As you stare into the display case, spellbound at the dazzling pastry and cake perfection, you could think this was Paris, not Japan. Overwhelmed with what appears to be the winner in the World’s best cake shop competition just try and choose one of these tasty treats. You will need to choose something soon as the line behind you is long. Just point to one, then another cake slice knowing the employee probably doesn’t speak English. With your baked treasures wrapped as if for a Christmas gift, gently cradle the treats for the voyage back to the hotel room for the ensuing attack. This dessert is going to be great!
I was attracted to the gorgeous displays of cakes at shops in train stations and throughout Tokyo from my very first trip to Japan. Over the course of nine visits to the Land of the Rising Sun, I’ve endeavored to try as many cake shops as possible. After the most recent trip and the research I conducted, it’s time to share these favorites.
Where did the love of cakes in Tokyo start
A bit of my history is in order first. As a trained chef, I have baked many treats in my 20-year career. I even pulled two four week hitches as a baker on the offshore oil platforms in Alaska’s Cook Inlet where I made pastries, cakes, cookies, and bread from scratch every day. While this might not make me an expert, I have a great appreciation for what it takes to make a perfect looking and great tasting cake. How might you ask did Japan attain an interest in European-style cakes?
Several sources point to the Portuguese as bringing the first European style cakes to Japan in the 1500s. From there, the story takes an interesting turn. In the early part of the 19th Century, Japan held up to 5,000 Germans captured in Japan-held China as prisoners of war. One of these Germans, Karl Juchheim had owned a cake shop in China and was asked to bake his cakes while captive in Japan’s Ninoshima Island around 1919. Karl’s baumkuchen cakes were a big hit. After the war, Karl stayed in Japan to spread his tasty cakes near and far. You can still find his baumkuchen specialty cake at Juchheim’s main store in Kobe.
Where are the best cakes and treats?
Nowadays, the thing about Japanese cakes is they seem to have a level of perfection that surpasses even the French and other European efforts! Like the French, the Japanese cakes contain less sugar than those found in most North American cake shops. With less sugar, the cakes have to be packed with natural flavor to make up for their lower sugar content. This list of favorite cake shops focuses on these talented bakers making the grade in both looks and taste.
Tokyo is a world-class city in many regards, and its number of cake shops is part of that distinction to food lovers. Everywhere you travel in this vibrant city you will spy cake shops and want to try them all. The more prominent train stations like the Tokyo and Shinagawa stations have cake shops within easy reach of travelers. At Shinagawa station, Quatre is a favorite of locals. They have a “prime real estate” spot with high visibility, and you’ll love their strawberry cakes. These dreamy white and red creations let the strawberries take center stage in flavor while sharing the spotlight with the mounds of whipped cream frosting. After purchase, Quatre will usually give you gel ice pack to keep the cake at optimum temperature until you reach the cake’s final destination.
Perhaps the best sweet shop in Tokyo
Near Shinagawa Station’s west entrance is a retail area with a cake shop named Harbs hidden inside. What sets Harbs apart from others is they have a regular sit-style dining room. Harbs serves sandwiches and salads at lunch, so you don’t feel guilty for indulging in cake. They have chocolate cake, tiramisu, strawberry pie, and a gorgeous sakura cake. The portion size is huge by Japanese standards, and sharing is acceptable. Have a cup of jasmine tea to complete the experience and walk away knowing you’re learning Japanese modern food traditions. Harbs now has a location in New York City on 9th Avenue for those who can’t make it to Japan to try their cakes.
For the best-of-the-best, try Mont Blanc, just a block away from the Jiyugaoka train station. My wife’s parents have been going to Mont Blanc since the 1940s. The inside is decorated in French café-style art by a famous artist, but it’s the cakes that grab your eyes. Try a Napoleon, cake roll, or anything else that calls to you. You can’t go wrong at this local favorite. The signature cake is the Mont Blanc, a chestnut-cream cake that’s to die for. A cake that might grab your attention is the glazed yellow cake topped with a perfect dance floor of sliced strawberries, one blueberry, and a banana slice. All these players share the stage with a lobster-claw shaped chocolate piece and whipped cream. If you don’t roll your eyes in ecstasy from this indulgence you better check your pulse to see if you are alive!
Easy to find this one
For cheap eats, Cozy Corner is the place to go. They haven’t raised the price on their cream puffs for decades. This creamy, eggy confection will only set you back a mere 100 JPY/0.93 USD! Cozy Corner has around 350 shops with over 160 found throughout Tokyo. While not as fancy as some other favorite cake shops, the quality is high, and it’s hard to beat the price. Most of Cozy Corner’s shops are grab and go, but a few have some small tables for eating your treats on the spot. In Japan, few people eat food on the street, as we do in the USA, so people often take their cakes home to enjoy.
Stick with the Japanese shops
There are other cake shops like the ubiquitous Paul, a bakery chain from France, or Wittamer in some department store food courts. They are merely invaders in this culture of grace and perfection. Stick to the home-grown cake shops and taste your way through Tokyo and beyond enjoying every bite. Remember the saying “life’s short, eat dessert first.” Tokyo’s cake shops will have you wanting cake first, and let sushi come later.