For most of modern history, the Japanese failed to understand the point of the baguette — known locally as furansu pan (French bread) — and shunned the globally coveted Gallic specialty, thinking it was hard and tasteless. Carried by almost every bakery in Tokyo, it was often isolated from the main cast of popular offerings such as sweet pastries and curry pizzas — even in fashionable bakeries like Pompadour and Kobeya. Four or five loaves always remained at closing time while everything else sold out.
Aside from the taste and the local preference for softer breads, the Japanese long held that furansu pan was a snack and not suitable to be eaten as part of a real meal, especially for men born during the Showa Era (1926-89). Back in the day, breakfast in my household was always a battle between my mother, who just wanted to slap a big basket of supermarket rolls on the table and pour the coffee, and my father and his gang of three sons who put up a united front in favor of what I call the “full Japanese,” consisting of rice, miso soup, grilled fish and, when going all-out, fried eggs.
That’s a lot of work and stress, and my mother — understandably — hated mornings. She never sat down to eat breakfast with the family and it was only after we left for school and work that she would retire to the couch with her coffee and toast, where she could enjoy a brief moment of peace and quiet. For her, as for many women in Japan, bread has been the ultimate comfort food — even a guilty pleasure.
Recognizing there was demand, Japanese bakers launched one sweet, sugary concoction after another, from an pan (bean-paste-filled bread) to creamy muffins and cupcake-like delights. On the savory end, they stocked their shelves with curry-filled bread, mayonnaise heavy sandwiches and the all-important katsu sandwich (a deep-fried breaded pork cutlet served between two thick slices of bread), which to overseas visitors must come off as overkill, an incomprehensible lump of grease and carbs.
For the Japanese, bread was, and still is, loaded with historical significance. Just after World War II, it was a symbol of the American Occupation and a poor substitute for white rice. The occupation authorities distributed cheap factory bread and powdered milk, which were often served for lunch in Japanese schools and by all accounts tasted horrible. It wasn’t until the late 1970s that the Japanese learned to embrace bread as a main staple, and another 20 years before “real” bread, handmade by bakers in genuine ovens, began adorning tables nationwide.
Now the baguette is ubiquitous and its fortunes have turned. Celebrity French chefs Paul Bocuse and Joel Robuchon both run licensed bakeries here and many consumers head straight to the baguette basket. A few will even hold lively conversations with the salesperson to decide on what wine and cheese will go best with their baguette. Japanese breadmakers often rank among the best the world (a case in point is Yuki Nagata of Kobeya, who won first prize at the Bakery Masters competition in 2014) and artisanal bakeries have sprung up in every city. Some are so iconic, it’s hard to tell whether they’re licensed European or homegrown bakeries.
A case in point is Maison Kayser, the Japanese version of the Parisian bakery owned by Eric Kayser. The CEO is Shuichiro Kimura, son and heir of Ginza Kimuraya — the creator of the an pan and Japan’s most famous bakery. Since the company launch in 2000, Maison Kayser has worked hard to change the Japanese and their perception of the baguette and other hard breads. For example, they collaborated with Snow Brand Milk Products to develop good butter for bread and set up tasting tables so customers could experience the joy of eating hardier offerings.
Kimura studied in France under Eric Kayser and his methods are strictly French — such as using only natural yeasts — a clear departure from his family’s way of doing business. Last year, on the TV program “Sekai Banzuke,” Maison Kayser was voted the No. 1 bakery by non-Japanese in Japan.
Maison Kayser is by no means alone. Two words describe the current Japanese bread scene: “natural” and “yeast.” Perhaps another word should also be added: “inaccessible.” The three words describe Backstube Zopf in Matsudo City, which is located 40 minutes by train from inner city Tokyo. Stocking more than 400 varieties of bread and pastries in every imaginable shape and form, Zopf has become a pilgrimage spot for bread-enthusiasts, and dining at the eat-in cafe has become a coveted experience that requires a reservation in advance. It’s also famed for its long lines that start at around 6 a.m.
“I came last month and had to wait over two hours before I could set foot in the store,” said one natural yeast enthusiast, Mitsuko Nakashima, who traveled from Kanagawa Prefecture on the morning’s first train. “I’m hoping this time I can get in after 90 minutes.”
Nakashima said that her relationship with bread began 15 years ago when she tried upscale department-store bread, but she has now become a real bread epicurean who insists on natural yeast and GMO-free wheat.
“Zopf uses the best ingredients and the aroma in the store is incredible,” she says. “It’s worth the wait, though maybe two hours is pushing it.”