As I sit at the white linoleum counter in the corner of the bakery after placing my order, four things happen around me simultaneously. The child waiting in line grabs a sweet off a tray and his mother scolds him. The baker takes a tray of pastries out of the oven, four large circular tarts steaming from their butter-colored middles. A woman wraps up four individual pieces of cold French toast, soaked in syrup and coated in powdered sugar at the counter. Another brings me an individually sealed wet napkin, a hot coffee in a small white teacup, and almost as an afterthought, three individual plates of the morning’s baked goods.
At first, in these small bakeries reminiscent of Paris boulangeries tucked away on side streets, I stayed away from surprises and tried to stick to the obvious. But I soon learned that my eyes, trained to predict Western tastes, were looking in the wrong place. This was, after all, Japan. The trays of glazed, powdered, sugared sweets and savories are all marked with handmade signs, but reading takes time and it is more fun to grab things and hope for something good.
Today I sample three small round loaves: two baked, one fried and sugared like a jelly doughnut. The first bite proves it to be curry chicken — not something to dip in coffee. My next try was a three-layered confection of sugar-encrusted puffy bread around a green matcha-dyed layer of the same, with thick cream in the center. The flavors meshed together in a perfect way that my eyes or taste buds never would have been able to predict, and went fine with coffee.
Baking in Japan is not necessarily within the realm of traditional Japanese cuisine, though the practice dates back a few hundred years. Only in the last century, with the rising popularity of wheat and Western food in Japan, have bakeries modeled on French patisseries begun to rise all over the country. Most Japanese bakers use Western techniques tailored to a Japanese palette, less overtly sweet and with such traditional Japanese fillings as anko (sweet red bean paste) and black sesame, black as night but sweet all the same.
Cross-cultural breads have picked up a lot in translation, and the pinnacle of many trendy Japanese bakeries is a simple loaf of bread: rectangular and uniform as Wonderbread and as light as air. Blueberry bagels, sometimes with the green hue of added matcha, are everywhere, despite the fact that I have yet to see blueberries in their white flesh in Japan fresh, frozen, or dried in any other form.
Like most things in Japan, Western-style bakeries cater to the seasons, with pumpkin-flavored fillings and roasted winter vegetables that mimic a quiche, with a particular gloss to the vegetables that I can’t quite place and a different kind of crust. Melon pan (green rolls with melon flavored cream) and curry chicken rolls are ubiquitous. Hotdogs or hamburgers are entwined in butter crust or sit in a small tub-like pastry with cream as if relaxing in a hot tub. The burger-tub pastries seem to sit there with an anthropomorphic sense of self-satisfaction, as if to echo famed novelist Haruki Murakami: This may be weird to you, but it’s my normal.