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Tuesday, Sept. 18, 2001

Slice of U.S. pie reveals dreams aren't in the sky

Staff writer

KYOTO -- In 1996, Akiko Hirano was finally ready to fulfill her dream of earning a diploma at a U.S. university. So the 47-year-old boarded a flight to Connecticut to chase a higher education.

"I was divorced then and my children were independent enough after enrolling in universities," she said. "So I just wanted to achieve what I could not in my 20s."

Hirano, who had earlier abandoned her plans to study in Illinois due to family concerns, finally earned a bachelor's degree in fine arts at Eastern Connecticut State University.

But it was not the diploma that changed the course of her life; it was an encounter with a piece of homemade American cake.

She now owns and runs a cafe and pantry here and teaches some 350 people -- 300 in Kyoto and 50 in Tokyo -- how to bake real New England-style cakes.

"It was the best cake I had ever tasted," Hirano said, recalling the hand-made poppy-seed cake she first tried at a party held by one of her university professors in the autumn of 1996.

"Different from any cakes you eat at restaurants or cakes available at supermarkets in the U.S., real American cakes can only be tasted at home," she said.

"I wanted to change the stereotypical view among Japanese that American cakes are too sweet and not sophisticated."

So a fascinated Hirano mastered recipes for more than 70 different American cakes under three instructors, while earning her fine arts degree at university. By the time she graduated in May 1998, she had also received another diploma for completing a baking course.

She began offering baking classes shortly after returning to Japan, first in Meguro Ward in Tokyo in September 1998, then in Kyoto the following month.

The classes quickly gained popularity, especially among housewives.

Although she teaches in Japanese, her recipes are all in English.

"I teach how to make an American cake, and using English (recipes) helps make it real," Hirano said, noting that her instructions are written in simple language and are easy to understand.

Rather than simply teaching baking, she is also trying to share with her students her own experience of Connecticut and the history of New England.

She hopes her students will become interested not only in the cakes, but also in their cultural backgrounds.

As traditional American cakes are baked for children, Hirano said, extra care is taken in selecting ingredients.

"I don't use any preservatives or baking powder. You can taste the berries, apples and cheese in the cakes and the texture is really heavy."

In October 2000, she opened a cafe and pantry in a traditional house in Kyoto's Nakagyo Ward, where she serves her cakes and sells cooking implements.

At the same time, she began offering classes in the new location.

Cafe Matsunosuke, named after her grandfather, has been successful so far, she said, despite the presence of many competitors in the neighborhood.

"I want customers to enjoy the whole ambience of the cafe, pantry and baking class all in one place. I think students in the baking class enjoy being watched," she said.

She plans to open another cafe and offer baking classes in the Akasaka district of Tokyo in November.

She intends to introduce a male-only baking class at the new location.

"I could not dream of myself running a business and teaching baking classes six years ago," she said.

"Life is full of chances that you may or may not take advantage of. I think I just could cash in those chances."

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