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A piece of pizza toast cut into thirds on a table
The architecturally superior pizza toast at Bugen

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I Walked 600 Miles Across Japan for Pizza Toast

One man’s epic quest to savor the fading beauty of Japan’s traditional cafes — kissaten — and their signature snack

The pizza toast was like liturgy, like an old friend comforting me as I wept into my hands. The pizza toast was everything I needed it to be at the very moment it arrived.

You see: I was in the middle of an epic walk across Japan. On this trip I was following the old Nakasendō historic highway, and would go on to walk more than 1,000 kilometers (about 621 miles) in total. On this particular day I was grappling with an eight-hour stretch of scorched asphalt that I had nicknamed “Pachinko Road.” The Nakasendō connects Tokyo and Kyoto and parts of it cut through forests, others through sleepy farming villages, and others still through suburban hell-sprawl. I loved the sprawl, how it made you contend with how a certain portion of the world is just one continuous big-box store. But on Pachinko Road, it all had a slightly Japanese twist: Japanese Duane Reades, tonkatsu fried-pork chain restaurants with piglet mascots, chain udon noodle and curry shops you can find in any Japanese prefecture and, yes, pachinko parlors — those loud, smoke-filled gambling warehouses so alluring, so Sirenic, they necessitate warning signs throughout their parking lots. Warnings that implore parents not to leave their infants in their cars as they play, hypnotized for hours by small metal balls. This was the belt of Japanese road I had now been walking for two days. A belt where parents accidentally roasted their children.

But then that stretch of sin and sameness fell away. Homes, small gardens, marks of human scale began to appear, and just outside of Gifu city proper, I spotted a sign. A tiny square with modernist design impulses that spelled out “Yashiro” in Japanese. As I neared and saw the gently radiused windows, the petite frosted-glass globe above the doorway, I was pretty certain they’d have what I was looking for: pizza toast.

the exterior of an abandoned karaoke parlor
An abandoned karaoke parlor along “Pachinko Road”

When I first arrived in Japan as an undergraduate 19 years ago, I could hardly eat anything. Sushi and soba and natto (a breakfast staple of fermented soybeans) and eel were unthinkable. I didn’t even really like ramen. I had grown up on fried bologna and Spaghetti-Os, Fruit Roll-Ups and Twix. Japan’s culinary landscape of nuance and texture and procession was lost on my palate. And so I took solace and sanctuary in a small old-style Japanese cafe — a kissaten— near my university in Tokyo. It was there that I first encountered “pizza toast.” The name intrigued, and what was presented seemed like food you might serve a child. Perfect. For me, it became a bridge between where I had been and where I was to go. I didn’t think much of it then; it was just a food I knew I could reliably eat, and the kissa itself acted as a kind of buffer zone, a beacon of comfort, where I could drink black coffee and smoke and read novels.

Years later, in an effort to deepen my connection with the country, I began to embark on a number of exploratory, anthropological walks throughout Japan. I’ve traced the paths of old Japanese haiku poets into the north, and documented some of the pilgrimage paths of central Japan. I’ve partaken in rituals with “mountain ascetics” and walked their secret mountain routes. I speak the language, converse easily with the locals, and have found the combination of language, walking alone, and chatting up strangers to be a kind of skeleton key into the minds and lives of the people of Japan.

A map of the writer’s route across Japan
The writer’s route took him more than 620 miles across Japan, along the old Nakasendō historic highway

A few months ago, when I made the decision to walk the Nakasendō, I found myself looking for an organizing principle for the journey. And so, before leaving, I concocted a plan to guide my days. I would eat as many versions of pizza toast, my old stalwart meal, as possible while attempting to track down its origins at the one Japanese establishment where such a thing can be reliably obtained: the traditional kissaten.

Kissa — as they’re affectionately called — are suspended, like mosquitoes in amber, in a very specific moment in time. Japan operates on a non-Western calendar of eras, recently entering Reiwa this past May as Emperor Akihito abdicated the throne. Before Reiwa was Heisei, and before Heisei, Showa. Kissa are inextricably linked to Showa, an era that ran from 1926 to 1989. Showa is generally looked back upon as the “golden age” of modern Japan: technicolor, hardworking, patriarchal, industrial, with the romantic focus squarely on those postwar lean years. Showa is the jumble of alleyway bars in the now tourist-overrun Golden Gai nook of Tokyo. Showa is an old-school barber shop with hair tonics and hair liquids tucked between gleaming Mori and Mitsui skyscrapers. Showa is, above all, kissa.

Kissa, I presumed, like barbershops, would be everywhere on my journey. Many would have pizza toast. The kissa would connect the vast physical geographies of the walk. Pizza toast, the cosmic geography of my life in Japan.

But as I would soon discover — and as kissa expert and author of Nagoya Kissaten Toshiyuki Otake told me later over coffee and toast — after rising for decades, the peak of Japanese kissa crested around Showa 56 (1981). “There were some 150,000 kissa spread across the country,” Otake said. With a smile, he added, “It was probably too many.” Three years ago the number dipped below 70,000, and the drop continues precipitously. Many of the owners of the remaining shops are well past retirement age, and their children are not taking over. Which is to say that the classic kissa is not long for this world.

A dark wood cabinet holds dishes behind a counter at a typical kissa
The typical interior at Mami kissa

Pizza toast is what you’re imagining: the concept of using toast to make something like pizza. A fat slab of white bread, some tomato sauce, cheese, maybe some onions and green peppers. After that it’s up to the chef. It is a hug produced in a toaster oven.

It’s also a sort of netherworld food that the Japanese don’t think about and visitors to Japan have assessed — if at all — with a mere tilt of the head. As in: Huh, pizza toast. It is a comfort food, part of the postwar food canon, falling squarely alongside the incongruity of Spam in Okinawan dishes and “Neapolitan-style” spaghetti made with ketchup. It is a food that squeezes joy from very little. Simple ingredients, simple preparation. A meal that transcends economic circumstance.

The most impressive slab of pizza toast I encountered on my walk appeared on the very first day, just a few kilometers from my starting point in Kamakura. The kissa was in Ofuna, and I stopped there as a midway break on the way to Yokohama. The owner of Bugen, Akira Yamane, was bespectacled, quiet, and kind, with gentle eyes. He has been making pizza toast for 42 years. I was moved by his work. It was a marvel of toast engineering.

Standard-issue pizza toast is constructed atop slices of white bread about an inch and a half thick. Yamane innovates in the following ways: The bread is first cut into long thirds, and then slightly scored on the bottom once again into shallow thirds. The crust is cut 80 percent of the way off — not entirely, but mostly. The bread, thusly prepped, is topped with a light, sweet tomato sauce, mozzarella, green peppers, onions, mushrooms, and thin-sliced salami.

From a customer experience perspective, a gentle tug on any of the strips of toast produces a square, perfectly bite-sized nugget of pizza-like delight. And the crust? “I’ve found some customers don’t like to eat the crust,” said Yamane, “So I made it easy to pull off. But for those customers that do like crust, cutting it allows it to catch some extra char.”

The pizza toast at Yashiro — the welcome respite I found on the outskirts of “Pachinko Road” — was much more in line with what I’d come to expect: locally baked white-as-white-can-be bread, liberally smeared with ketchup, topped with paper-thin tomatoes, raw onions, green peppers, sliced American cheese, a bit of cured ham, and tiny salami.

The look of Yashiro, too, was classic kissa: Here the tables were low, glass-topped squares for groups of four, and under the glass was the menu, like you might see in a greek diner in Hartford, Connecticut. Accompanying them was the usual array of what looked like tiny sofas. Called “sofa chairs” or sofa isu, they exist as a kind of transitional furniture piece that Japan never moved past. Traditionally, Japanese people have conducted life cross-legged atop zabuton cushions on the floor, or more formally in seiza style atop bent knees. The sofa isu is somewhere between a seiza posture and sitting in an actual chair. You are low, but not fully on the ground. At the turn of the 19th century, Japan as a whole was inching toward the more Western standard of chair-and-table lifestyle, and the kissa occupied the space between a traditional tea house and a Chicago diner.

An iced tea next to a slab of pizza toast at Yashiro
Yashiro’s classic pizza toast
The exterior of Yashiro
Yashiro

Kissa, in this way, are the antipode of Pachinko Road: Small-scale and individual. But their design language is shared, and so they become a kind of roving home, a familiar place no matter which one you enter.

Yashiro’s owner was 73. He was joined by his wife and daughter. A family-run affair, like most. And yet, of the many kissa I visited, this was the only one that had a second generation helping. Most owners considered their kissa a necessity, not something that should be passed down. “Given another option, I would have taken it,” many said to me. Not with regret, but simply as fact.

Japan’s population is waning. Its people are not having enough babies to sustain the current numbers, which peaked in 2008 around 127 million people. Visit the teeming cities of Tokyo or Osaka or Kyoto and you’d be hard pressed to sense the elderly tilt. But the aging population is writ large in the countryside.

The main shopping streets across Japan are filled with stores that are protected when closed by a heavy metal shutter. Depopulated towns, ones that were vibrant 10 or 20 years ago, have become known as “shutter towns.” I’ve walked through dozens of them, places where the owners of the stores have passed away, the shop closed, the shutter having come down, never again to rise.

The children of shutter towns naturally flee to cities where opportunity is abundant. The shutter towns become ghost towns. There is a hint of what once was: yellowing posters of makeup models in abandoned drugstore windows, the outlines of old signage above a long-since-closed hardware store.

But as I left Yashiro and crossed firmly into the vicinity of Gifu City, there seemed to be fewer shutters pulled down on weekday afternoons, and kissa bloomed like bioluminescent plankton on an evening summer beach. Everywhere I looked, there was another kissa, beckoning with its soft lightbulbs and funky signs. It not that the population density changed; I was still walking through nondescript suburbia, but it seemed some invisible line of kissa culture had been crossed. So when I saw the gracefully designed indigo-dyed noren entry cloth of Minato Coffee, I had to pop in and see what was going on.

Minato Coffee is housed in a restored minka, or Japanese farmhouse, defined by little natural light, high ceilings, and heavy gnarled wooden cross beams. Half of Minato’s seating is standard tables with chairs, and the other half is raised in a tatami enclave with cushions and low tables. I sat in a Western-style chair and ordered the “morning service” set — a coffee that came with free toast and eggs. Oddly, pizza toast was not on the menu. It all arrived, completely standard: thick-sliced white buttered bread, jam on the side, hard-boiled egg.

Though it was just 9 a.m., the shop seemed unusually busy, and not with the standard clientele (old, retired, chain-smoking men), but actual young people, many of whom had the look of Japanese tourists. There was an uncomfortable amount of Instagramming going on.

Eventually, a tiny old man wandered in and sat next to me. He put a ticket on the table and opened his newspaper. The waitress came, and without saying a word she replaced the ticket with black coffee, a hard-boiled egg, a small salad, and some toast.

The ticket system is a kissa staple. You buy a book of tickets — usually 11 for the price of 10. Each ticket gets you a coffee, and in the morning, a “morning set,” which is what the old man apparently ordered. Some kissa keep the booklets of tickets up on the wall for each customer, just as regulars of an izakaya keep a bottle of their favorite whisky with their name on it behind the bar. Everyone who worked at Minato was young and vibrant. I asked if the owner was in, and that’s when I learned that Minato Coffee is run by the rarest of all kissa creatures: a young woman. In all of my ambulations, I found only two female-run kissa. And no owner was as young as Inoue Manami, the founder of Minato.

Innoue Manami outside Minato Coffee
Proprietor Innoue Manami outside Minato Coffee, one of the few traditional kissa run by a woman

She opened it two years prior. Had first apprenticed at a more classic kissa. Wanted to keep the “morning service” culture alive, which, she said, had its beginnings in Ichinomiya — a small factory town between Gifu and Nagoya cities. She admitted that nobody under 50 purchased the coffee tickets, however. “Old patrons are cut from kissa culture,” she said. “Young patrons are cut from convenience store culture.”

Inoue told me that Instagram drove a lot of her traffic. Insta-bae is a Japanese phrase meaning “great-looking on Instagram.” Young food hunters come from far away to eat her eminently Insta-bae dango — rice dumpling — sets, skewered in threes on wooden sticks and fanned out like decks of cards around a circular plate. Her own unique twist on what might be served up at a kissa.

She gave me an enthusiastic tour of the 105-year-old building, which was designated an official cultural property in 2017. “Almost nothing was touched when we took it over,” she said, pointing to the grandfather clocks, a dusty chest of wooden drawers in the back, and the warped glass of the engawa hallway that looked out onto a small garden. The building was originally a paper mill. And then a soba shop. Now it sat somewhere between kissa and modern cafe.

I asked her about pizza toast and told her I was trying to find the progenitor of the dish. Was there some shop along the road that might have started it? That would have birthed the pizza permutation of toast? She didn’t know, but said if there was one, it would likely be in Ichinomiya or Nagoya. If I wanted to see where kissa really came from, that was the place to visit, just a bit south of where we stood.

Inoue and her staff walked me out, bowed as I bowed back. And half a kilometer down the road still, there they stood, bowing once again as I walked over the Nagara River into a strong headwind, and into the vast, rice paddy-filled plain of Gifu.


Can a city smell like toast? I’m not saying Nagoya smelled entirely of it, but I was certain I detected toast even in the subway, on the commuter train that connected Nagoya to Ichinomiya, while walking nowhere in the vicinity of any obvious bakery. It seemed toast had infused itself into either the city or my mind.

Nagoya is a serious city. A port city. Nothing shuttered. There is life in Nagoya. There are people, many youthful. It’s a Shinkansen hub between Tokyo and Kyoto and will be the main stop of the maglev train when it opens in 2027, connecting it to Shinagawa in a stomach-hurling 40 minutes.

Ichinomiya, just 10 kilometers north of Nagoya, is sleepy. It is, I believe, an archetypical shutter town. At 2 p.m. on a Sunday afternoon, I counted four people on the main drag.

I had no guide. All I had was Inoue Manami’s promise that this was an epicenter of morning culture. She had told me that if I wanted to go to kissa heaven, this was it.

My first visit in Ichinomiya was to Kissa Oedo. Opened just a few years ago, it had none of the classic trappings of a kissa, but I went in anyway. The 20-minute walk from the station was barren and had convinced me nothing would be open, so I took what I could get. So desolate was the surrounding area that Oedo announced its openness with a flashing red light on the side of the building, as if to signal to those near and far that here was life, food, water, rations.

An empty series of storefronts along a street
A deserted street in Ichinonmiya

The pizza toast came with French press coffee, the best I had had at any kissa. The toast itself, however, was exceedingly simple: ultra-fluffy white bread, tomato sauce, mozzarella cheese, corn. It was like biting into a puff of umami-filled air that sat light in the stomach. It was a friendly little establishment, and the regulars seemed bemused by my presence; old ladies snuck glances and giggled in my direction. In the doorway sat two penguin statues.

When I told Ito Tsuyoshi, the owner, of my quest for pizza toast and beyond, he went in the back and retrieved the slim Ichinomiya Official Morning Guide.

Published in 2018, the guide, produced by the city, splits the 96 — 96! — recommended kissa into multiple categories. For example, it sorts these restaurants by their “vibe,” defining them as either retro, fancy, karaoke machine, shops with “texture,” modern, or home-like.

Specialty genres are broken down into 18 categories, including omelets, waffles, and sandwiches. Toast alone is given three subcategories: simple toast, French toast, and “toast with stuff on it.” The guide contains breakfast-insider gems, such as the tip that Ichinomiya City Hotel offers up a basket of all-you-can-eat hard-boiled eggs with waffles and coffee for 600 yen. If you’re ever looking to feast on a basket of eggs, now you know where to go.

Just holding the guide in hand seemed to reveal the otherwise hidden nature of Ichinomiya kissa. Suddenly, as I walked the town, they began to appear between shuttered shops and abandoned, weedy plots, resolving as objects as if in a magic eye poster. I picked my next stop based on name: Canadian Coffee House. It was just strange enough to catch my eye, and as soon as I saw the building my pace quickened. This was it. Some keystone. I don’t know why I felt this way, but there was something about Canadian Coffee House that elevated the moral rank of all kissa.

The shop was shaped like an inverted canoe, two stories tall but with no second floor, so that the interior shot straight up to its convex apex. The entire building was made of Canadian red cedar, and the effect was like standing in a whiskey cask or the hull of a capsized ship. I sat at one of the solid cedar stools — there were a dozen, and each weighed no less than 50 pounds. Mr. Sakai, the owner, was dressed in shirtsleeves, a vest, and a gray dotted tie. His thinning hair swooped back with pomade. He had a long, chiseled face that was quick to smile, scintillating with silver dental work. Pizza toast was not on the menu. I ordered his standard morning set. He went to the back and soon returned with a couple of thin (thin!) slices of toast and a plate of peanuts and black coffee. The toast was covered in butter on one half, red bean paste the other.

On the bar in front of me was a small sign:

THE THREE “TINY HEART” PHILOSOPHIES OF THIS SHOP

  • Delicious water
  • Natural ingredients
  • Good-smelling hand towels — infused with jasmine
A line of coffee cups behind the bar at Canadian Coffee House
Behind the bar at Canadian Coffee House

Sakai was quick to chat. “Water,” he began, “is so important for health.” He spoke of water with an alacrity that brought to mind General Jack D. Ripper from Dr. Strangelove. “My water is excellent.” Sakai is 78 years old. He ballroom dances. Ballroom dancing, he told me, was the only sport he could do year round. “Posture is so important to health,” he said. “I learned this from Zen meditation. Good posture keeps the internal organs from being squished.” His eyes were wide and lucid. He never broke gaze. It was a gaze both tender and sad. “Posture and water. As long as humans have good water and good air, they can live a long time.”

It turns out the design of the building was no fluke: It was connected to air. Sakai used to run his kissa in a building with low ceilings, and the cigarette smoke drove him bonkers. So he knocked down his own home and built this palace of cedar, with a double-high ceiling specifically to keep the smoke out of his lungs. It was 40 years running and, I had to admit, smelled wonderful, not a hint of the usual eau de ashtray of most kissa.

But why Canada? Why Canadian red cedar? Soon after they married, he and his wife were set to travel the world. Had a big trip planned when his mother broke her leg and he had to stay behind to look after her. “Go,” he said. “Go travel the world.” His wife went alone. Traversed Europe and the Americas in the early ’70s. She came back with a single proclamation: Canada is the best. And so it was: They traveled exclusively to Canada for years after. Fell in love with Canada. Made Canada a foundational element of their lives, brought pieces of Canada back to Ichinomiya, surrounded themselves with Canada each and every day, inhaled the scent of Canada each morning.

I asked about the first kissa to offer morning service, to serve up toast, pizza toast, but Sakai had no specific insight. “There is no original,” he said. Or at least no singularly recognized one. The topic seemed irrelevant to him. He pointed to the wall of coffee cups behind the bar. Next to them was a sign: “My cup, three books of tickets.” Meaning that if you bought three books of coffee tickets you’d get to pick out your own cup, and that would be your cup forever. It was an investment of about 9,000 yen, around $82. “Regulars,” Sakai emphasized, “are everything. I know every regular, where they sit, how they like their coffee, which cup is theirs.” I loved the cup idea. I suddenly, desperately, wanted my own.

Canadian Coffee House was only open until noon on Sundays, and it was already 1:30 p.m. The other customers had long since left. It was just Sakai and me chatting away. I apologized for keeping him open longer than expected, and he looked at me like I was nuts. It was his pleasure. This was what kissa were for — community, connection, conversation, strange encounters. I reached for my wallet, but he said I was too late. He had already closed the register. “It’s no longer possible for you to pay today,” he said. A perfect gentleman and businessman.

As I left, I turned in the parking lot to take one last photograph. At just that moment Sakai stuck his head out of the door to pull it shut — it had been open to let air flow through the shop. I snapped. His posture was impeccable. Internal organs, one imagined, perfectly arranged.

Mr. Sakai reaches out to shut the door at Canadian Coffee House
Mr. Sakai pulls the door shut at his kissa, Canadian Coffee House

I recognize the ridiculousness of my journey. I was trying to better understand a country by walking hundreds of kilometers between aging cafes, eating almost nothing but pizza toast.

The Nagoya diversion didn’t reveal much about the dish’s origins. But Otake, the Nagoya kissaten expert, put forth his theory: Ichinomiya and Nagoya had been a Showa-era garment district, and Nagoya a port for postwar imported American wheat. The garment factories were so loud that workers and managers needed somewhere to have meetings. Hence, the kissa. And because these meetings were taking place in the morning, the morning sets. And because so much wheat was piling into Nagoya, the bread.

Regardless of what Nagoya and Ichinomiya did or didn’t reveal, the rest of my walk was replete with pizza toast.

There was the delicate work of Uda Toru at Mugi & Mame in Honjo, Saitama. He had studied bread making in France for five years. His pizza toast: Homemade, yeasty bread; bacon bits; green pepper; yellow pepper; gouda natural cheese; onions; scored for easy ripping.

There was the simple cheese toast in the back of a hair salon at Takano Coffee. On that day I walked 47 kilometers and remember mainly the pain in my feet and shoulders and the broad smile and glabrous head of the hair dresser turned part-time kissa owner, who served his toast with gusto.

A slab of pizza toast on a plate
The pizza toast at Mugi & Mame

There was the pizza toast of Shimura Michiko, the only other female kissa owner I came across. Her shop, Kotoriya, open just outside of Nakatsugawa for the last 17 years, didn’t have pizza toast on the menu, but when I asked, she whipped it up for me: a green pepper-heavy tomato sauce mixed with egg salad, set off by a little togarashi pepper. No other pizza toast had quite the kick. She apologized over and over again for having such “basic” pizza toast, explaining that it used to be on the menu but wasn’t popular enough, so she removed it even though she loved to make it. The goal of her shop: “To create an environment that healed.” I told her I felt healed and nourished, and thanked her for the exceedingly rare off-menu kindness.

There was the plain as plain can be pizza toast of Enmado near Kusatsu. Green peppers, onion, American cheese. Half the crust removed. Little sticks of pizza toast delight at a small kissa full of gabbing regulars.

There was the plum tea served with toast and egg in a little kissa called Yakkogasa (intriguingly: “manservant umbrella”) outside of Sekigahara. The plum tea was an unexpectedly sour palate cleanser. It didn’t replace coffee, though, which came as well, all arranged on a beautiful piece of china. Apparently, they’d been serving this plum tea and coffee combo for 39 years.

And then there was Kumata.

It was obvious that many of the kissa I ate at on the full arc of my walk would soon be closed. Of the remaining kissa, most felt like little retirement homes or community centers, points of congregation for the very few elderly citizens of the depopulated countryside villages and towns. It wasn’t depressing, just a fact of shifting demographics and globalization, and maybe a bit emblematic of a kind of generic condition of contemporary humans; how many small joys of life felt overly optimized, while kissa — their business model, their scale, their menus — were decidedly under-optimized. They were simply destined to be left behind with the previous generation.

The Kiso-ji valley is the longest stretch of scenic idyll on the Nakasendo. It takes about five solid days to walk the length. It begins near Shiojiri, where the valley walls rise alongside the road as you walk southwest. A few of its villages are propped up by tourism, but many are nearly empty. Most of the kissa I passed were closed. And the ones that were open had modified menus catering to tourists, offering up an Edo-era food called zenzai: grilled mochi rice cakes slathered in a hot red bean paste, placed in soup, with some pickled radish on the side.

Along the Kiso-ji valley are “barrier towns” — essentially old passport checkpoints from the 1600s, when you needed explicit permission to travel within the country. By the time I had arrived at the barrier town of Kiso-Fukushima, I had been walking for nine hours. On that day, kissa eluded me from morning until night. I had given up on toast or even coffee. But just before I found my evening inn, I spotted Kumata.

It was 6 p.m. and the sign said closed, but I knocked and opened the door anyway. Inside, an elderly fellow with a black bandana festooned with skulls and crossbones sat at the dimly lit bar counter. He turned to see who I was, and I apologized for barging in, but, you know, was wondering if they were open in the morning. Mr. Bandana turned out to be the owner, Mr. Kumata, and instantly, without the slightest hesitation, he welcomed me into his dark parlor of Native American posters, Winnie the Pooh stuffed animals, dolls, and old magazines.

Kumata kisse’s exterior
A round pizza cut into slices on a table
Mrs. Kumata covers her face with her hands

Mrs. Kumata, or “Mama,” at the eponymous kissa she runs with her husband

He smiled as if I had asked him a riddle. Said they were planning on taking a rest day tomorrow, but could open for me, just for the morning. They were off to see a child’s piano recital, but that wasn’t until — and he turned to confer with his wife, who stood barely 5 feet tall behind the counter — later in the afternoon. “Come in at 9 a.m.,” he said. “We’ll be waiting for you.”

I had asked if they had pizza toast. They did. They laughed, found it ridiculous that, of all the items on their menu, I’d specifically call out pizza toast. But, sure, they’d be ready for me.

So it was a great surprise when the next morning they presented me with an entire pizza. “We didn’t think you’d want just pizza toast,” Mrs. Kumata — who insisted on being called “Mama” — said to me as she emerged from the kitchen with a thin-crust pie on a plate. I didn’t have the heart to tell them that pizza toast was everything. Was a totem. That pizza toast was the great unifier, the healer of this modern walker. That pizza toast was more than just pizza toast. It was the underdog fighting Pachinko Road. A food that had been forged in some bizarro cultural oven wedged between American GIs and poverty that somehow managed to shed all of that baggage over the years. It was unique, a quirk of reality. And most importantly: It was delicious.

But I didn’t say any of that. I accepted their offering with a huge smile and perhaps even tears in my eyes and, with much gratitude, had a pizza for breakfast. Pizza made with ketchup and sausage, onions, and three types of cheese. It was the most heartfelt pizza I ever ate. As I ate the soggy pie, the two told me of their lives:

Fifty-two years of running this kissa, the Kumatas. Mr. Kumata was Tokyo born and raised, but because of the war, his family fled out here to avoid the firebombings. Mama was a local. Her father an important governing official. Mr. Kumata moved fast. Mama was moony, a joyful ragdoll. They’ve now been married 58 years, but they laugh like they just met yesterday, like the wooing was still ongoing. Both are in their 80s and ski at least 30 times a season. Thirty. “Have to get our money’s worth for the season lift ticket.”

They have children and grandchildren. But they’re all in Tokyo, “where the opportunity is.” I asked if their kids would take over the shop when they were gone and Mr. Kumata balked. No, he said, they had raised their kids well so they wouldn’t have to run a kissa.

The shop was full of knick-knacks. I poked around. Finished the pizza. Ordered some toast. I couldn’t bring myself to order pizza toast. The toast came out and Mama did a little dance for me. She had excellent knees, knees still capable of skiing. I was impressed and intimidated. The toast was perfectly normal thick-cut Japanese-style white-bread toast. Grade-A kissa toast. I loved it and loved them.

Sitting in the dark and chilled Kumata kissa, surrounded by stuffed animals and a fake fireplace, I felt healed, like the great walking liturgy was resolving itself, and though there’d always be more Pachinko Road to walk, for the moment it felt like a lifetime away. I was grateful to be looking at what remained of kissa culture straight in the eye. It wasn’t long for the world, and I certainly couldn’t save it. But at least I was bearing witness. That felt like something.

The to-be-walked kilometers that day hovered somewhere in the 30s. I hemmed and hawed. Mr. Kumata wanted to keep chatting. “Stay,” he said. He wanted to tell me more stories, but Mama shut his trap. She picked me up by the elbow and started to shove me out the door. The top of her head barely came up to my bicep. She winked. “Let the boy walk, darling.”

Craig Mod is a writer and photographer based in Japan.

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