As the founder and owner of Kame, a Japanese cafe and bakery in Berlin, Machiko Yamashita runs two Japanese cafes — one in upscale Charlottenburg and the other in the hipster Mitte neighborhood. But it has been a tough path to her success.
Little did she expect that in a country where bread is at the very heart of the everyday diet, a clash of cultures would rouse contention over her idea to sell Japanese buns. How could she have known that the stereotypes that some Germans had engraved in their minds about the authenticity of Japanese food would cause such a stir when it came to bread rolls? Her endeavor became a story of preconceptions about Japanese food culture — and a misunderstanding about what is actually inside a Japanese bread bun.
It is late morning and Yamashita is standing in her Kame cafe and bakery in Mitte. As the first lunch customers enter, she energetically welcomes them and shows them the selection of pan (derived from the Portugese word for “pao”) milky bread rolls filled with vanilla cream or curried meat; matcha cheesecakes and cookies; vegetarian, vegan and meaty onigiri rice balls and rice bowls; and a variety of green teas.
Though it’s buzzing with regular customers now, Yamashita says that has not always been the case. “People here in Berlin (sometimes) say that this is not traditional Japanese,” she says, explaining how the initial reception to her bakery was ambivalent. “But Japanese rolls are such a tradition!”
When she first began selling her Japanese buns at a market in the alternative Kreuzberg area of Berlin, visitors to her stall were skeptical.
“First of all, many didn’t believe that the Japanese like to eat bread rolls for breakfast,” she says. “Then they criticized the rolls for being too white and therefore ‘unhealthy.’ Some also thought they were too fluffy and light so they weren’t worth the price.”
Customers were also confused by the Japanese bun fillings, which are cooked with the bread — very different to German sweet buns, which are injected with sweet fillings after baking.
She continues, “(Many) customers didn’t believe us and thought we had made up the notion of Japanese rolls! ‘That’s not Japanese!’ they would say.”
Even now, some diners still stick to preconceptions of Japanese cuisine. Last summer, a woman stepped into the Mitte district cafe only to be horrified that it didn’t offer miso soup. Somewhat disgruntled, she kept mentioning that she had never been to a Japanese establishment that did not serve miso soup.
Yamashita’s persistence and love of Japanese pastries, however, eventually won over her customers — and it was this kind of tenacity that led her to Berlin in the first place.
Dressed in an arty yet chic manner, there is a hint of her creative past. A former art historian and butoh dancer, Yamashita once had very different ambitions. In the mid-1990s, after she completed her masters thesis in art history in Fukuoka, Yamashita’s love for the Bauhaus design movement led her to Germany in 1996. “My subject was the Bauhaus teacher Johannes Itten,” she recalls. “I found it fascinating that he used to dance with his students as a warm-up before class.”
Back then, she was hungry for more information and wanted to improve her knowledge through research, but she felt her university professor in Fukuoka had taught her all he could. Aiming for a Ph.D., she originally set her sights on America, knowing there was more accessible historical material available there. But it was the modern dance scene that ended up attracting her to Germany. In Frankfurt, the renowned American choreographer William Forsythe was directing the Ballet Frankfurt troupe, while it was in 1970s Wuppertal, in North Rhine-Westphalia, that the late innovative German choreographer Pina Bausch fused several artistic disciplines and changed the face of dance theater worldwide.
Once Yamashita arrived in Germany in 1996, however, things turned out differently than expected. After a year of traveling around the country while attending several German classes, she abandoned her studies. “In terms of a Ph.D., the universities I was looking into couldn’t offer quite what I was hoping for,” she explains. But by then she had already fallen in love with Berlin — and her future husband.
Toward the end of 1997 she met a Japanese butoh dancer and joined her and a group of other butoh dancers who were performing at events in Berlin. In Fukuoka, Yamashita had worked with her professor on workshops about theater and dance, so she felt that it was finally all coming together. In 2001, she married Daniel Roters, her German boyfriend, who helped support her butoh dancing and created the fliers for the events.
When differences between Yamashita and the butoh master led to her decision to leave the group, she continued dancing on her own, until she became pregnant with her first child in 2004. Two more children followed, and for many years her career went on hold — though that didn’t mean she wasn’t kept busy.
“With three kids, I started cooking everything myself — making noodle dough, etc.,” she says. “That helped prepare me for later when I started in the food business.”
It was meeting Kaoru Kameyama, a Japanese baker, who had arrived in Germany with a working visa, that inspired Yamashita to start a bakery business with her husband. Her vision was to bring Japanese rolls to the attention of the Berlin masses.
She started small, with a stall at a market in the Kreuzberg area. But, as required of German sanitary laws, she and her friends involved in the project, needed a proper kitchen, so they rented the back of a bar in Charlottenburg. When, for unknown reasons, the bar owner suddenly left and didn’t return, Yamashita and her team took over the space and turned it into her first cafe. She called it Kame and opened it in 2015.
Since then, Kame has slowly gained enough acclaim for it to open its Mitte branch and hire a total of seven employees and three cooks.
“Kame” means turtle or tortoise in Japanese, says Yamashita, and “a tortoise stands for sturdiness.” Like the famous fable of “The Tortoise and the Hare,” in which the calm reptile overtakes the overconfident hare in a race by catching up as the hare takes a nap, the Kame venture, she says, has steadily won over the locals.
The new Mitte branch, which opened in 2017 is popular with visitors to the Japanese Comme des Garcons pop-up fashion store just a couple of meters down the road and is testament to Yamashita’s never-ending exploration of creativity. Roters, a hobby carpenter, and now her ex-husband, built all the furniture, while the drawings on the walls were created by a member of her bakery team who is also an illustrator. For the seating, Yamashita used old fabrics with traditional patterns, recycled from Japanese clothes, such as kimono, that were given to her by a relative who had had been keeping them in storage in Japan.
After all these years in Berlin, and despite the struggles she faced, Yamashita still fondly remembers the moment when she first arrived in Berlin and knew instantly that she would stay. Even if some customers are still hesitant to believe that her Japanese cuisine is “authentic,” she says she will never leave.
Name: Machiko Yamashita
Profession: Kame Japanese Cafe and Bakery owner
Key moments in career:
1996 — Moves from Fukuoka to Germany 1997 — Attends Technical University of Berlin, then joins a butoh dance group
2001 — Marries and later has three children
2015 — Opens Kame (www.kame.berlin) in Charlottenburg, Berlin 2017 — Opens second Kame in Mitte, Berlin
Words to live by: “The human is only a whole human being when at play.” Friedrich Schiller, poet, philosopher, playwright
Things I miss about Japan: “I never miss Japan.”
IN FIVE EASY PIECES WITH TAKE 5