Japan in the summer is a very hot and humid affair. The area where I lived in central Honshu was pretty miserable in the summer months. The closest thing that I can liken the weather to would be someplace like Georgia in the U.S. You are probably thinking that wouldn't so bad but that is because people in Georgia use air conditioning. Not to say that there isn't air conditioning in Japan, it is just that they use it much more sparingly. By that I mean that if it was in the nineties outside my office would be cooled down to the low eighties. When you also factor in that I would walk to and from the train station and that the train was not air conditioned at all, I would pretty much spend every day a hot sweaty mess from June through September.
On the weekends when I would be traveling around it would be even worse since I spent even more time outside walking around. My saving grace through the summer heat was eating Japanese soft cream and eating it often.
Soft cream (ソフトクリーム, sofuto kuriimu) is a Japanese version of soft serve ice cream that is a little less sweet and more creamy than its American counterpart. I've never been a huge soft serve fan back at home, but part of that is that typically in the U.S. we only have chocolate, vanilla and swirl which is boring when you can have double chocolate chunk cherry ice cream. Soft cream is not only a bit richer than soft serve but also comes in a crazy variety of awesome flavors.
Through my anecdotal experience the most common soft cream flavor is green tea. Green tea (抹茶, matcha) is a very popular flavor for sweets in Japan. I didn't know this on my first business trip to Japan back in 2006 so being an American I thought that the pale green was mint. Haha! I got a cone and was quite surprised. Green tea has a bitter taste so it wasn't something that I immediately loved right off the bat, but green tea soft cream eventually became one of my favorites. The photo below on the left is a plain green tea soft cream cone while the one on the right is a float made with green tea soft cream. Yum!
I love trying fun flavors that I happen upon. Here's a photo of me eating a black sesame (黒ごま, kuro goma) soft cream on a rainy, April day in Yoshino. Just because I need soft cream in the summer doesn't mean I don't succumb to its charms in other seasons as well. The black sesame was super tasty but it turned my tongue black.
One of the most memorable soft cream stands that I stumbled upon was near Onuma Koen (大沼公園), a National Park in Hokkaido. It was blisteringly hot out and I couldn't resist all of the cute cone statues decorating the top of the stand.
Several unique flavors representing foods that Hokkaido is famous for in Japan were featured. Never one to pass up trying a new soft cream flavor I decided that I absolutely needed to eat the lavender before my hike in the park and then treat myself to the squid ink (イカ墨, ikasumi) soft cream after I was done. I loved them both! Also, please note that squid ink soft cream, like black sesame, will also turn your tongue black.
Moving from the northernmost prefecture, down to the southernmost, I also tried some great flavors during a weekend trip I took to Okinawa. Okinawa is well known in Japan for its pineapples so while I was there I just had to visit the adorably kitschy Nago Pineapple Park (you just can't beat an automated tour in a cartoon pineapple shaped car through pineapple fields). They had a pineapple soft cream sundae topped with fresh pineapple that was absolutely delicious. Although it isn't soft cream I also can't fail to mention my bitter melon Blue Seal ice cream cone. Blue Seal is a popular ice cream chain in Okinawa and bitter melon (ゴーヤー, goya in Okinawan; 苦瓜, nigauri in Japanese) is a common ingredient in Okinawan cuisine so I simply had to try it. It was definitely quite bitter with a little sweetness and although it was a bit unusual for me I really liked it.
As you may have noticed I could reminisce forever about all the different wonderful flavors of soft cream that I have had the pleasure of enjoying (purple sweet potato or cherry blossom, anyone?). I'll wrap this up by recommending that any visitors to Japan should definitely not pass up the opportunity to sample some local flavors of soft cream during your trip. You won't regret it!