story by Rose Kahele
photo by Brad Goda
Akira Sugiyama, owner and sole employee of Bunmeido of Hawaii, prepares his cookies, cakes, mochi and turnovers at 4 a.m every morning. He does all the measuring, mixing, boiling, baking and cleaning up himself. That is, when he’s not manning the bakery’s cash register and chatting with customers. Sugiyama doesn’t go home until 7 p.m., seven days a week.
“I don’t holoholo anymore, just work now,” says the 65-year-old with a heavy Japanese accent. “After dinner, I’m sleeping by 9:30. I’m single, so it is easier that way.”
It’s hard to imagine, but more than ten years ago, the baker put in even longer hours when he and several fellow Bunmeido employees would work nearly around-the-clock for two days straight, baking thousands of honey castella cakes for Honolulu’s small fleet of Japanese tuna boats. The cakes have a long shelf life and can be easily stored—perfect for long sea voyages.
Castella is a sweet sponge cake topped with syrup, creating a moist, deep brown crust. Introduced to Japan in the 16th century by Portuguese merchants (who got the recipe from the Spanish), castella, known in Japan by the transliteration, kasutera, was highly prized because of its sugar, a precious commodity in Edo-period Japan. The golden cake, which is cut into long, narrow blocks, was often served to special guests and dignitaries such as Commodore Matthew Perry, who dined on castella cake after he dropped anchor in Nagasaki in 1853.
A decade ago, Honolulu’s tuna fleet relocated to Peru, the result of a flagging Japanese economy and new US environmental regulations. So, today, Sugiyama bakes two large sheets of honey castella each morning, which yield forty-eight individual cakes—a far cry from the nearly 5,000 he used to make every month. But while his output has decreased, the baker’s labor-intensive methods (rarely practiced even in Japan today) haven’t changed a bit: He still uses the same age-old recipe, mixes everything by hand and cooks his batter in 20-year-old, wood-framed baking sheets. Sugiyama says the wood gives his castella its bright yellow color. Metal pans burn.
Castella is still a popular gift item with Honolulu’s local Japanese community, so many of Sugiyama’s cakes are destined for special events around the island or hand-carried onto planes for trips to the neighbor islands and the Mainland. The lower output and slower pace suit Sugiyama just fine.
“It’s not like before, but this is plenty work for me,” says Sugiyama. “If the tuna boats came back tomorrow, I would be gone the next day … Aloha!” HH
Bunmeido of Hawaii
2065 S. King St.