Hototogisu Bakery and Farm (農園菓子工房ホトトギス)

This past August I interviewed Sara Yoshihara, the co-owner of Hototogisu Bakery and Farm (農園菓子工房ホトトギス) which produces gluten-free bread and baked goods as well as organic, locally produced vegetables.  They are located in Okayami City, though their goods can be found in Tokyo and Osaka.   
My name is Sara, and I moved to Japan about ten years ago with my husband, whose home this is. When we moved here from California, we decided to buy a house in the country-side and take up farming and…some other things, to be determined after we got settled. As it happened, shortly after we moved a neighbor introduced us to a community kitchen where our bread-baking hobby quickly became a bread-baking business. In 2008 we opened Hototogisu Bakery (very gluten-y bread edition), baking bread using our farm-fresh ingredients. However, about two years in to life as a full-time baker, I (with the help of a dermatologist) realized that a gluten free diet was the only way I was going to hold on to any health. We struggled to find ways to continue our by then (mildly) successful bakery, but at the end of 2012 it was clear that the only way I could stay involved and healthy was to make the move to a gluten free bakery. We sold off the equipment we could no longer use, cleaned, scrubbed, and cleaned some more to remove all traces of wheat, rye and barley from the building and in 2013 re-opened as Hototogisu Gluten Free Bakery and Farm, with mobile deli. Over the last few years we’ve developed quite a few recipes based on our own homegrown rice flour and eggs, plus beans and veggies in season. Our fresh menu changes with the seasons (and our moods), and we serve gluten free food to allergy folk and allergy-free folk alike. It pleases me greatly that we’ve been lucky enough to hold on to quite a few of the customers who joined us in our bread days. Our brownie lines are out and about in the world, on shelves in Tokyo and Osaka as well as here in Okayama, and we expect to start distributing a new line of gluten free goodies this fall…!

How many years have you resided in Japan?

I’ve been in Japan just over ten years now.

How many years have you lived with celiac disease/gluten sensitivity?

I first went gluten free about five years ago, in 2010, though in retrospect gluten had probably been a problem for many years by that point. I went off gluten while here in Japan; I had help from a dermatologist in identifying gluten as the problem but I have yet to meet a doctor who has heard of celiac disease, much less offer testing or advice on adopting a gluten free diet. There has been a great deal of trial and error these five years!

What is your bakery/farm’s approach to offering food for those with cd/gs? What does your bakery/farm offer?

All of our products are strictly gluten free out of necessity (to keep me healthy) but they are also developed to be so good that people without food allergies will choose our products (this, too is a necessity, though a financial one). We only make products that are better, or at least as good as, the wheaty equivalent. For this reason our menu is limited, but what we do make meets our high standards.

Outside of the gluten free by default nature of our products, we focus on using ingredients we grow on the farm. Homegrown rice flour, black soybeans and eggs are the backbone of our packaged goods, and our fresh goods vary by the seasons according to what is coming out of the garden. We choose our other ingredients carefully and don’t add colorings, flavorings or preservatives to our foods.

Our primary far-wandering packaged products right now are brownies. You can find our chocolate brownies and kurokinako brownies (very dark roasted black soybean powder stands in for the cocoa powder) and rusks in Tokyo and Osaka. Our rice flour is also available in the Tokyo area. Here in Okayama our brownies are in a number of shops around the prefecture and most weekends will find us at various farmers’ markets with brownies, baked custard, donuts, chicken and vegetable tempura, quiche, merengue cookies, cream puffs and starting this fall, a line of puffed brown rice (pongashi) goodies ranging from the usual sweet snack to spicy brown rice and beans snacks. Everything we make is absolutely gluten free, with no gluten-y foods allowed in the bakery at all, and much is dairy-free, though of course the facility also processes dairy.

How do you think Japan can become more friendly for those with celiac disease/gluten sensitivity?

In my experience, the level of awareness about food allergies within Japan in general is alarmingly low (of course I know that celiac disease and gluten sensitivity are not quite the same thing as food allergies medically, but from an awareness standpoint, I think they stand together). I personally think this is something that ought to be addressed in schools, as with the prevalence of school lunches and cooking classes in elementary school there is ample opportunity, and as food allergies are most common (and rising)  among children, the need is there. Beyond that, I’d like to see regulations requiring “shared equipment” and “shared facility” statements. Without that it is very difficult to determine the risk of any given food being contaminated, and it is very easy to imagine such oversights going unnoticed by people buying food for themselves and by chefs preparing foods for people with allergies.

What challenges does the individual with cd/gs face in Japan that they do not face in North America?
I’ve actually not been back to the States since going on a gluten free diet, so I can’t speak very authoritatively on this. I do find, though, that if I’m looking at a food imported from the US I can usually do a quick google to determine if it is a “safe” product for me; even searching in Japanese that information just isn’t available for Japanese products. Beyond that, I think the issue of visibility is probably the biggest – I am constantly explaining the severity of celiac disease and doing my best not to cause offence as I turn down offers of food. Two of my siblings back home also keep structly gluten free but they frequently eat out and buy pre-prepared foods, while I haven’t eaten in a restauraunt in several years now, after too many meals out gone wrong. (I might note here that I fall on the very, very cautious end of the spectrum, trying to eliminate all risk of accidentally consuming gluten – I gather there are other Japan-based folks who do take more risks and probably live fuller lives as a result!)
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2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Stanislav
    Dec 22, 2015 @ 19:23:59

    Gluten sensitivity’s huge in my gene pool (Northern European/Pacific Islander/Slavic mix). What’s a major problem is that people often go on their whole lives without knowing they have and intolerance to a certain food/substance and assume that they “just have bad genes”. Not right. You can have good genes, but you need to know what’s good for you and make any changes necessary. Apparently, gluten sensitivity is uncommon is East Asian populations, but I have a good feeling that too many people aren’t checking in with their GI. Wheat’s not meant for the general population! So glad to find a blog I can connect with!

    Reply

    • autumnaki
      Dec 22, 2015 @ 19:51:09

      Thanks for reaching out! I agree with you about people not understanding how insidious gluten is to our health. I also think that not eating gluten (and eating basically a primal/paleo-like or even a vegetarian diet without gluten) is much better for our health. I have proof of this. While living in Japan, I was forced to cook and prepare almost all meals for myself and I chose to adopt a primal diet. Of course, I wasn’t so strict that I didn’t eat chocolate. I also ate rice as my carbohydrate. I did not consume dairy. When I returned to the US, my family members who had not really seen me since 2012 said that I looked younger than I had prior to leaving and that I was much healthier looking than I had ever looked. I honestly think gluten (and all the other processed ingredients that we consume) take their toll on our bodies. I cannot eat gluten because it sickens me. But I think gluten actually really affects everyone, even those who do not have gluten sensitivity or celiac disease.

      Anyway, I’m glad you can connect to this community. If you plan to travel to Japan (or you are already there), feel free to join the Gluten-Free Expats in Japan group on Facebook.

      Reply

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