Thinking about Tokyo’s morning rush hour is enough to make anybody want to crawl back into bed. After working late in the office or attending an obligatory drinking party with coworkers, the last thing anyone wants to do is squeeze themselves onto a packed morning train for a somber repeat of the day before.
On the other side of the hemisphere, however, mornings are spent differently, according to Foru Granola creator Yukina Hirai. After working at Bills Omotesando — a Tokyo branch of Australian chef Bill Granger’s breakfast restaurant — Hirai spent two months on a working holiday in Sydney during the summer of 2012. There she worked in the kitchen at two of Bills’ original restaurants in the Darlinghurst and Surry Hills neighborhoods.
She was surprised to see people exercising before work, and how busy the Sydney Bills restaurants were in the mornings.
“My host family would sometimes get up early and make a luxurious breakfast on their terrace,” Hirai says. “They were having a wonderful time right from the morning.”
Now back in Japan, Hirai hopes to bring Australia’s early-bird bug to Tokyo with her new homemade granola that she claims is “filled with Australian charm.”
After arriving back home, Hirai opened her first restaurant in 2013 called Foru Cafe, which specialized in french toast. “Foru,” a Japanese-sounding portmanteau combining the English words “for” and “you,” emphasizes Hirai’s wish to create a unique product for each customer.
With her latest endeavor, Foru Granola, she is trying to re-energize Tokyo mornings by providing an Australian twist on Japanese breakfasts.
Foru Granola is one product that Hirai offers as part of her self-run lifestyle company, Foru Style. After a long period of experimentation, she claims to have found the perfect “golden ratio” formula for granola, and now offers it to consumers through five different varieties, which can either be purchased at Foru Cafe in Tokyo’s Nishi-Waseda neighborhood or online.
She hopes to expand her business through pop-up booths at different department stores in Japan.
Hirai’s main challenge, however, is selling Japanese workers on an early morning lifestyle, of which a good breakfast is just one part.
Australians generally seem to rise early, according to a study of sleep by Jawbone, the makers of an armband that can track how people travel and rest. Melbourne residents get the most sleep, clocking in an average of six hours and 58 minutes a night. On the other hand, the same study shows that Tokyo residents get the least amount of sleep, at an average of five hours and 44 minutes a night.
Lack of sleep isn’t the only thing that affects Japanese routines, which often involve breakfast-free mornings and long rides on packed rush-hour trains. A 2013 study by the health ministry showed that 30 percent of Japanese males and 25.4 percent of Japanese women in their 20s skip breakfast in the morning — figures that have remained relatively unchanged since 2003.
Many respondents cited reasons such as not having enough time in the mornings or wanting to use breakfast time to get more sleep.
Hirai began Foru Granola with young working men and women in mind. Drawing inspiration from her mornings in Sydney, Hirai says the goal of her product is to deliver a machikirenai asa, which roughly translates as, “a morning you can’t wait for.”
“I want my customers to be excited for the morning,” Hirai says, “so excited that they will want to wake up early. Many of my peers say things like, ‘I don’t have time to eat breakfast’ or ‘It’s OK if I can’t eat in the mornings.’ But granola is something that even the busiest of people can easily prepare.”
However, Hirai makes it clear that she is not trying to brand her product as authentic Australian granola, admitting that she has made her versions to suit Japanese tastes. While Hirai has collaborated with the Australian embassy to import as many Australian-grown ingredients as possible, she says the actual granola flavors are inspired by famous Australian landmarks rather than actual Australian food.
The current Foru Granola lineup includes a standard “Opera House” variety, organic raisin-filled “Margaret River,” green tea and white chocolate “Kuranda,” chocolate banana “Mindil Beach” and cranberry “Royal Arcade.” Each ingredient represents the location the granola is linked to: The bananas symbolize the sunset at Mindil Beach in the Northern Territory, and the pieces of white chocolate pay homage to the gushing Kuranda waterfall in Queensland that Hirai is so fond of.
When asked about Australian food in Japan, Hirai believes that it hasn’t broken through completely. Although restaurants such as Paul Bassett, Byron Bay Coffee and Max Brenner have tried to push their Australian roots to promote their products in Japan, the relaxed Australian breakfast culture that Hirai loves hasn’t caught on.
“When Japanese people think about Australian food, the first thing that comes to mind is beef,” Hirai says with a laugh, hinting at the fact that Japan imports most of its beef from Australia. She also points out the differences between customers at Bills in Sydney and Omotesando, the latter treating the restaurant as more of a tourist destination than a community gathering place.
“In Sydney, the restaurant is really loved by the locals,” Hirai says. “People don’t just come for the pancakes, but to enjoy breakfast with friends and family.
“More so than bringing Australian food to Japan, I want to show people the charm of Australia itself,” she says. “Australia is so laid back, with wonderful nature and a great breakfast culture, and I hope that Japanese people can learn to appreciate that lifestyle as well.”
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