From a 220 toaster that makes one slice to loaves designed to crisp up better, the nation is being gripped by a new culinary obsession

Breakfast at Galant, a cafe in the Ueno neighbourhood of Tokyo, has a decidedly retro feel: a boiled egg, salad, plain yoghurt with a swirl of blueberry jam and a cup of coffee.

The centrepiece, though, is the perfectly executed toast – a single slice of white bread, its crunchy exterior concealing an inner fluffiness, served just warm enough for the butter to melt without dripping.

While Japan has partly embraced the artisanal bread scene led by London, Sydney and New York, the main object of the country’s desire is shokupan – literally “eating bread” – soft white loaves sliced as thick as you like and consumed without a hint of fibre-free guilt.

The latest culinary obsession gripping Japanese people and cafes such as Galant, which has been sustaining Tokyoites for more than 40 years, is how to perfect the art of making toast.

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Bread became a regular part of the Japanese diet during the lean postwar years, when bakeries churned out long white loaves of shokupan that became a staple for generations of schoolchildren. In the home, too, people raised on traditional breakfasts of rice, grilled fish and miso soup started turning to the convenience of buttered toast and coffee to start the day.

While eating bread has become an established practice, the act of making a simple slice of toast is an increasingly hi-tech affair.

Mitsubishi Electric’s Bread Oven toaster. Photograph: Akio Kon/Bloomberg

An online search from one chain brings up hundreds of options of toasters.

Top of the range is Mitsubishi Electric’s Bread Oven, with a price tag of 30,000 yen (£220). The appliance, which went on the market in April, toasts a single slice of bread at a time, sealing it inside a metal box and transferring heat at high temperatures via two plates.

For those who prefer to eat out, Centre the Bakery, in Tokyo’s upmarket Ginza district, provides a range of toasters that diners can choose from and use at their tables.

While many people are content with simple toppings such as bread and jam, the food artist Eiko Mori has taken toast decoration to new aesthetic heights. Using a toothpick, spoon and tiny piping bag, she turns simple slices of shokupan into colourful works of toast art that really do look too pretty to eat.

Mori creates intricate patterned motifs, including fruit, sushi, and even tennis racket designs, made from Japanese ingredients such as black sesame and mango paste. The colourful elements pop against a spread of homemade sour cream.

The growing popularity of bread has coincided with a steady decline in rice consumption. In 1962 the Japanese ate an average of 118.3 kg of rice per person, but by 2016 that had plummeted to 54.4 kg, according to the agriculture ministry.

Households of two or more people spent an average of just over 40,000 yen (£290) a year on rice in 2000, compared with less than 30,000 yen on bread. By 2013, spending on bread had overtaken that on rice and the trend has continued every year since then. Data compiled last year by the Nomura Research Institute group found 51% of Japanese preferred bread to rice for breakfast.

Kaori Kajita, the founder of the Japan Toast Association, attributed the enduring popularity of shokupan to an emotional attachment to the squishy texture of a doorstop slice of white bread.

“Decades ago, bread was made with small amounts of water and was dry and flaky,” said Kajita, whose obsession with toast began during childhood visits to her aunt’s coffee shop in the central city of Nagoya.

Daily bread: breakfast at Galant coffee shop, in Tokyo. Photograph: Justin McCurry/The Guardian

Manufacturers improved bread-making technology and came up with a product that was baking’s answer to sticky white rice, said Kajita. She cited the arrival three decades ago of Yamazaki Bread’s “Double Soft” as the moment shokupan came into its own as the toasting bread of choice.

Kajita rarely adds more than butter to her toast, a breakfast staple she also eats for lunch and, occasionally, in the evening. “Toast and miso soup – and even beer – go really well together,” she said.

“The fun is trying all sorts of bread to see which one tastes best when it’s toasted. I’ve lost count of the number of times I think I’ve found the perfect bread for toast, and then I try one that’s even more delicious.”

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