of Japan to hand pick the ingredients. In Japan, the obsession and agonizing over every minor detail in pursuit of perfection is known as “kodawari”, and is common cultural theme still seen today.
After agonizing myself over what I should order, I decided upon the Kinana Italian Parfait. Your order will be taken before you are seated, so once you reach your table, your creamy confection will arrive shortly. But, before your indulge in Japan’s finest ice cream, you are served hot tea. Sipping along while cleaning your hands with a steaming hot towel brings a welcomed wave of relaxation after visiting all the busy temples and shrines earlier in the day.
Soon after rolling up the hand towel, my parfait arrived. Despite being extremely hungry, or as they say in Japanese, “hara hetta”, I hesitated to scarf it down. The artistic creativity was too impressive to devour before taking a few pictures.
MOMENT OF TRUTH
Upon first bite, the Italian parfait did not disappoint. Layered throughout the masterpiece were moist bite sized chocolate cakes and chunks of candied chestnuts between creamy soybean and tiramisu ice cream. A pool of rich chocolate settled at the bottom of the glass to go along with the fresh raspberries placed on top. A sweet and crispy home made baked cinnamon yatsuhashi lay speared into the top scoop to complete this work of art.
The crunchiness of the yatsuhashi cracker nicely complemented the soft chestnut pieces hidden throughout the treat. The kinana ice cream itself, made with much more cream than regular ice cream, tasted less creamy than I anticipated. I assume that once frozen, it loses its heavenly texture. Overall, I was very satisfied with my order. But, next time I will go for the fresh soy bean ice cream at the bar downstairs. However, I’ll need to save up my yen before I return, as that parfait costs just over 1,000 yen, about $10. But hey, you’re only in Japan once. Check it out on the map below.