While we have been hitting snooze on our alarm clocks, Japan has been waking extra up early to practice asakatsu. The word combines the Japanese term asa, or morning, with seikatsu, or lifestyle, so asakatsu translates directly as “morning lifestyle.” Practicing asakatsu involves taking advantage of the calm morning hours before getting swept up in the rush of city life when the workday stars. You might go for a walk in the park, meet a friend for breakfast, take a language lesson or schedule a workout class. Asakatsu started gaining prominence in the late 2000s, and has since paved the way for a new generation of Tokyoites who are focusing on self-improvement and productivity before the day officially begins.
All of this early morning activity has made people hungry, creating a breakfast boom in the Japanese capital. Until recently, going out for breakfast was not part of Japanese culture. Most restaurants and bakeries didn’t open until at least 10 a.m. Instead, asagohan, which means “morning meal,” was eaten at home, and usually consisted of a piece of fish, rice, miso soup and pickled vegetables.
With the rise of asakatsu, Tokyo breakfast options have expanded markedly. “Morning sets” are everywhere. Options include buttered toast or cake with a cup of coffee and the occasional egg. Bowls of curry rice, ramen, and udon soup also make for popular breakfast choices. Bakeries open early, slathering warm baguettes with roe butter and bringing out fresh supplies of pastries every few minutes. But perhaps most notable of all are the perfectly round, intensely fluffy stacks of Japanese pancakes that people line up for hours to try.
The lines winding around popular brunch destinations in Tokyo will be familiar to anyone who’s tried to hit up a popular brunch restaurant in the USA. But the pancakes aren’t your standard North American flapjack fare. They’re tall and often jiggly mounds of dough, made ultra-fluffy with the addition of whipped egg whites. Each cake is so airy it’s nearly soufflé-like in texture. Pats of melting butter fold softly into the cake’s silky insides, making every bite more addictive than the last.
Pancakes are not the first imported breakfast food that has taken Tokyo by storm. In the ‘70s and ‘80s, Marion Crepes in Harajuku drew similar lines with its popular crepe concoctions stuffed with whipped cream, strawberries, cheesecake, custard, chocolate sauce and brownies. Until recently, crepes were the go-to sweet breakfast treat in Tokyo. That changed in 2010 when the Hawaiian breakfast chain Eggs N’ Things opened its first Japanese branch.
The opening coincided with the rise of asakatsu, making Eggs N’ Things one of the first restaurants to offer early-rising Tokyoites a full breakfast., The chain became a media darling for its early morning spreads. Their signature fluffy pancakes, which come smothered in cocoa powder, bananas or strawberry sauce alongside a mountain of whipped cream, started drawing lines of eager customers. Shortly after the chain’s success, more restaurants caught on and started offering hyper-fluffy pancakes of their own.
Today, Japanese pancakes look different depending on what kitchen they’re coming out of. While they all share similar fluffy characteristics, you can find immaculately round disks of dough the size of records at West Aoyama Garden, wiggling, Jell-O-like concoctions at Café Gram and pancake-shaped omelet soufflés bouncing their way out of the kitchen at A Happy Pancake in Shibuya.
The pancake fervor has hit such a peak that mini flapjacks speared onto bamboo skewers with an assortment of fruit and sprinkles have become the latest beloved street food in Tokyo. And when hunting down the latest pancake skewer cart is too much to ask, individual ready-to-eat bagged pancakes are available for purchase at 7/11. They are shockingly good.
Meanwhile, new breakfast options are constantly popping up in the Japanese capital, catering to a growing number of people who are too busy practicing asakatsu to secure a highly sought after bite of pancakes, or just want to try something different. Together, they have made Tokyo a breakfast lover’s paradise.