Friday, June 15, 2012

Variety Friday: Japanese bakeries

During my many years in Japan, I would often happen across something from America that I had not seen regularly or for a prolonged period of time and get excited. Things like Oreo cookies and KitKats didn't really light my fire, but on the occasion that Dr. Pepper or a Butterfinger bar popped up, I'd feel happily nostalgic. This sort of gleeful return to the thrilling days of yesteryear diminished as the years went by as I forgot what I missed back home as the lights of my memory dimmed and more American food found its way into Japan. They became less novel with this increased encroachment.

Now that I'm in America, I'm finding that the exact opposite is happening. Instead of being happy about American things, I'm searching for and thrilled to find the Japanese things that I'm familiar with. Sometimes they are the same, but more often than not, they are relabeled and packaged for the American market. It is rare to find something which has Japanese writing and an English  label placed over it, much rare than things with English writing and Japanese labels were in Japan. 

The San Mateo Andersen's Bakery

One of my biggest surprises was stumbling across an Anderson's bakery in the Hillsdale shopping mall in San Mateo, California (that's right, I'm not in the San Juan islands anymore!). At first, I didn't know if it was the same chain as the ones in Tokyo that I was so familiar with, but a peak around the shop, a comparison of the logos, and an online search revealed that it was one and the same. Of course, the pastries that they offered were not the same as those in Japan for the most part, but some things were similar or the same. They both sell fruit danishes which look remarkably similar and anpan (sweet bean jam bun) as well as good quality bread. The biggest surprise to me though was that the California one sold melon pan, though they called it "Sunrise bread". since melon pan doesn't actually taste like melon, it probably helps them not mislead customers about what it tastes like.

One of our greatest pleasures of living in Tokyo was picking a day once a week or so and going to a good bakery for a fresh pastry for breakfast. At the time, I often believed I "missed" American-style pastries and would be happy to come back and enjoy the danishes, especially the cream cheese ones. When I got back, things didn't quite turn out as planned. Most of the bakeries I've experienced offer gooey decadent monsters or over-sized muffins and cakes. Most things are too sweet for me and all are too big unless they are specifically marketed as "petit". The cinnamon rolls and similar offerings tend to be tough, dense, and slathered in frosting. I've been incredibly disappointed in most of the bakeries so far and have found myself hoping to find the types of bakeries I used to frequent in Japan. I guess there is no pleasing some people.

There are, generally speaking, two categories of bakeries in Japan. Note that I separate patisserie (cake shops) from "bakeries". To me, a "bakery" makes bread-based products with some types of cake, but mainly bread, donuts, and yeast-raised-based pastries. Patisserie made those fancy cakes that you could find at Cozy Corner and expensive shops

One kind of bakery is a very Japanese-style one which tends to focus on shoku-pan (soft almost cake-like, essentially a Japanese take on pain de mie) white bread with a high amount of sugar and fat) offerings. They sell anpan, sandwich bread, and sometimes various types of "cream bread", but the basic bread in these pastries tends to be much like a hot dog bun in the U.S. (though rather finer in texture). They also sell various other specialties, but most things are geared heavily toward Japanese tastes for lightly sweet, fatty, soft breads. You rarely, if ever, see a whole grain bread in such bakeries.

These small bakeries are the most likely to disappoint foreign visitors because the bread is so lackluster and the sweets are neither interesting nor very sweet. In fact, I'm not sure that the majority of what such bakeries offered were baked on site. I often felt that they were getting their wares from places like Yamazaki pan, a major maker of pre-packaged baked goods in convenience stores. Some of the bread at these shops is sold wrapped in plastic, though not with any commercial labeling. It really does whiff of shelf-stable mass-produced bread which does not have its maker identified. One of the reasons that I never developed a taste for commonly available anpan was that I didn't like the hamburger-bun-style consistency of most of the breads used to encase the sweetened bean jam. Note that anpan is not the same as manju, or traditional Japanese sweets, that are made with bean jam. 

The other common type of bakery is a European-style one. These are the types of bakeries that I loved in Tokyo. It's important to remember that Japan is not a culture with a heavy baking history and most of what is sold in bakeries comes courtesy of Germany, Denmark, Portugal, and, of course, France. German- and French-style are the most popular, but the plethora of castella options shows the Portuguese influence. Well, there is that and the fact that the Japanese word for bread, "pan", is actually the Portuguese word for bread. 

There are a number of "chain" bakeries which are easy to find all over Tokyo and I'd like to comment on some of the more popular ones:

Orange croissants, on sale, at Saint Germain.

Saint Germain:

This was one of the more reliable bakery options and it offered fantastic orange croissants and incredible cream bread. They also offer some of the best basic bread I had in Japan, especially crusty varieties with a tender middle. They also have a serviceable calzone, if you rely on enjoying the dough more than the filling (which was paltry). Their donuts were pretty poor though as they often seem to have been fried in oil that had seen better days. Saint Germain prepares its baked goods in the tradition of French bakeries, though it makes a banana bread that would make your grandma weep (no matter where you are from). They also offer samples more often and in larger sizes than nearly any other bakery. If you're hungry and strapped for cash, you might want to drop by and hope to beat the middle-aged ladies who descend upon them the minute they appear.

Vie de France:

Despite the name, this is the least European of Japan's European bakeries and I can't tell you how many times I went in for a browse and walked away empty-handed. I didn't know this when I was still living in Japan, but the chain is owned by Yamazaki Pan, which explains the fact that their baked items seemed so pedestrian. This is equivalent to a bakery being run by Entenmann's in America. Early on in my years in Japan, I loved one thing they had on offer, a baked potato with mayo wrapped in a freshly baked French-style bread bun. I'm sure it was pure poison, but I loved it and sometimes bought one as my lunch. They tend to carry a lot of seasonal items including apple and green tea pastries. They also had more pastries with cream filling than any other bakery, and despite my love of such things, they rarely appealed to me. All of that being said, I also used to buy their melon pan regularly and they were the bakery that got me hooked. 


Dragone is a pretty small chain which seemed to constantly be opening and closing locations (and I couldn't find a web page for them). One of my husband's students once bought 5000 yen (about $60) worth of their famous mochi bread because she thought it was so awesome. She left it in her bicycle basket while she stepped into another shop and someone stole it. Because of her ringing endorsement, we went to Dragone and tried their bread, croissants, and cake. All of it was underwhelming. The main point of their bread is that it's supposed to be chewy, but we found it all too dense and not especially flavorful.


Hands down, this French-style bakery had the most incredible bread in Tokyo. It is frequently located in the basement of department stores, and almost always has a long line snaking through heavily trafficked locations. You can't go wrong with anything they offer and they have a wide range of sweets and breads. They make one of the best anpan because the bread is reliably good, and the version which has both bean jam and cream is a decadent treat. Most Japanese bakeries, even the good ones, do a pretty rotten job with scones but Pompadour's are quite good.


Edy's is a chain of bakeries located in JR (Japan Railway) stations. Despite the fact that they seem to be pretty mass market, they are a good bakery and one of the more unique and enjoyable items is a cream-filled donut-style pastry covered with cornflakes and powdered sugar on the outside. You have to get it while it's very fresh, but if you do, it is incredible.


This bakery, which is also mainly located in department stores but also has some independent shops, makes the best scones in Tokyo. One of my favorites was their cranberry orange scones. They are small, crispy on the outside and coated with coarse sugar, and delicately textured on the inside. They are so perfect that no jam, butter or other accouterments are necessary. They also make a super egg tart with a perfect crust and a rich filling that is not too sweet.


Hokuo is a Scandinavian bakery and often these shops are small and near major stations. My favorites were the maple bread, which features delicately sweet but flavorful veins of maple throughout cake-like bread and a flaky roll pastry with whipped cream and chocolate coating. The latter is often stored in the refrigerator case. Hokuo also had some pretty serviceable bread and was good for sales of the end pieces in large bags as well as reduced prices at the end of the day at some shops. They also have a very nice cranberry bread.

Antendo's banana muffins.


I probably went into Antendo more than most bakeries because my husband was in love with their banana muffins. These muffins had a strong banana flavor and were just sweet enough. They also seemed to be made with real butter, which is relatively uncommon in Japan. Most of the time, margarine is used in baked goods. Unfortunately many of the other items at Antendo suffered from being "too bready" as my husband would say. They were short on their flavor elements (like chocolate, maple, even bean jam) and big on bread. It's not that their bread was bad, but it wasn't incredible. Pompadour could get away with that, but Antendo couldn't in our experience.


As I mentioned before, Anderson has bakeries not only in Japan, but also in the U.S. and Denmark (and it is a Danish-style bakery). The truth is that most of my experience with Anderson came from visiting their cafe when I was working. Occasionally, my husband and I would buy their sandwiches, which were served on French bread and had a few thin slices of ham and cheese. Their bread is quite good, but not much else that they sold lit my fire. They had some of the softest melon pan in Japan, and the best melon pan is crispy on the outside with a light coating of sugar.

In my opinion, among these major chain bakeries, the best for bread is Pompadour. For pastries, we liked Saint Germain, but also Edy's. Almost no bakery in Japan reliably does muffins well, but Antendo did quite well in general. Oddly, none of the major bakeries regularly carried amashoku and small ones rarely did so either. You had to happen upon an independent bakery that offered them. Note that most Japanese bakeries do a pretty bad job with scones (often hard, dense and rock-like) and we generally avoided them. And also, please remember that this is not an exhaustive list, but just an overview of major chains that people are more likely to find. There are plenty of good local bakeries and other chains to sample.

I used to think that the bakeries in Japan were lacking, but now I think that many were quite good. However, none of them are a catch-all for one-stop shopping. If you know where to look for the best version of whatever a shop sells though, you can enjoy some of the best baked goods in the world. 


Susie Eichel said...

This post put me in carb coma! I love bread so much it's probably a good thing I don't eat sweets or bread very often. I would surely be a porky pie by now. You mentioned melon pan and one of the wiki pictures reminded me of conchas (Mexican sweet topped buns) I am going to keep an eye out for melon pan and compare the two. If you find a Panaderia (they are common in California), take a cruise inside. It's a Mexican bakery, you may enjoy some of the offerings because their sweet breads are not all too sweet. However the bread is not as not fluffy like a sponge cake or donut. It is more robust, I don't want to say hard because it's not. It is just a stiffer baked good. Some are actually crumbly like a dense doughy cookie too. They also have a cake called Tres Leches that is very very moist, like a sheet cake that is soggy with milk. That doesn't sound appetizing sorry, I hope you venture out and try some new things now that you are on the west coast.

Orchid64 said...

Hi, Susie,and thanks for your comment and for reading!

I actually saw conchas in a convenience store on San Juan island when I visited it and I am certain that the Japanese melon pan is a variation on that very thing. As is so often the case, what people think is Japanese comes from another country! In fact, I hope to review conchas soon and contrast them with melon pan.

I've already been sampling new things as best I can, and will probably diversify the blog's content as time goes by (possibly even change the name, but I'll see how that goes).

A Mexican bakery is absolutely on my "to do" list as are trips to various Mexican groceries. Being here is a great chance to be exposed to new things.

Ismellawetpilot said...


I also remember going to a 'Paul Bocuse'-bakery in one of the big shopping malls last year, can't really recall which one, but the bread and pastries there were simply divine. I recall a very bright green pastry, filled with melon cream... delicious...I cant wait to go back this year, and add some new bakeries you mention to my to Japan to-do-list.

Orchid64 said...

I went to those bakeries a few times as well and they smelled amazing, though I think they were on the pricier side. Often, the limits of my experience were the limits of my stomach! I often encountered those places after having eaten already.

Blue Shoe said...

Know exactly what you mean about once being excited to find American products in Japan and now vice versa. I am/was the same way (though I didn't live in Japan as long as you, so I wasn't really nostalgic for American stuff, just missed some of it).

Jacob Lacore said...

It's such a small world these days. I work in San Mateo and go to that mall pretty often. I've been reading both your blogs for a few years and especially enjoy this one. I've actually bought some things at the local asian markets based on your reviews. Keep up the good work.