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Sunday, June 17, 2001

Some like it steamed

Staff writer

Many Japanese who grew up in the 1950s still recall roba no panya, horse-drawn bakery wagons selling mushi-pan (steamed bread). Popularized by Kyoto-based bread manufacturer Vitamin Pan Rensa-ten Honbu in the latter part of the decade, by around 1960 the company boasted 160 roba no panya across the country, each selling around 1,000 mushi-pan a day.

A roba no panya in motion

Although the mobile stalls are now a rare sight (and have died out completely in the Kanto region due to increasingly strict traffic regulations), 10 Vitamin Pan franchise bakeries in Osaka, Mie, Tokushima, Kumamoto and other prefectures in western Japan still use roba no panya to sell their mushi-pan on the streets. These days, however, the horse-drawn roba no panya of the past have been replaced by motor vehicles or bicycles, a sign of Japan's economic development and changing traffic conditions.

According to Fumie Ogawa of Roba no Panya bakery in Tokushima Prefecture, changing times are behind the decline of the roba no panya. "It's difficult today to find people willing to do such a heavy-duty job for little money," she explains.

Her husband, Hiroshi, 71, still follows a grueling daily routine to produce mushi-pan for their business. After getting up at 3 a.m., he bakes until 8 a.m., when his employees go out in vans to sell the piping-hot mushi-pan. This can sometimes take all day, and they are not allowed to return until all the bread has been sold.

Although the stalls have changed a great deal since the 1950s, some things are still just the same as they always were.

As the wagons move slowly from one sales stop on their route to the next, they are easily indentifiable by the familiar sound of the song "Roba no Panya" tinkling out of their loudspeakers. Originally written as a children's song in 1954, it was later adopted as the wagons' theme song and is still used by every roba no panya today.

The secret mushi-pan recipe is also unchanged. Created by the founder of Vitamin Pan Rensa-ten Honbu, Sadakichi Kuwabara, it is still passed on to the head of each bakery today. Priced at 80 yen, the bread comes in 11 flavors, including bean curd, jam, cream, chocolate, cheese and curry varieties. Some stalls also sell mitarashi dango (dumplings) and doughnuts to add variety.

Roba no panya may be a fading business, but they still have their fans.

"I came across a roba no panya van in Kyoto a couple of years ago and recognized the song, which I used to hear when I was little. It's nice to see that that kind of stall is still around; it brings back fond memories of my childhood," a Tokyo businessman said.

Although there are other shops that sell bread on the road, Kimiyo Kuwabara, wife of the late Katsumi Kuwabara, the second head of Vitamin Pan, says they are proud of their product.

"We are happy about what we sell and will continue to use roba no panya as long as we have customers who want to eat our mushi-pan," she said.

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