High-end rebrand makes life sweet for Japan’s ‘ice farmers’

Nikko, Japan, Aug 18 (AFP/APP):In a mountainous area north of Tokyo, a priest blows a conch shell as Yuichiro Yamamoto bows and thanks the nature gods for this year’s “good harvest”: natural ice.

Yamamoto is one of Japan’s few remaining “ice farmers”, eschewing the ease of refrigeration for open-air pools to create a product that is sold to high-end shaved ice shops in trendy Tokyo districts.

His trade had all but disappeared in recent decades, and the shaved ice or kakigori that is popular throughout Japan in summer had been produced with cheap machine-made ice.

But reinventing natural-made ice as a high-end artisanal product has helped revive the sector and save his firm.

“When I started making natural ice, I wondered how I should market it. I thought I needed to transform kakigori,” Yamamoto tells AFP at his ice-making field in the town of Nikko, north of Tokyo.

Yamamoto took over a traditional ice-making business 13 years ago in Nikko, where he also runs a leisure park.

At the time, shaved ice cost just 200 yen ($2) in the local area and Yamamoto, who was fascinated by traditional ice-making, knew he couldn’t make ends meet.

“My predecessor used to sell ice at the same price as the fridge-made one, which can be manufactured easily anytime throughout the year,” the 68-year-old says.

The situation made it “impossible” to compete he explains, as producing natural ice is labour intensive.

Instead he decided to transform cheap kakigori into a luxury dessert, made with his natural ice and high-grade fruit puree rather than artificially flavoured syrup.

After months of research, he began producing his own small batches of artisanal kakigori.

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