Japanese Cream Sodas

As part of the retro-revival trend in Japan which brings back or takes inspiration from food, fashion, design, and music of the Showa era, there's been a renewed interest in クリームソーダ kurīmu sōda, old-fashioned ice cream sodas (ice cream floats). Served in the once-prevalent neighborhood 喫茶 kissa coffee shops, the original cream soda was usually made with green melon-flavored syrup, a scoop of vanilla ice cream and a maraschino cherry. More recent variations use blue syrup (citrus or other fruit flavors), pink (usually strawberry), or other colors.

Popular on social media

櫻井崇雄 Takao Sakurai, owner of the popular 喫茶ニカイ Kissa Nikai in the old Tokyo district of 谷中 Yanaka, was a longtime fan of these retro kissa, so when he opened his cafe in 2019 on the second floor of a renovated 古民家 kominka traditional house (Nikai means second floor), it was only natural for him to include cream sodas on the menu.

Kissa Nikai combines retro and contemporary vibes in a beautifully decorated interior with a blue theme color, serving both contemporary kissa fare such as hearty sandwiches, rice bowls and curry rice, and delectable desserts such as a range of french toasts and tarts. Cream sodas weren't intended as their star attraction, but they took on a life of their own on social media.

That's how we first learned about Kissa Nikai, so, on a rainy midsummer afternoon, we decided to visit and find out for ourselves what has made this cafe so popular.

Visiting Kissa Nikai

As we approached, we soon noticed the distinctive staircase-shaped sign. Sakurai explained that it was specially designed by illustrator 師岡とおる Toru Morooka, whose art also decorates the interior. Morooka is proficient in a wide variety of art styles but he draws a lot of inspiration from Showa-era manga and design and this logo reflects his sensibilities.

Photo by grape Japan

To access the staircase leading to Kissa Nikai, you need to go through the lovely ceramic plate ware shop kokonn on the first floor, some of the creations of which are used to serve the cafe's food and drinks.

When we were seated, we immediately appreciated the attention to the decor, such as beautiful glass objects on the tables and countertops. Some of the objects are available for sale, such as the small Kissa Nikai staircase object next to the vase in the photo below.

Photo by grape Japan

Of course, we tried some of their ice cream floats, all of them priced at 715 JPY, beginning with their most famous one...

ニカイのクリームソーダ Nikai Cream Soda

Photo by grape Japan

Not only is this cream soda visually appealing, but it's also delicious. The sweet (but not cloyingly sweet) ramune flavored soda blends wonderfully with the yogurt-flavored ice cream with the dollop of blueberry sauce.

When we asked Sakurai why he thinks this cream soda went viral, he mentioned two reasons: "First, we care not only about appearance but also about taste. One example of this is the ice cream we use. A typical Japanese cream soda uses vanilla but I thought that was too boring so I decided to import ice cream directly from France for our cafe. We use about ten flavors but for the Nikai Cream Soda, we use yogurt-flavored ice cream, which is unusual. The other reason is that there’s a paper flag in it. I was inspired by the お子様ランチ okosama ranchi [kids' meals that typically have paper flags in the rice]. As far as I know, no other cafes do that for their cream sodas."

The other cream sodas we tried were equally delicious...

白いクリームソーダ White Cream Soda

Photo by grape Japan

Using アンバサ Ambasa, a lightly tart milk-based soda and a scoop of French strawberry ice cream, this cream soda is both sweet and satisfying. It's also refreshing, an effect enhanced by the mint leaf on top.

ピンクグレープフルーツフロート Pink Grapefruit Float

Photo by grape Japan

After the Nikai Cream Soda, this is one of their most popular drinks, and it's easy to understand why. Not only is it attractive with its pink and white colors, but it's amazingly tasty. The surprise comes from the use of mascarpone ice cream, the rich, creamy flavor of which harmonizes perfectly with the elegant citrus flavor of pink grapefruit to create a winning combination.

There are numerous other ice cream sodas and floats on the menu but we just had to sample one of their famous french toasts as well.

抹茶チョコフレンチトースト Matcha Chocolate French Toast

Photo by grape Japan

The subtly bitter and rich flavor of matcha ice cream balances out the sinfully sweet chocolate cream filling and soft and fluffy french toast, rich with the taste of eggs. The chocolate cookie "rabbit ears" on top add to the charm. This sinfully delicious dessert will set you back 990 JPY by itself or 1,595 JPY in a set with a cream soda.

We also sampled some of their savory lunch fare...

バターチキンカレー Butter Chicken

Photo by grape Japan

This was a hearty curry dish featuring tasty morsels of chicken raised in Japan in a mildly spicy, rich curry roux. A soft-boiled egg cut into halves was an appreciated addition. This curry comes as a set with soup and a drink for 1,320 JPY (you can upgrade to a cream soda for an additional 100 JPY).

As we enjoyed our curry, we had a chance to appreciate more of the attention to detail that Kissa Nikai has put into their cafe, such as these coasters and these gorgeous blue glasses made in collaboration between kokonn and glass artist せきゆうこ Seki Yuko, available for sale as of August 2nd, 2022.

Photo by grape Japan

Enjoying the decor

Tasteful glass objects, many of them reflecting the theme of Kissa Nikai, can be found everywhere you look within the cafe.

Photo by grape Japan

Even the Nikai Cream Soda is reproduced:

Photo by grape Japan

Several paintings and artworks decorate the walls. This one is a collaboration between Toru Motooka and Sairi Ito, the actress who won the Association of Broadcasting Critics in Japan's Galaxy Award in 2020 for her role as protagonist Midori Asakusa in the Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! anime.

Photo by grape Japan

Original Goods

Photo by grape Japan

Several types of T-shirts, tote bags, glasses, stickers, decorative objects and other original goods are available both inside the cafe and through their online store.

Plate ware and glasses from kokonn

If you appreciate the beautiful plates and glasses as you dine at Kissa Nikai, you can purchase most of them, along with many others not used in the cafe at plate ware shop kokonn, on the first floor.

Photo by grape Japan

For example, in the upper right of the photo above, you can see the elegant plates that were used to serve the french toast we enjoyed. These were made in a collaboration between kokonn and 益子焼 Mashiko Ware potter 村澤享 Toru Murasawa. We also noticed beautiful turquoise blue plates being served in the cafe. At the lower left in the photo above, these plates were made in a collaboration between kokonn and 信楽焼 Shigaraki Ware potter 大原拓也 Takuya Ōhara.

Shop Information

  • Name: 喫茶ニカイ Kissa Nikai
  • Address: 東京都台東区谷中6-3-8-2F | 2F 6-3-8 Yanaka Taito Ward, Tokyo
  • Hours: 11:00 to 18:00
  • Closed: Wednesdays
  • Tel: 03-5834-2922
  • Instagram
  • Reservations recommended by telephone or Instagram DM.

By - Ben K.