On a frigid, gray day in early February, Takeo Sakan sat outside of Japonaise Bakery at one of the cafe’s handful of tables that looks out onto Beacon Street. He wasn’t wearing a jacket or even a hat — just a T-shirt under a long white apron — but assured me that the cold didn’t bother him.
“It’ll keep me awake,” he said, a feat made all the more impressive for someone who starts his day at 4 a.m. and puts in 90 hours a week.
Sakan took over the small, brick-faced bakery three years ago, after his mother, Hiroko Sakan, finally decided to retire. The single mother of three opened Japonaise Bakery — the first Japanese bakery in Boston, as Sakan tells it — on Beacon Street in 1985, despite not having any professional cooking or restaurant experience. What she did have, Sakan said, is a great palate.
“She’s the most obnoxious person to eat with because she’d never say it’s good, it’s always OK,” he said, laughing. “But people aren’t coming for the decor or the ambiance; they’re coming for the pastries. One reason we’ve survived for 30-plus years is the quality. My mom knows good stuff.”
Baking was not Sakan’s first choice, which he readily admits. He started helping out around the store when he was 19, but didn’t consider it his lifelong passion.
“In my mind I was just helping; I wasn’t really a baker,” he said.
Two pivotal moves were responsible for changing his mind. Around six years ago, Sakan relocated to San Francisco, where he worked at bakeries around the city, including Berkeley-based Acme Bread Company and French bakery Thorough Bread and Pastry. With his interest in baking reignited, he decided to apprentice at a bakery in Japan for a year.
“In San Francisco, I realized that I enjoyed baking and kind of wanted to keep doing it,” Sakan said. “But in Japan, that [experience] was insane. That really was the big turnaround for me.”
Shopping at bakeries is an everyday ritual in Japan, a treasured pit stop as opposed to an afterthought.
And in Boston, bakeries with Japanese roots are steadily growing in popularity. While Beard Papa’s, a cream puff-focused Japanese bakery chain, has been in Boston since 2015, Sakan has seen more competition crop up in the past few years with the 2016 opening of Koko Bakery in Newton and the 2018 opening of Gen Sou En in Brookline. Taiyaki NYC, a Japanese bakery serving ice cream in fish cones, is set to open this spring in the Seaport.
“Just now, after 30 years, we’re having real competition,” Sakan said. “But I always think competition is good. You asked people 20 years ago about Japanese food, and the only answer you got was sushi. That’s it. I still get people who come in here, who are like, ‘Where’s your sushi?’ Some people don’t know what Japanese food is other than sushi. Now there’s ramen and udon and more things coming.”
Light, airy, and barely-sweet are the defining characteristics of Japanese pastries, which Sakan said take their inspiration from French baking. But there is also room for limitless experimentation. Start with a base of Japanese sweet dough, called kashi dough, and add any ingredient you want to it; suddenly, a new pastry (Margherita bread? Green tea bread? Boston cream bread?) is born. Sakan said he never expects it to end.
At the compact Japonaise Bakery, which at one point had other locations in Allston and Porter Square, space is at a premium. Sakan said that he plans to completely renovate the cafe in July, creating more room in both the dining area and kitchen — and bring back a fryer, so that the bakery can start making its once-popular curry doughnuts again. In the meantime, Japonaise continues to serve its Totoro bread and chocolate horns, ichigo cream croissants and heavy cream bread.
For those who are just starting to dip their toes in Japanese pastries, Sakan recommended starting with the following standard items — after that, the possibilities are endless.
“Milk bread is very popular,” Sakan said. “It’s called shoku pan. Shoku means ‘food’ in Japanese, so it literally means ‘food bread.’ Everyone in Japan eats shoku pan. We make a milk version and a heavy cream version, though heavy cream is not so traditional over [in Japan].”
“Every bakery in Japan has these along with a crazy assortment of stuff,” Sakan said of an pan. “Most Japanese sweet breads are made with kashi dough, a traditional Japanese sweet dough. With that I can add whatever to the dough. An pan has the red bean paste.”
“It only looks like a melon on top. There’s no melon flavoring,” Sakan explained. “It has a light dough inside with the cookie crust on top, so it’s like a light, sweet bread with a nice crunch to it. It’s very popular, every bakery and convenience store has melon pan.”
“This one has cream inside,” Sakan said. “Those three [an pan, melon pan, cream pan] are ‘dento teki’: traditional.”