Food & Drink

The meteoric rise of Nogami's fluffy shokupan

by J.J. O'Donoghue

Contributing Writer

Seven years ago, Yuji Sakagami was visiting a nursing home when the seed for a new loaf of bread was planted in his mind.

Some of the home’s residents were complaining that the crust of their shokupan — the ubiquitous, and often bland, loaf of bread preferred in Japan — was too hard to eat, and so it would often be discarded. For Sakagami, it was not only a pity that it could not be eaten, but also a waste.

So Sakagami, 50, set about — to borrow a phrase from the tech world — disrupting shokupan. Specifically, what he wanted to create was a loaf that was soft and fluffy throughout, right up to the crust, which, while still firm, would also be gossamer-thin so that it would not be a barrier to consumption.

After a two-year trial period, Sakagami hit upon a winning formula, which he calls “the golden ratio.” The result was the creation of nama shokupan (“fresh” shokupan). To make it, he begins by mixing cream and water with a special flour blend before adding butter, honey, salt, sugar, milk and yeast to the dough.

When Sakagami finally nailed the recipe, he moved on to working out the next step in the equation: how to sell it. To do so, he took inspiration from shops and restaurants that have been around for generations, such as Toraya and Akafuku, that have a limited range of products but enduring appeal.

Sakagami, who has worked in the restaurant business since his mid-20s, when he started out managing an izakaya bar, has long battled with the vagaries inherent in the business such as estimating the number of customers in order to reduce waste and costs, and the challenges of procuring ingredients, especially in times when supply routes are affected by natural disasters.

“I wanted to make a sustainable business that would be around in 100 years from now,” he says.

With Nogami, the bakery and shop he set up to make and sell his bread, he’s gotten off to a flying start. The white-fronted stores sell only one type of bread, the nama shokupan, along with a small line of expensive jams that start at ¥1,000 a jar.

Taste-wise, Sakagami’s nama shokupan is ever so slightly sweet. The best word to describe the texture of this wildly popular loaf is the Japanese onomatopoeia fuwafuwa (soft or fluffy), a delightful-sounding word suggestive of the inside of a cloud.

Equally, many customers opt to use mochimochi (springy or doughy) when describing the texture of the crumb, soft and pliable, like Japan’s famous rice-based mochi cakes. A single unsliced loaf costs ¥432, while the larger double loaf sells for ¥864.

According to Nogami’s website, it sells about 20,000 loaves of nama shokupan per day, a number that’s rising as more and more stores pop up across the nation. Currently it has 114 bakeries stretching from Hokkaido to Kyushu. And wherever it opens, long lines of customers wait impatiently to get their hands on a fresh loaf of nama shokupan. Given this success at home, Nogami is tentatively looking at expanding overseas.

Along the way to success, Nogami’s loaf has picked up a few industry awards: It was a gold medal winner in 2016’s Bread of the Year competition, and it was also selected as one of Japan’s 10 best loaves. In 2017, “Nogami nama shokupan” was one of Yahoo Japan’s most-searched keywords in the food category.

While Sakagami admits he is surprised by the success of his nama shokupan, he believes that part of the bread’s success is that people want to indulge in the honmanmon (the real thing, in Kansai dialect).

“Japan has long had its own shokupan culture, and it is an everyday food. But I think people choose Nogami’s shokupan because they want to treat themselves or others to something that’s a little bit special and luxurious,” he says.

For more information about Nogami and to order nama shokupan online, visit www.nogaminopan.com.