A Bread Shop with a Past
Shimizu-ya bakery is nearly a museum piece of Showa-era (1926-89) bread culture. With a showcase brimming with old-style products, an abacus, and a vintage cash register, it has been cherished by local residents for 47 years. The owner is 82 year-old Kanehara Yuzaburo, born in 1934, and a baker for 65 years.
He first explained how he, though surnamed Kanehara, ended up running a shop called Shimizu-ya:
“47 years ago, a baker named Shimizu Yoshiaki opened up a bread shop called Shimizu-ya in this neighborhood. He worked hard, and was able to buy land in Kunitachi and move there. After that there was no one to make bread here. So the owner asked the wheat wholesaler in the area to find someone for him [since he would know many bakers]. At that time I was working in a bread shop in Asagaya called Momo-ya. I was employed there 18 years. I was the most veteran employee, and I wanted to become independent. The wholesaler over here asked me, ‘Yu-chan, you wanna try your hand at this?’”
“At first I wanted to call the shop Momo-ya. But shop sign, official seals, packaging, all these details cost money. And I didn’t have the money, so I thought why not just keep using the name Shimizu-ya. So I got permission to keep using the name. That was 1969. It was the same year my wife got pregnant, and my daughter was born. We opened the shop in the last month of her pregnancy and my daughter was born in December. So if I think about my daughter’s age, I can remember how many years we’ve been in operation.”
Kanehara reminisced about his early years in baking. In the immediate postwar period, he explained, all the shops were run on a consignment sales basis. Customers would bring in wheat and the baker would bake it for them. “All the bread shops were that way then. Then the school lunches began, and they made 'coupon bread' [an oblong soft white roll named for the ration coupons].”
“If you brought in 100 momme (1 momme = 3.75 grams) of flour you could exchange that for 3 coupon breads. You could call it a barter system, but that was the beginning of the bread shop. At that time wheat flour was brought in by families, and it would be mixed in with impure homegrown flour and all kinds of things. It was pretty terrible. For Tokyo people, some of it came from farmers back in old hometowns. Some of it came from government distribution, and most of distribution was sweet potatoes.”
At a time when supplies were so difficult, why did Shimizu want to become a baker?
“I really liked bread. There was a bread shop nearby, and the aroma of the bread back then was indescribable. I liked bread and that was why I became a baker. It wasn’t a ‘high collar’ job back then. No way! Bread baking must start in the middle of the night. You have to get up early. It’s a hard job. ” Shimizu went on to explain that back in France if a child misbehaved, the parents would warn them that if they kept acting that way they would grow up to be bakers.
“Bread baking is like childrearing, you have to watch over them. It is a living thing. It is different everyday. If its physical condition is not good, it shows in the taste.”
Since he is getting on in years, he now wakes up at the late hour of 5 am. But because preparation at a bakery takes time, he is not open for business until noon.
“Back when I first opened many pupils from Kichijoji Girls School would come. I was full of energy back then and I would start prep for the next day at 8 pm. I would then open up at 7 am. There would be a crowd in front of the shop in those days when pupils came to the shop before school. Then a teacher started standing at the corner down there to tell the students, ‘Don’t go to that bread shop, because you are disturbing public morals.’ And they brought a bakery into the school and told the students to buy their bread there.”
Explaining the “problem of social morals,” Kanehara recalled that the issue was that boys from the Hosei No. 2. High School would also often go there to buy bread. The girls and boys would have a chance to socialize in front of the bakery, and the teachers were not happy about this.
“Boys and girls ate different things,” he recalled. “The girls would buy egg or salad sandwiches. The boys would buy the cutlet or croquette sandwiches. The girls who bought cutlet sandwiches or croquette sandwiches were the boyish girls.”
The regulars now are most mostly people living nearby. During the interview, there was a constant stream of customers. And by the time the interview was over around 6 pm, the showcase was nearly empty. Recently, because of publicity in magazines, on the internet and the tabelog food portal, the number of customers from further away has also been increasing.
But although the bread shop is on the way to the Tokyo Christian Women’s University form Nishiogi station, the current generation of women students are not regular customers. “But some of them do stop by. As they are paying, they will say, ‘This bread is delicious but it will make you fat!’,” Kanehara said with a laugh.
Shimiz-ya has also seen some hard times. “The worst was 20 years ago. I had just remodeled the shop and we bought this bread case at Kappobashi in Asakusa. Then the convenience store came in.” Convenience stores sold bread more cheaply and at all hours, challenging the bakeries as well as many other small food vendors.
“I realized how much business the convenience store was doing when that Seven Eleven over there flooded. A customer came to me and said, ‘Uncle, something happened to the convenience store and there is nothing there, so you had better make a lot of bread.’ And really, everybody came. It was incredible. It was just like the customer said. The convenience store didn’t have anything, not even bento boxes. At that time we were in the midst of raising our child and we were building a house in Kichijoji, and our sales were going down. Our daughter was headed into high school and university. There was really no rest back then. But we made it through….”
When asked if there was any item he would recommend, Kanehara demurred. But, he said, there are things that the customers prefer depending on the season. “For example, the cream bread, that always sells, but not in the summer.” However, as he was saying this, the cream bread sold out. Another popular product is the bear sablé, a crispy, droll bear-shaped pastry that is often mentioned in the magazine articles about the bakery.
Making bread for nearly a half a century, Kanehara is cherished by his loyal customers. On a hot summer day they stopped by car, bicycle or on foot, and said, “Uncle, can I have some bread?” People patiently waited in line. One person arrived and asked him about his recipes for an event they were organizing.
Nowadays there are a variety of styles of bread shops in Nishi-Ogi, selling everything from bagels to whole-grain rye, but Shimizu-ya has kept to its old style of bread making, producing the soft, palatable breads and sandwiches that still keep customers stopping by for a taste of Showa. (James Farrer, Fumiko Kimura, July 24, 2016)